Thursday, May 21, 2009

OLDFANGLED: Raised on Radiation


“Each person and family must be prepared to meet immediate survival requirements for two weeks following an attack without dependence on outside assistance.”
What You Should Know About the National Plan for Civil Defense and Defense Mobilization, 1960

In 1982, a pal and I were watching the film “The Atomic Café” at the now-long-gone Vogue Theater in Denver.
The early compilation-style documentary is composed of stock footage, excerpts from Cold War atomic-propaganda films. About halfway through the screening, a flickering black-and-white image filled the screen. It was a typical suburban ranch house – brand new, sitting on a bare-dirt corner lot – and the newsreel announcer hailed it as the first model home in history with a built-in fallout shelter.
I leaped to my feet in the darkened theater. “That’s MY house!” I yelled, pointing up at the screen.
“No way!” a voice called back in the gloom.
“Yeah, it is!” my friend exclaimed. “I grew up next door!”
I was transfixed. Until then, I hadn’t realized how cozy we all used to be with the idea of mass annihilation. That’s when I began to dig deeper into the history of my unassuming childhood home.

In 1958, an enterprising builder named Jack Hoerner began the construction of Allendale Heights, a housing subdivision in the Denver suburb of Arvada, located 12 miles southeast of the Rocky Flats Plant. Rocky Flats was one of the nearly two dozen U.S. government nuclear weapon production facilities dotted across the nation’s belly that fed the arms race during the Cold War – an open secret, then a controversial source of the income that fed most of my neighbors.
The 15 “Titan” home sites (named for the newly developed intercontinental ballistic missile), each with its own built-in A-bomb haven, still stand. Back then, the bomb was on everyone’s mind, and Hoerner wrung full sales potential out of it. At the opening of the subdivision on Aug. 23, 1959, Colorado Governor Steve McNichols, Denver Mayor Dick Atterton, Arvada Mayor Gail Gilbert and 2,000 or so of the curious toured our future home.
A soon-to-be retired Army major – who, according to the Aug. 17, 1959 issue of Time magazine, “once studied radiation effects” – snapped up the house immediately. All the homes sold quickly, but Hoerner’s dream of providing nuclear families with security from nuclear threat did not. Other contractors quickly surrounded Hoerner’s dream development with similar cookie-cutter neighborhoods. None of them featured bomb shelters.
My nuclear family migrated to Denver from a small Midwestern town in 9167, arriving well before the age of John Denver and successful sports franchises. The retired major sold the house to us that summer. We lived in the golden age of suburban life, a sweet dream of material fulfillment realized. All the postwar promises seemed to be coming true for my parents’ generation; we were surrounded by, and steeped in, abundance, convenience and safety.
There were “Welcome Wagon” ladies back then – hostesses who greeted new citizens with a gift basket full of free samples, coupons and advertising from local businesses. There wasn’t any mention of a plutonium trigger factory nearby. We were four of millions within 50 miles of the site, and among the 300,000 that lived in its watershed.

Dow Chemical built Rocky Flats at the U.S. military’s direction and began operations there in 1952. Three years later, the public was informed of the plant’s existence but not its purpose. It produced plutonium “pits,” small, spherical explosives that triggered an atomic bomb’s devastating chain reaction.
In addition, the facility recycled the fissionable material from outmoded bombs. Our neighborhood was populated primarily by conservative, militant Flats workers and their families. (One of the guys received, as a gag gift one year, a photo of liberal Colorado Democratic Congresswoman and House Armed Services committee member Patricia Schroeder’s face -- pasted into a toilet bowl.)
When we did find out about the bomb factory and its proximity, our neighbors assured us that there was nothing to worry about. In fact, they were proud of its existence and their “mission.” The workers who drove to and from the plant each shift, jamming our two-lane county roads (no car-pooling back then!) were serving their country, and the pay was great to boot.
Plus there was the attraction of the shroud of mystery they were forced to assume cast over their jobs. None of the Flats dads would answer our eager questions about their secret tasks. It was a perfect blend of patriotism and profit. Everyone was just fine – the lawns were immaculate, there was a grill in every back yard, and a cheesy Polynesian-style wet bar in the rumpus room of every basement.

Of course, I was indoctrinated in Cold War culture. My uncle told me how the atom bomb saved his life in summer of 1945, as he waited in the Philippines with thousands of other soldiers to invade mainland Japan. Public buildings wore the black-and-yellow fallout shelters signs like boutonnieres.
Barbie and G.I. Joe first roamed the Earth back then. Girls were expected to prepare for marriage and reproduction; boys planned to become astronauts or spies like Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin in “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” We snacked on Tang and Space Food Sticks. Our elementary-school teachers enchanted us with the “Disneyland” TV show episode “Our Friend the Atom” and terrified us with footage of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Occasionally, we’d hear the unholy wail of a test-alert siren reverberating across town. Sometimes a radio broadcast would be interrupted by the familiar, annoying buzz of the Emergency Broadcast System. Movie and television screens were crowded with nuclear monsters such as the giant ants of “Them!”, and Godzilla, whose millennial slumber was shattered by an atomic blast. Reruns of “Panic in the Year Zero,” starring Ray Milland and Frankie Avalon, taught us that the greatest danger of the post-apocalyptic world would be gangs of surly, menacing teenagers hopped up on jazz lingo (“Somebody dropped the Bomb, dad . . . crazy kick.”)
Very little of the tumultuous ‘60s reached us. We would turn away from the screen and see that we were still ensconced safely in suburbia, where its womb-like strength, combined with our natural naïveté, kept out unpleasant realities. Most children of the middle class were safe from Vietnam, tucked away in college, and there was no racial violence because there were simply no other races present – it was American apartheid personified. Our shelter wasn’t disquieting; it was a surreal comfort and sign of prestige.

The “bomb room,” as we came to call it, was located directly underneath our attached one-car garage and was accessible through a basement door. When we moved in, we kids were disappointed to find none of the paraphernalia commonly associated with atomic survival – bunks, rations, Geiger counters, chemical toilets, jars of iodine. The room was empty – a box of poured concrete about 10 feet by 12 feet, with walls 8 inches thick, and a foot-thick ceiling. It was somewhat larger than a prison cell; the bare, depressing dimensions of survival.
A circulating cold-water tank dripped into a musty old drain. There were two sharp right angles at the room’s entrance; the idea being that radioactive particles couldn’t’ turn corners. The shelter was closed off with a flimsy wooden door, with the push-button lock – oddly enough – on the outside. Of course, we found hours of delight in locking each other in or pounding in mock hysteria on the door as the others chanted, giggling, "Not enough room! Go away!”

The only thing left from the shelter’s original accoutrements was a thick, dusty envelope of civil-defense pamphlets such as “Facts About Fallout Protection,” which at one point exclaims, ‘RADIOACTIVITY IS NOTHING NEW – THE WHOLE WORLD IS RADIOACTIVE.” We read them voraciously, tickled by our own terror.
These documents paint a picture of the Cold War society’s grim, obsessive fears. Or our country’s struggle against communism, “Personal Preparedness in the Nuclear Age” told us that “On the outcome of this conflict depends the future course of history and the final result of man’s struggle to maintain freedom and liberty for himself.”
For the first time, any civilian could be catapulted into the role of front-line soldier (or smoldering statistic) in a matter of minutes. “Civil defense officials strongly urge each individual . . . to encourage his family to act as its own survival unit in the event of an enemy attack,” the instructions read. “No one can be sure how far the enemy will go.”
At the same time, the literature soft-pedaled the danger, making Armageddon seem like merely an exciting and challenging adventure for the whole family. Ray Crowley of Scripps-Howard Newspapers wrote, “Scientists are beginning to talk optimistically about mankind’s chances of surviving full-scale atomic war . . . In some places, you would be able to save your life if you dug a hole in the ground, drove your car over it, and jumped in the hole . . . “ “Fallout Protection” helpfully suggests, “If your house has Venetian blinds, lower and shut them to bar flying glass and screen out some of the blast’s fierce heat.”
Closing the blinds to ward off the effects of a nuclear blast now seems as pathetically hopeful as brandishing a crucifix at an onrushing tsunami. The cover of “Family Food Stockpile for Survival” features an illustration of a housewife, in full June Cleaver drag complete with apron and pearls, confidently shelving canned goods. “store in your shelter a two-week supply of food and water, first-aid kit, battery radio, flashlight, blankets and warm clothing.”
While all the pamphlets warned that a nuclear holocaust would be no walk in the park, they reassured us that we could all crawl out into the sunshine from our cozy shelters after a few weeks and be OK. There was a line drawing of the aftermath – firemen blithely sweeping the fallout off the streets with brooms and a hose. Contaminated earth was to be scraped up and placed a "safe” 100 feet from occupied areas.
The cover of Life magazine from Sept. 15, 1961 featured an article on “How You Can Survive Fallout.” Inside was a letter to the public from President Kennedy exhorting us to “read and consider seriously the contents . . . The ability to survive coupled with the will to do so . . . are essential to our country.”
Following the article, the reader finds a disturbingly hilarious layout of illustrations of homemade shelters. Sissy is curling her hair in a long, buried metal tube lined with cots and canned goods. Dad’s puffing a cigarette contentedly, and families are safe within the steel embryos of liberty.
Taken as a whole, this cheerful load of propaganda stands as a monument to the human capacity for slippery thinking. We were all ready to pack it in at any time.

The evacuation map prepared by the Denver Civil Defense office displays a simple but eloquent plan. The map shows the main streets marked with big arrows leading out of the city in every possible direction. Ironically, the closest major road out of Arvada led directly past the prime Soviet target – Rocky Flats.
Cold War secrecy kept us from the knowledge that mishaps and mismanagement were blighting Rocky Flats’ safety record, until the massive plutonium fire of May 11, 1969. Soon, controversy mounted and activists began to gather.
In our neighborhood, those people and their information were either ignored or scorned. Radioactive waste was migrating downwind and downstream straight for us, as Jefferson County Health Department director Dr. Carl Johnson discovered in the late 1970s. Yet even these findings, the protesters, and films such as the 1983 documentary “Dark Circle” failed to provoke our thoughts or stir us to action. We joined no marches, signed no petitions.
Over the years, the bomb rooms on our street filled up with the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life – empty cardboard boxes, Christmas decorations, knickknacks, toys, slabs of old 78-rpm records. Kids had sleepovers in the shelters, built castles and rockets out of boxes, laid awake listening to the wind howling in at the mouth of the room’s ventilation pipes. We later smuggled forbidden cigarettes in there, too, but I could never cajole a girlfriend inside for an angst-ridden teen make-out session. It was just too cold and creepy in there.
In 1989, an FBI investigation led to a halt in weapons production at Rocky Flats. A long grand-jury investigation into criminal activity and misconduct at the plant culminated in the sealing of the jury’s findings by the presiding judge, who mandated an $18.5 million settlement with Rockwell International, the plant’s operator at the time.
Today, those contaminated areas of land around and inside the former grounds of the plant have been (supposedly) scraped, scrubbed and plumbed. Traces of plutonium, carbon tetrachloride, beryllium, and tritium may remain. The Environmental Protection Agency certified the site’s cleanup on June 13, 2007. The plans are still in effect for the area to be converted into a wildlife refuge.
If we had known how dire out peril once was, as some did, would inertia and a love of the land we found ourselves on still have prevented us from moving away or raising a fuss? At the time, we were preoccupied, riding out the honey-tinged, swollen, lethargic ‘70s.
The economy declined, and it seemed that no one could maintain that suburban dream life any more. The nuclear threat fell away in our minds as the nuclear families around us exploded and split. We kids went through our teen tragedies, Mom and Dad got divorced, everyone moved on.
For a while, we were the chosen few, those who would be saved. But the shelters couldn’t save the American family from the contamination of change.