Sunday, May 25, 2008

The selling of Doomsday

World tensions are running high: America faces down a foreign foe as its citizens brace for an uncertain future.

Headlines from today's Panama City News Herald? Not quite.

The date is October, 1961, and the planet holds its breath as American and Soviet tanks face each other, muzzle to muzzle, along Berlin's east-west border. Then, on Oct. 30, the Russians detonate a 50-megaton nuclear bomb in the skies over the Pacific; a test--or is it a warning? (A weather station in nearby Apalachicola, Florida, actually records the blast's shock waves, which last five minutes).

Fallout fever grips America. Newspapers across the nation--including the News Herald--run Fallout Tracking Maps, tracing the bomb's radioactive cloud as it treks eastward across the Pacific towards North America.

Overnight, it seems, a new phrase enters the nation's consciousness: Fallout shelter.

Nationally, plans are made to equipt schools with underground shelters, and students crouch under desks during air-raid drills--as if a school desk provided protection! Neighborhoods begin planning Fallout Shelter Clubs--a doomsday version of time-share.

Here in Panama City, The Bomb Shelter Company opens for business on West Highway 98, near present-day Zoo World. "A Russian attack," company manager John Carroll tells the News Herald, "would likely be at night, so you would probably be at home. A fallout shelter would be your means of existing."

A seven-by-six foot, six-person model--welded from 3/16" steel--sells for $1300. When the Bay County Fair opened October 30,visitors viewed a model shelter displayed at the fairground's main entrance. "An air filter system complete with exhaust and manually operated centrifugal blower is standard equipment," the News Herald reports. "Accessory kits provide radiation counters, different types of toilets, and motorized blowers."

Fallout Mania reached a peak in October 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Within a year, however, the two superpowers had retreated from the brink of atomic Armageddon and signed their first-ever nuclear arms treaty, forever banning above-ground bomb testing.

By then, Fallout Mania had subsided. Panama City's Bomb Shelter Company closed, leaving the fallout shelter--like the hula hoop and the twist--a cultural curiosity of the early sixties.

--Ken Brooks
Panama City News Herald, Oct. 22, 2000

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