We beat 'em and got bottled water in return

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By Kes Colbert

The North Koreans have fired (OK, semi-fired) off a ballistic missile. Iran is bragging loudly to anyone who will listen of their growing nuclear program. Every day it seems some wannabe world power is on the brink of attacking or at least posturing to do harm to anyone it feels led to point a finger at. It can be a little unnerving.

Someone commented around the water cooler this week that it would be nice to live in the “idyllic 1950s where no such threats and innuendos existed and everyone lived in peace and harmo—”

Hey, not so fast there young person who obviously didn’t grow up in the era of ducktails, 45 RPMs and blue suede shoes! We had our share of international worries.

Russia didn’t like us back in the ’50s. They sent their leader to the UN General Assembly to beat his shoe on the podium and declare “they” would get “us.” The Soviet Union blasted that sputnik thing up in 1957 to spy on us. The threat was real. And constant. Thank goodness Walter Cronkite kept us informed nightly of their shenanigans.

Our government took action. They sent a man from Memphis up to our school to prepare us for “any eventuality” that might be perpetrated on us by the power-hungry Commies. It took him two days. He outlined the whole Civil Defense program to us. It was the first time me and David Mark had ever seen those black and yellow signs with the CD delineated in the middle. Shucks, we’d never seen a Geiger counter, a wide-brimmed hard hat and we certainly had never heard of “bottled water.”

This humble government servant from Memphis invented the term proliferation. He said if “they” dropped a nuclear bomb on the Naval Station at Millington and the prevailing Southwesterly winds were blowing up from Arkansas the “fall-out” (this man brought a passel of new terms with him) could reach us in four to six hours.

He augmented his talk by placing giant posters around the stage. One showed a mushroom cloud arising over a city with the caption, “You Can Protect Yourself From Radio Active Fallout!” Another read, “Your One Protection against Fallout” and behind it was a picture of a couple building a concrete shelter. Sill another warned, “Radio Active FALLOUT Can Reach Your Farm.” Goosebumps jumped up on my arm.

Me and David rushed home after school, crawled under the house and began digging our shelter. We told mother about the black shades she needed to install over the windows. And we informed her that if something happened before we got the shelter finished we had to rush to the center of the house, preferably to a bathtub and place a heavy table or a mattress over us. We didn’t tell her about the rash, or the inability to breath or the hair falling out part because we didn’t want to alarm her.

We dug in earnest. Getting started was the hard part. There wasn’t much room between the joist and the ground. We scratched out the top dirt with an old water dipper and our hands. We finally got deep enough to get a shovel down there with us. We had a heck of a time spreading the dirt out under the rest of the house. Buddy and Yogi would drift by from time to time. They didn’t help but they didn’t make fun of us. They had heard the official warning and seen the filmstrip.

The government man said that the shelter needed to be lined with steel or concrete blocks. We had to store enough food and water for 21 days. We needed batteries, a filtered air vent, a portable radio (preferably, one with the Civil Defense band marked on it), cots, blankets, a flashlight, a medical kit and, most important of all, a radiation tester. When the work was completed and you passed inspection the government would send you at no cost whatsoever a Universal Atomics 700 Model 4 Radiation Detection Kit.

Digging a fall-out shelter can be hard work! And it got pretty lonely under there day after day. Especially with no enemy planes overhead. Me and Dave got to wondering what water would taste like that had been in a bottle for a week. It would have to be stagnate and unfit to drink! And certainly it wouldn’t taste nothing like the water right out of the facet or the big ditch down behind George Sexton’s house. We also wondered if a Russian pilot could see the lights from our little house from 20,000 feet up. And how could that hard hat help anybody in case of a direct hit.

The G-man moved on to warn the citizens at Atwood, Bruceton and Hollow Rock and me and Dave tired of the constant digging. The radiation couldn’t be any worse than the blisters and we’d been breathing this dust for weeks now! We kept at it until the baseball season started. We called a halt to catch ground balls and break Leon’s home run record. By the fall of 1959 we were trying football in junior high and Walter Cronkite had shifted his focus to some way off place called Vietnam.

We knew the Soviet threat was still there and was very real but we leaned to cope with it. Life got in the way of our fall-out shelter. By the early ’60s President Kennedy had backed Khrushchev down over those missiles in Cuba; we felt relieved and Billy Jean Barham was calling me on the phone. I decided to let the Civil Defense Territorial Director in Memphis worry from now on for the both of us.

I reckon we beat the Russians on that deal in the ’50s. But when I visit Mom I will occasionally peer down at the unfinished hole under the house – and lament a little that me and Dave never did get our official Radiation Detection Kit. And I chuckle over the bottled water craze that everyone is so enamored with today.

They don’t realize it’s just the leftover supply from the National Civil Defense program in 1958!