THE NEW YORK TIMES

OUT WEST, WAY OUT

The Melted Dog: Memories of an Atomic Childhood

By JUDITH MILLER

 

LAS VEGAS

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 bizarre city.

 

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 economy.

 

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 archaeologist."

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.