We Build Underground Bomb Shelters

The Life Atomic: Growing up in the Shadow of the A-Bomb

ROGERS, ARKANSAS — In the months following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many Americans found themselves looking over their shoulders with regularity. There was a day when many citizens felt relatively safe on their home soil, but that changed in a hurry.

While the fear of terrorism has many at least partially on edge, Americans were alarmed and even taking cover for an entirely different reason 50 years ago. During the height of the Cold War, Americans lived under the threat of global thermonuclear war. Some families were scrambling to construct fallout shelters. Others nervously sat back, convinced no amount of preparation would be able to save them if the bomb was dropped.

That is the time period the Rogers Historical Museum’s newest exhibit, “ The Life Atomic: Growing up in the Shadow of the A-Bomb, ” focuses on. The exhibit, which museum staff has been building for two years and will remain on display through Oct. 25, opened Saturday to a festival of activities. Museumgoers and their families gathered for a peek at the exhibit, as well as a slew of scheduled musical performances, fun and games surrounding the facility at 322 S. Second St.

Rain washed away the second half of the planned festivities, but Rogers Historical Museum staff still deemed the opening a success, as hundreds made their way through the exhibit. And what they found when they stepped inside was everything from a mock fallout shelter and old newspaper clippings to a map of designated public bomb shelters in the area, civil defense films from the 1950 s and even A-Bomb toys.

“ I think what’s really great about this exhibit is there’s some very serious stuff mixed with some lighter stuff, ” said assistant museum director John Burroughs. “ I mean, there were people who were convinced they were going to die no matter what they did. But there were all kinds of toys kids were playing with — little plastic A-Bombs. This was a big deal. It’s what was going on and what everyone was thinking about. ”

The highlight of the exhibit is the mock fallout shelter, designed to resemble what a typical in-home security area would have looked like and what it was stocked with.

The fallout shelter is a little larger than the average walkin closet in a modern home. There was room for a single bed, a small desk and a couple of shelves. The walls were made of cement blocks and it was suggested that up to six people could take shelter for the recommended 14 days following a nuclear explosion.

“ The government was telling everyone to take precautions but there were a lot of people who didn’t follow through, ” museum director Gaye Bland said. “ I grew up in that era. I graduated from high school in 1967, so I can’t really remember the beginning of all this, but I remember the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. There were only a handful of people around us who built fallout shelters and there weren’t any in my neighborhood.

“ I can remember my mom needling my dad to build a fallout shelter, ” Bland said. “ But after she saw a few movies that were put out, she was convinced nothing anyone did to prepare was going to save them anyway. There were a lot of people like that. ”

Several civil defense films that were circulated — instructing people how to fireproof their homes, build protective shelters and what supplies to bring with them when they holed up — run continuously within the exhibit space. Items such as beans, bread, canned water, battery-powered radios, books and board games were recommended, as was a pack of tranquilizers.

“ Oh yeah — the videos instructed you to be prepared for the stress, ” Bland said. “ They told you to bring 100 tranquilizers for the family. Imagine being stuck inside that tiny space for a couple of weeks. The toilet and trash can were the same thing. No plumbing. Just throw some sand in a can and there you have it. ”

But while there was genuine concern over a potential attack, toy companies found there was a market for A-Bombrelated toys and games. One of the most popular toys of the time were miniature Abombs — about the size of a badminton shuttlecock — that kids inserted a gunpowder cap inside the head. When the toy bomb hit the ground, there was a loud pop.

On display as part of the exhibit is an advertisement for another game in which kids are encouraged to drop toy A-Bombs on a map of Japan, clearly identifying such specific targets as Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

According to Rogers Historical Museum staff, several other small and medium-size museums across the country have already called to inquire about borrowing the exhibit.

“ We’re excited there’s that kind of interest, ” Burroughs said. “ It’s not just going to die after the exhibit gets taken down here. It’s going to go on tour. ”

By Jeff Mores Staff Writer // jeffm@nwanews.com