Cold War Diary: 'I Was a Suburban Combatant'

Let the Fallout Fall on Others
Let the Fallout Fall on Others | Photo: James Vaughan/Flickr/Creative Commons License

I've recently been talking about the Cold War, first to undergraduates at USC and then to high school history teachers at California State University, Long Beach. None of them -- not even the 30-somthings among the teachers -- is a veteran of that war. I might have been talking to them about World War I -- or the Trojan War -- so distant have the 1950s and 1960s become.

I was born under the shadow of the Berlin Airlift in 1948, while Soviet troops and tanks blockaded the city and President Harry Truman campaigned for election on his willingness to do the unthinkable. Berlin in 1948 was a minor engagement in the 100-year war. The smashing up of European empires -- and their remnants in Syria, Iraq, the former Soviet Union, and elsewhere -- has been going on since August 1914.

I grew up in the garrison nation that first engagement created, in an arsenal for the making of ever more sophisticated weapons, held as a thermonuclear civilian hostage for all of my youth, and trained as a reservist in a battalion of ideological warriors.

I think I may suffer from a kind of moral PTSD.

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Duck and Cover
Duck and Cover | Photo: James Vaughan/Flickr/Creative Commons License

In 1961, the federal Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization published "The Family Fallout Shelter" -- a homeowner's guide to atomic survival, printed on flimsy newsprint paper and costing 10 cents. The OCDM advised that a contractor-built shelter would cost about $1,500. That was about 5 percent of the cost of a house in Lakewood. Lacking that kind of capital, dad could build a shelter in the basement himself, using the plans in the OCDM guide. A DIY basement shelter might cost less than $500.

Only no Southern California tract house has a basement.

The OCDM might hope otherwise, but my brother and I would not survive the Battle of Los Angeles. Still, we needed to be toughened up to take our place in the ranks.

In 1954, the Lakewood City Council unanimously passed an ordinance banning the sale of crime and horror comic books as well as "Communist-slanted" comics to persons less than 18 years of age. In 1956, the Mark Twain Elementary School PTA held a meeting on "Strengthening the Country through Sports." In 1958, in response to Sputnik, Lakewood High School held its first annual science fair. "The Body as Well as the Mind Toughens for the Space Age." was the subject of a 1962 lecture to the members of the Bancroft Junior High School PTA.

On a chill Friday night in January 1962, the blue-gray light spilling from my family's TV set was that week's episode of "The Twilight Zone." In it, a megalomaniac millionaire has built the perfect fallout shelter beneath his New York office building. He invites the three people he blames for ruining his life to join him there. With film clips and radio announcements, he pretends that atomic Armageddon is about to begin. He taunts his guests with his safety and their vulnerability if they leave. Each can stay in the shelter, but only if they grovel in apology and beg him for the privilege. They don't, because each of them has his own stoic pride.

When they've gone, the millionaire is stunned to see the bombs actually detonate and the city destroyed. In belated horror, he rushes into the upper world from his shelter and finds himself the sole survivor in a vast, ruined landscape. He breaks down in his terrible solitude.

But, he'd gone mad long before. He sees a ruined world where he's alone, but he's actually cowering in the middle of an average urban sidewalk -- with cops and pretty girls and cars honking -- where nothing at all has happened yet.

When the CBS network broadcast Rod Serling's "One More Pallbearer," the habits of the 14-year-old Cold War had fully acclimated schoolchildren, suburban housewives, and working-class husbands to what essayist E.B. White called "the stubborn fact of annihilation."

The principal casualty during our years of nuclear winter was the imagination. But the Cold War gave something in return.

Parents took on the moral imperative of lying. Governments camouflaged the unthinkable as an advertising jingle for kids. You found that the list of those who are expendable always begins with your next-door neighbor.

One of my favorite shows on TV in 1953 was "I Led Three Lives." Richard Carlson played Herb Philbrick, a loving father and husband, a member of a Communist Party cell, and an undercover agent of the FBI. Herb Philbrick lied all the time, with the conviction that lying is a necessity when the war is ideological and fought in your bedroom, your dad's office, and your older brother's classroom.

My parents never considered buying or building a fallout shelter, nor did any of our neighbors. A shelter dealer in Downey, across the street from the Rockwell plant, sold prefabricated fiberglass pods for burial in suburban backyards.

No one I knew bought one.

Radioactive | Photo: James Vaughan/Flickr/Creative Commons License

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