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.

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.)

Exploring the character of place

Location, location, location. The mantra isn’t just for real estate agents. Writers have long known that a place works better as character than background. NPR does, too, which makes the radio program “Crime in the City” a delight for tourists of murder and mayhem.

The series features well-known authors and their beats—George Pelecanos’ Washington, D.C., Walter Mosley’s L.A.—as well as writers exploring smaller venues—Archer Mayor and Brattleboro, Vt., Julia Keller’s fictional town in West Virginia.

“Crime in the City” also gives armchair detectives a travelogue of international venues—Mary Lou Longworth in Aix-en-Provence, Ann Cleeves in the Shetland Islands, Richard Crompton in Nairobi, Paco Ignacio Taibo II in Mexico City.

Big or small, noisy or quiet, home or abroad, these locales illuminate both the authors and their characters in unexpected ways.

NPR’s correspondents intersperse the ambient sound of streets and cafes with the voices of police, shopkeepers and the writers themselves. As the sun becomes a distant memory in North America, the summer series offers armchair travelers a glimpse of the often superheated habitat of their favorite novelists. (In addition to the live broadcasts, the programs are available on the NPR website as downloadable MP3 files.)

As a reader or writer, what role do you think place can play in crime fiction?

NPR Crime in City Byzantine monument

Steaming up summer with romance novels

The heat is on this summer as National Public Radio takes on one of the steamier segments of the publishing industry.

Jennifer Crusie Bet MeNPR Books is focusing on romance novels. And their recommendations are not so-called “bodice rippers” or historical romances—they’re contemporary stories that straddle the categories of fiction.

The works blend the genres of romance and mystery or romance and humor to create contemporary novels that can appeal to a wide range of readers, not just those raised on Barbara Cartland or Janet Dailey. (Who hasn’t read at least one of the books in the Calder series? OK, don’t answer that.)

The NPR project features a more contemporary group of works like Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie, Match Me If You Can by Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Something About You by Julie James, a murder mystery involving an attorney and an FBI agent.

No mention of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series. How would you categorize them, as romantic suspense?

You can listen to the series on the NPR website.

‘Not just a gun and a badge’

“Police officers are human,” Training Officer Jeffrey Dunn tells members of the Sarasota Police Department’s Citizens Academy. “Some of them do stupid things sometimes.”

And some of them do good and brave things. Genevieve Judge, the department’s public information officer, wants to get both of those messages to the media and the public. She knows that a fast, honest response to a negative situation can build trust. And that publicizing the positive things officers do can help build understanding and goodwill.

“There are good police officers and there are bad police officers,” Judge says. “It’s how you handle the situation that people will remember. We can ignore it or we can stay in front of it. Even if we’re not proud of it, I’d rather people hear about it from us so they get the whole story.”

Media savvy
To that end, Judge, a veteran television reporter and videographer, launched the department into the world of social sharing when she came on board in 2013, creating a dialog with residents on the major networks. With the backing of Chief Bernadette DiPino, she routinely posts on Facebook, Twitter (@SarasotaPD), YouTube,  and Instagram.

Judge covers all major public events, does ride-alongs with officers called Tweet from the Beat and shoots video for initiatives like Click It or Ticket and Shop with a Cop, a program for children that runs around the holidays. She also fields questions and requests for arrest reports from journalists who also try to balance coverage, often pitting citizens against the police and putting the department on the defense.

Like the academy itself, the social media feed gives residents a behind-the-scenes look at the department and its personnel. It helps them balance the news they see and hear from other sources. “I want people to see it on our social networks before they see it anywhere else,” Judge says. “That way we own it and it comes from a trusted source.”

The publicity serves another purpose. “It shows our officers are not just a gun and a badge. They are human.”

Street smart
No one know that better than Jeff Dunn, who started with the Bradenton Police Department in 1992 and has worked on the K-9, SWAT and field training teams. In addition to organizing the citizen’s academy, he trains recruits and experienced officers in diversity, firearms, non-lethal weapons and law-enforcement policies and procedures.

“It’s not the most dangerous job but it’s the most rewarding. In police work, anything that goes wrong comes back to training. We make sure everything is correct and accurate and up to date.”

Firing-range practice is essential but training must encompass real-world situations. That’s why Dunn uses scenario-based training, creating events that are realistic, such as putting officers in situations that require them to use defensive tactics. “Not many police officers are attacked by paper targets.”

I’m sure there are days when Genevieve Judge feels the same way.

Next: defensive tactics.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

Jeff Dunn tours the SWAT ready room with members of the SPD Citizens Academy

Jeff Dunn tours the SWAT ready room with members of the SPD Citizens Academy