Winning the nuclear lottery

In 1950, the U.S. government published a pamphlet with the hopeful title of Survival Under Atomic Attack. The publication came five years after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan and one year after the Soviet Union developed its own atomic device. Both nations would develop more powerful thermonuclear weapons—hydrogen bombs—in the early years of the decade.

The booklet begins with an assessment of survival:

What are your chances? If a modern A-bomb exploded without warning in the air over your home town tonight, your calculated chances of living through the raid would run something like this:

Should you happen to be one of the unlucky people right under the bomb, there is practically no hope of living through it. In fact, anywhere within one-half mile of the center of explosion, your chances of escaping are about 1 out of 10.

On the other hand, and this is the important point, from one-half to 1 mile away, you have a 50-50 chance.

Under that hopeful assumption, the booklet goes on to explain flash burns and radiation before listing six survival tips for atomic attacks:

  1. Try to get shielded
  2. Drop flat on ground or floor
  3. Bury your face in your arms
  4. Don’t rush outside right after a bombing
  5. Don’t take chances with food or water in open containers
  6. Don’t start rumors

Easier said than done. In the Cold War novel Distant Early Warning, the residents of Pennsboro have a mixed reaction to that advice. Patriotic to the core, the Gouchers build a fallout shelter in their backyard. The rest of the neighbors are on their own. At work, Marshall Andersen hears the sirens blare and wonders if he can get home in time. His wife Georgia unplugs the iron and draws the curtains against a possible blast. Their son, Wil, ducks and covers in the hallway at school, frozen by the sound of impending doom.

The pamphlet offers a more hopeful appraisal.

“To sum up, If you follow the pointers in this little booklet, you stand far better than an even chance of surviving the bomb’s blast, heat, and radioactivity.”

That’s a big if, even for the 1950s.

Jeff Widmer’s latest book is Distant Early Warning, a novel of the Cold War.

Building a fallout shelter

They were all the rage in the late 1950s—fallout shelters you could build in your basement or backyard. Now viewed with comic tolerance, the shelters were a response to a series of very real threats, starting with the Korean War and the execution of the Rosenbergs for spying and culminating in launch of Sputnik in 1957. In between, the United States and the Soviet Union traded nuclear-bomb tests tit for tat. America and Canada built the Distant Early Warning Line of radar stations across the Arctic. The U.S. staged mass evacuations of its largest cities. And children huddled under their desks in duck-and-cover drills.

The threats were anything but comic.

In June 1959, the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization published a 32-page pamphlet called The Family Fallout Shelter. The text was sobering:

Let us take a hard look at the facts. In an atomic war, blast, heat, and initial radiation could kill millions close to ground zero of nuclear bursts. Many more millions—everybody else—could be threatened by radioactive fallout. But most of these could be saved. The purpose of this booklet is to show how to escape death from fallout.

The booklet contained building plans for several types of shelters: basement concrete block, above-ground double-wall, pre-shaped corrugated metal, and underground. (Harry Goucher used similar plans for his backyard shelter in the novel Distant Early Warning. Imagine you’re a young mother like Georgia Andersen watching him build a four-person bunker and wondering where the rest of your neighbors will shelter.)

The booklet listed equipment and supplies for a prolonged stay and advised readers to “be prepared to make it your home for 14 days or longer.” Four to six people in a shelter with a hand-crank air pump and a bucket for a toilet. How long do you think most of us would last?

The underground fallout shelter

Jeff Widmer’s latest book is Distant Early Warning, a novel of the Cold War.

A Flood of Memories

I was old enough to remember but too young to understand the destruction and aftermath of the Flood of 1955. Back-to-back hurricanes Connie and Diane ravaged the Northeast that summer, dumping nearly two feet of rain on Northeast Pennsylvania where we lived and killing 184 people throughout the region. Some of the worst destruction happened in Connecticut.

The storms hit that August. Connie swept through with little to show except for rain. As if to blow the all-clear, the sun came out. I ventured into the backyard. Rain had turned the grass into a pond. It seemed miraculous.

Then, on August 18, came Diane, with its torrential rains and raging creeks that took a region by surprise. When the sun returned, my father packed me in the Buick for what came to be known as the disaster tour. One location remains embedded in memory: a stop by the Brodhead Creek along Stokes Mill Road just north of Stroudsburg, Pa. Climbing from the car, we viewed a great plain of mud, dried and cracked as if an earthquake had hit. Not a single tree, house, or rock. Just acres and acres of nothing.

Grand opening ad

I remember other things about that time: air-raid sirens near the Y, duck-and-cover drills in school, playground bullies and kick the can. Knowledge of the Cold War, the fear and paranoia over spies and nuclear attack, would come later.

Researching and writing about that era allowed me to explore the events and feelings of people who, at the time of the flood, were, for a child, out of reach. The result is Distant Early Warning, the story of a family—Marsh, Georgia, Penny and seven-year-old Wil—as they struggle with the perils and promise of the 1950s. The title refers to the line of radar stations strung across the Arctic Circle to detect incoming Russian bombers, but it could easily serve as a metaphor for a young boy’s discovery of the friendship of girls and the darkness that haunts his family, secrets buried deep beneath the mud.

That research also led me to discover these family photos of the aftermath of the flood, images unpublished until now.

Postscript: Thanks to members of two Facebook groups for their help in identifying the location of these photos: “I remember East Stroudsburg and Stroudsburg when . . . ” and “1955 Flood in Monroe County, PA, and environs.”

The Iron Bridge, or Interboro Bridge, between Stroudsburg and East Stroudsburg, photographed after Hurricane Diane, circa August 20, 1955
Lower Main Street, Stroudsburg, looking east toward the remains of the Interboro Bridge. The entrance to 4th Street is on the left. The building on the left with the glass front is Archibald Plumbing. To the right at the corner is the home of Dr. John L. Rumsey; Ray Price Lincoln/Mercury dealership, and Frisbee Lumber  Co. The building before it with the arched doorway is part of the Holland Thread Co.
A bicyclist walks the muddy streets after the Flood of ’55, possibly Second Street in Stroudsburg, Pa.
Crews work to restore utilities near the Cities Service station at the foot of the Iron Bridge, 190 Main St., Stroudsburg, Pa. The irony is that August 18, 1955, was the grand opening of the facility, which could explain the flags on the left and possibly the word TODAY to the left of the gas station sign.

On top of the world

The Distant Early Warning Line was a system of 63 radar stations built across the Arctic Circle to detect Soviet bombers. Constructed by Western Electric, it extended 3,000 miles along the 69th parallel from Alaska to Baffin Island. The Arctic Institute of North America estimated it took 25,000 workers and $300 million to build the stations.

The U.S Air Force took operational control of the DEW Line on July 31, 1957, two months before the Soviet Union launched earth’s first man-made satellite, Sputnik.

This magazine ad appeared shortly after completion of the system.

Jeff Widmer’s latest book is Distant Early Warning, a novel of the Cold War.

The sound of the Cold War

One of the most fascinating aspects of Cold War spy craft is the most innocuous-sounding: numbers stations. They broadcast seemingly random strings of numbers or letters over shortwave frequencies. The broadcasts are received by agents embedded in other countries. Because the signals are one-way, spies are able to hear and decode the messages without fear of radio-tracking.

Originating during World War I, numbers stations proliferated during the Cold War, that period of tension between eastern and western powers from 1947 through 1991.

In the novel Distant Early Warning, Wil and Glenn Andersen believe these broadcasts are aimed at a spy operating in their neighborhood.

This is what the boys might have heard on their shortwave receiver. It is a recording of a woman reading a string of numbers in German. The numbers were often read in groups of three, four, or five. The file comes from The Conant Project on SoundCloud. The Conant Project consists of dozens of recordings of numbers stations from around the world, available for listening or download. (For a look at contemporary use of the stations, see the Numbers Stations Research and Information Center.)

Soviet spy radio set (Eagle) Mark II R-350M. (Photo by Maksym Kozlenko. Used with permission under Creative Commons license.)

Everything Old is New Again

They were the best of times and the worst of times. America in the 1950s was booming. From Detroit to Levittown, people bought cars and houses in record numbers. President Dwight Eisenhower established the interstate highway system to boost commerce and provide escape routes during atomic evacuations. Low inflation and rising GDP. Drag races and sock hops, flattops and greasers, Elvis and Buddy. The dawn of the space age and color TV. A time of infinite possibilities.

But the 1950s weren’t all happy days.

Political conflicts generated a fearful response: Communist witch hunts, nuclear tests, fallout shelters, air-raid drills. Across the country, Americans faced a host of existential issues, from over-consumption to Russian aggression, racism, nuclear war and the threat of epidemic disease, issues that reverberate today.

Bert the Turtle from Duck and Cover

Then there were the natural disasters that plagued small towns like the one where I lived: the Flood of ’55, the blizzard of ’58, and a fire that destroyed a block of Main Street that summer. One storm alone, Hurricane Diane, took 180 lives and caused more than $832 million in damage, making it the most-costly hurricane in U.S. history to that date. (Those challenges form the heart of Distant Early Warning, a new book about one family’s struggle with the challenges of the Cold War.)

If anything, it was a decade of contrasts, both backward- and forward-looking: the USSR and the USA, eastern steel and western gold, San Francisco and Selma, beatniks and bottlenecks, Gunsmoke and The Twilight Zone.

Prosperity and paranoia. Do times ever change?

What do you remember? What would you like to forget?

Civil Defense Air Raid Drill Oak Ridge TN 1953

A Cautionary Tale

It is the late 1950s, and the Andersen family is at war with itself. As back-to-back hurricanes ravage the rural town of Pennsboro, the family suffers an irredeemable loss. Georgia becomes mired in a haze of medication and TV. Marsh retreats into work and fantasies of the redhead next door. Wil, a precocious boy with a fondness for a girl with almond eyes, suspects his parents are possessed by the aliens from his favorite movie.

Adding to their private grief is the collision of consumerism and the Cold War, amid the rising threat of Soviet missiles that may render obsolete America’s last hope for defense, the newly completed Distant Early Warning Line. With the launch of Sputnik, the family’s anguish comes to a head.

As the Andersens watch the first man-made satellite write history across the sky, they wonder if they, and the world, will ever find peace.

Based on true events, Distant Early Warning portrays the fears and dreams of a generation as it navigates the promise and perils of mid-century America. The book is available here.

Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll

Celebrate the anniversary of Woodstock with a novel that captures the heart and soul of a generation, Born Under a Bad Sign, a gripping story of love and obsession, set in one of the most turbulent times in American history.

Published by Allusion Books for the 50th anniversary of the iconic music festival, Born Under a Bad Sign is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

Trial by Fire

In her fifth outing (after Permanent Vacation), former detective-turned-real-estate-agent CW McCoy rushes headlong into her most troubling case, one that will change her life forever. With Burning Man, she faces the greatest challenge of all—coming to terms with a past that continues to blaze.

Here’s the opening chapter:

I WOKE TO the smell of danger. It seeped through the floorboards and pushed under the door and crawled into my bed. It stung my eyes and clogged my nose and tasted sour as an old penny. There was another smell, too, like the time Mommy turned on the stove and forgot to light it and my brother made a joke about the house blowing up.

It was four days before Christmas, a Saturday and the start of our holiday vacation, mine from kindergarten, Colton’s from second grade, although it didn’t feel like Christmas, because there was no snow. Daddy had just put up the lights, too many, Mommy said. He’d stood on a ladder and hung them over the windows while Mommy stood on the sidewalk below, her arms crossed, telling him not to burn down the house.

This smell felt wrong. Like the time Daddy lit a fire and forgot to open the flap in the chimney, and the smoke tumbled out in swirling stripes, as if it were trying to escape. The smell was dry as the newspapers he pushed beneath the twigs, the logs making a high, hissing sound as if they were hurt by the flames.

My parents had gone to a party. They should have been back. They should have come in to check.

The light that came through the curtains made a square on the wooden floor. Beneath the door, the smoke went in and out as if something in the hall was breathing, alive, coming after me. A lizard with a flame for a tongue or the lady with her hair full of snakes. Or burglars. Daddy was always talking about burglars. Colt would say it was a dragon, breathing fire and smoke as it hunted for little children to cook and eat, but then he liked to scare me.

The smoke stung my eyes and hurt my head. I couldn’t swallow. But I had to warn everyone. And I had to see what was in the hall.

Sliding from bed, knocking over the lamp and a gold cup with curly handles that said I could count to twenty, I crept toward the door. The floor felt warm. I reached for the knob. It turned, but the door wouldn’t open. I rattled and pulled and yanked as hard as I could, but the door wouldn’t budge. I banged on it and yelled for Colt, whose bedroom was across from mine, but no one answered. I put my ear to the keyhole, but I couldn’t hear the voices I’d heard earlier, just before I’d fallen asleep. Angry voices.

Smoke curled over my feet and crept up my pajamas. Like a dusty hand, it pushed me toward the bed. Tripping over the lamp, I crawled under the quilt Nana had made for me, the one with a picture of Snoopy on his doghouse, and stared at the door, daring the monster in the hall to break it down. Its gray breath grew dark, rolling up the wall and across the ceiling. It warmed the air and stuffed my nose and made my tongue stick to the top of my mouth.

From the street below, I heard a siren and the honk honk of horns.

The smoke changed from gray to yellow-brown. It rose through the cracks in the floor and reached over the bed. My chest felt as if someone had me in a bear hug, but I would not go with the smoke. I would climb out the window and come back through the front door and run up the stairs to wake Colton. And together we would save our parents.

Pulling the quilt over my shoulders, I stumbled to the window and tried to lift it, but the window was stuck. I pounded the latch with my hands, but the latch wouldn’t budge.

The sirens got louder, and then they stopped. Red lights flashed across the window. From the street, I heard honking and shouting and the rattle of something as it scraped against the house. Then a dark shape holding a long stick appeared in the window and ducked out of sight, so I wouldn’t know what it was doing. It raised the stick and used it to smash the window and ran it around the edge, the glass flying into the curtains and bouncing across the floor. The shape had a big head that stuck out in the back and a mask like divers wore in the ocean. That’s where its breath came from, the smoke, how it blew it under the door into my room. And because the door was locked, it had climbed up the side of the house. It put a foot on the window and another on the floor and, setting the stick against the wall, stuck out its big black hands and moved toward me.

My ears stung. My heart hurt. My mouth felt as dry as paper. Falling back into the quilt, I cried for help, but nothing came out.

The dark shape wore a raincoat and gloves and had a hump on its back. As it got closer, I saw that it wasn’t a monster but a man, a fireman. He was saying something from inside his mask, but I couldn’t hear. He stomped across the floor and, like the smoke, reached for me. I got scared. I couldn’t leave before I found Colton and Mom and Dad. As I backed against the bed, my hand landed on the cup. I couldn’t stop whatever was still in the hall, Colt would have to do that, but I could stop the man. Raising the cup over my head, I rose to my knees and swung as hard as I could.

But the man was too fast. Wrapping me in the quilt, he threw me over his shoulder and lifted me through the window. I couldn’t breathe and began pounding on his hump. Opening my eyes, I looked down a ladder at firetrucks and flashing lights and people dragging big fans through our front door. The ladder bounced. I felt dizzy. The lights hurt my eyes. The man’s foot slipped.

Just when I thought he would drop me, my cellphone rang.

Burning Man is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords. You can find all of the books in the Candace McCoy series, plus other works of fiction and nonfiction, at my author page on Amazon.