If the loonies were right, no one on earth will be alive to read this column.
I shall begin: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” With apologies to Charles Dickens, I refer, of course, to the 1950s and an end-of-the-world scare much scarier than the crackpot rumor of a Mayan doomsday prophecy broadcast by granola addicts.
The ’50s were both the best and worst of times. Ike was in the White House and God was in His heaven. Eisenhower kept his promise to bring our men home from Korea while a smoldering cold war spawned a new industry: bomb shelters.
Hundreds, if not thousands, were built and buried in Billings and the surrounding countryside. People spent thousands to buy and bury steel security. Some spent the kids’ college money, their old age nest egg, and cash borrowed on a second mortgage to join the craze.
Predictions of nuclear doomsday in the 1950s was not as precise but much more frightening than today’s ersatz Mayan prophecy.
In the ’50s a new threat to mankind and the planet shook world leaders and fifth-graders like me. It was no whack job’s speculation nor alarmist’s rant. Our school teachers taught us to hide under our desks when the sirens sounded.
Uncle Sam spent billions building a string of radar stations across Northern Canada’s frozen wastes. Every school boy (and school girl) knew about the Distant Early Warning System (aka the DEW Line). We read all about it in The Weekly Reader.
Shelters were not built to protect against a direct or near hit of a nuclear weapon. This was the youth of the Nuclear Age. A couple of feet of dirt over a thin steel ceiling was no match for an H-Bomb. The shelters were meant to protect cowering humans from the poison of nuclear fallout during the weeks following an attack.
Shelter owners stocked their steel cocoons with water and C-rations. The Billings bomb shelters, most made of short sections of culvert, were built by Roscoe Steel.
No one was proud of the shotguns stashed in many, if not most, of the shelters. They were there to stop imprudent neighbors who built no shelters but might try to break into the ones next door to escape the toxic atmosphere outside.
The now-forgotten shelters still nestle beneath the sod in the backyard of tens of thousands of American homes. Someday, after several passes of Halley’s Comet, archeologists will excavate ancient backyards and find remarkable time capsules beneath scatterings of fossil windfall apples. The shelf life of the C-rations will have recently expired.
World War I veterans are now all gone, but their widows and friends may recall a celestial event that scared the bejeebers out of millions of citizens of Planet Earth.
In 1910 Halley’s Comet cut an arc in the sky to shame all Fourth of July fireworks displays. Those alive today then may have seen the comet during its 1986 passage.
I tried with no success. From the midnight darkness of the Pryor Road I searched the southern sky with binoculars without catching a glimpse. A young man with a telescope as big as a drain pipe offered me a peek through his high speed optics. Straining until my vision blurred, I thought that I saw a white blob wobbling on the northern horizon. When I blinked and looked again, the blob was gone.
I suspect the blob was the product of a wishful imagination or eye strain. The 1986 passage of Halley’s comet disturbed the sleep of no chickens, I assure you.
Mark Twain was born just after the comet’s 1835 appearance and died at the age of 75 just before its 1910 passage. I missed both of Sam Clemens’ Halley events and have no desire to catch the edition scheduled for well after the middle of this century.