[Paleopsych] NYT: Out West, Way Out: The Melted Dog: Memories of an Atomic Childhood
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Wed Mar 30 20:03:40 UTC 2005
The New York Times > Arts > Arts Special > Out West,
Way Out: The Melted Dog: Memories of an Atomic Childhood
March 30, 2005
By JUDITH MILLER
THE dog had melted. The rumor raced through our school, John S. Parks
Elementary, here the day after "Harry" was detonated at dawn in May
1953 at the Nevada Test Site, a mere 65 miles northwest from what was
then my home.
The story was that a family in Indian Springs, only 25 miles away from
ground zero, had returned to their ranch house after the test to find
their beloved pet reduced to a puddle of blood, bones and clumps of
matted hair. The government had supposedly suppressed the incident.
There probably never was a dead dog, but there was genuine cause for
anxiety. Harry's radioactive debris, in fact, spread unexpectedly to
St. George, a tiny farming town in neighboring Utah whose residents
were advised to "shelter in place" with their doors and windows shut
until the radioactive danger passed. On a major freeway near the site,
some 40 cars registered low, but above-average, levels of
radioactivity. The Atomic Energy Commission instructed car owners to
hose down their vehicles and themselves. Neither the unusually rainy
weather nor the flulike symptoms reported by some residents were
related to the blast, the commissioners said. The radioactive "snow"
found as far away as Rhode Island elicited little public debate.
Memories of the awe, pride and subliminal terror associated with
living near what some historians now call the cold war's major
"battlefield" enveloped me as I toured the new $3.5 million Atomic
Testing Museum, the latest tourist attraction in America's most
Located less than a mile east of Las Vegas Boulevard, the Strip to
locals, the 8,000-square-foot museum, which opened in February,
chronicles much of this unique part of America's atomic history, the
47 years of atmospheric and underground nuclear testing from 1945 to
1992 when a worldwide testing moratorium took effect. By then, 1,054
tests had been conducted, 90 percent in Nevada.
For years, the government and much of the press tried to downplay the
danger of radiation while appealing to patriotism. The tests were
being conducted not to give the neon city that still never sleeps a
"Roman holiday" or to irritate "a few self-centered Las Vegans," wrote
Hank Greenspun, my father's friend who owned the Las Vegas Morning
Sun. The tests were needed "to maintain our lead" over what we then
called the "Reds." Moreover, as Mr. Greenspun wrote in his popular
Where I Stand column, a copy of which is included in the museum's
archive of some 310,000 testing-related documents, Las Vegas depended
on tourist dollars. "Panic can spread where no danger exists," he
warned, chiding "sensation-seeking reporters" whose "frivolous"
accounts threatened not only national security but also the city's
The public-relations strategy to make Nevadans "feel at home with
neutrons trotting around" and to encourage "local pride in being in
the limelight," according to government memos written shortly before
the controversial experiments began, was effective, as the museum's
"popular culture" display attests.
Throughout the 1950's, I tore off the labels on Kix cereal boxes to
send away for an atomic bomb ring. I also had an "atomic buster" toy
pistol like those on display, but not the silver Christmas tree
ornaments decorated with symbols of the atom. The junior Girl Scouts,
or Brownies, did not get the embroidered "atomic energy" Boy Scout
merit badges that were on display. But I recall the salt-and-pepper
shakers shaped like Fat Man and Little Boy, America's first two atomic
bombs, dropped on Japan, on my friends' Formica kitchen tables.
I coveted the iconic postcard on display - the distinctive mushroom
cloud rising behind Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn, the D.I., as my parents
and everyone else called it. At bars in hotels like this and in the
Sahara, the Flamingo, the Dunes and the Sands - there was no replica
of Venice or the Eiffel Tower - tourists and the town's 50,000
residents sipped gin, not vodka martinis and other atomic cocktails,
or as the subtitle of the drinks recipe book on display proclaims,
"Mixed Drinks for Modern Times."
In one corner hangs a blowup of the cover of the June 21, 1952,
edition of Collier's magazine. A dozen or so children are lying face
down in a schoolyard, hands cupped over their heads, abandoned bikes
nearby. "A is for Atom," the cover declares. We "atomic kids" knew how
to protect ourselves against "the big one."
There are also two copies of the orange warning posters issued by the
Clark County Civil Defense Agency, which we were told to post in a
"prominent place near your telephone or in your kitchen." Keep a
"well-balanced" supply of food on hand, the officials said.
I lingered for some time by a display of a male and female mannequin
blown off their chairs in a makeshift basement shelter. Having
survived a test at the site, the plastic people had been shown off in
1953 at J. C. Penney. "Before" and "after" photographs were published
by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, with a warning: "These mannequins
could have been real people; in fact, they could have been you." The
female was wearing a cinch-belted full skirt like the one my mother
used to wear.
By the late 50's, as the novelty of atomic testing wore thin and
concerns about safety and radiation deepened, the town fathers decided
to generate buzz to keep visitors coming to Las Vegas and parking
along Highway 95 to watch the dawn tests. On display is a life-size
paper cutout of their solution - Miss Atomic Bomb of 1957. The museum
store sells Miss A-Bomb refrigerator magnets for $8.
Las Vegas was proud of its status as the city of skin, sin and sex,
rather than the family entertainment center it has tried to become.
The transformation has made what is among the nation's fastest-growing
cities even more surreal, as are aspects of the museum itself. It
prominently displays a sign marking the entry to the test site at Gate
100, for instance. A sign welcoming 1950's visitors to Mercury, the
Atomic Energy Commission's home in a secret enclave then, is in neon.
Nearby are black-and-white photographs of daily life at the test site,
portraying the scientists and other nuclear weaponeers at work and
play. Contemporary descriptions of the testing effort now read like
Orwell. Atomic bombs were "humane" and "merciful," articles of the day
state, a stance the museum wisely shuns.
Americans discovered the devastating effects on the health of some of
the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who drilled on the atomic
battlefield during the tests only years later. Published in 1980,
"Atomic Soldiers," a slender volume by Howard Rosenberg, now an
investigative journalist for ABC, discussed the soldiers' ailments and
explored the critical debates that have raged ever since testing began
in Nevada: the effects of fallout, the relationship between low-level
radiation exposure and cancer, and what he calls "the elitism that
allowed a few men to make decisions that affect us all."
The effects on civilians like me who grew up in and around Las Vegas
may never be known, given the paucity of epidemiological studies.
Americans remain polarized by the testing, a division the exhibition
mentions but does not stress. Some historians argue that the testing
helped prevent the use of nuclear arms and ultimately helped prompt
the Soviet Union's collapse. Others argue that the stockpile of tens
of thousands of weapons too horrifying to use fueled the nuclear arms
race, fostering global proliferation and instability that threaten us
with Armageddon to this day. The secrecy that took root here has now
infected much of government. It is no accident that the exhibition
ends with fragments of both the Berlin Wall and the Twin Towers.
Who is visiting these riveting, if often creepy, cold war artifacts?
Most of the 800 visitors or so a week are baby boomers like me or
teenagers, many of whom have pronounced the exhibition "cool," said
William G. Johnson, the museum's director, a self-described "cold war
Troy E. Wade II, the chairman of the Nevada Test Site Historical
Foundation, which pioneered the project and who for years conducted
the countdown at ground zero, hopes to eventually attract thousands.
Polls show that 39 million people visited Las Vegas in 2003, he said,
68 percent of whom wake up not knowing what they will do that day.
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