The Cold War is fading from memory for many Americans. It reached its pinnacle, after all, in the 1950s and '60s. And for young people, it has never really been on the radar.
"Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow: Living with the Atomic Bomb, 1945-1965" is a new traveling exhibit making its national debut at the Elmhurst Historical Museum, and its goal is to remind us of those not-so-happy days.
The exhibit is co-curated by Michael Scheibach, an author, editor and adjunct college professor from Independence, Mo. Most of the artifacts in the show are part of his collection, assembled over the last 15 years or so. That material fills the first floor of the museum; the second floor features items from the museum's collection, plus related material from new research.
"A lot of time with traveling exhibits, they don't have a lot of local material. We signed to do this quite awhile back, so we had plenty of time to gather items for upstairs," says Lance Tawzer, the Elmhurst Historical Museum's curator of exhibits. "I was really intrigued by the subject and thought we could do something locally."
Scheibach's collection is a nod to his interest in the era. He was especially intrigued by how the Atomic Age flowed into everyday life. So on display is a Kix cereal "atomic bomb ring," Atomic Razor Blades, a Dazey Atomic Ice Crusher. The Atomic Age also had its darker side. One item on display is a cutout paper doll family that comes with Mom, Dad, two kids and a paper bomb shelter for them to live in, complete with bunk beds, a stove, a radio and a first aid kit. There are posters, brochures, pamphlets and books warning Americans about seemingly unavoidable nuclear attacks.
"I think it's absolutely critical that people need to understand what this period is all about," Scheibach says. "Yes, it's about suburbia and 'Ozzie and Harriet,' but beneath that the whole time, beneath the Cold War, the bomb is sitting there."
He'll show more items from his collection Feb. 23, and speak on "Living with the Atomic Bomb, 1945-1965" at the museum. The talk, which is free, begins at 1 p.m.
At the start of the exhibit is an old Philco Transitone radio. Push a button and you'll hear President Harry Truman announce the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Moving along, visitors will quickly see how the Atomic Age seeped into all areas of life, and how it filtered down to children. So the exhibit includes atomic trains, atomic ray guns and Mad magazine covers devoted to the bomb. (Worth noting: The exhibit has done an excellent job with the artifact labels that hang over each display. They're information-packed. Read them — you'll learn something.)
During the years covered by the exhibit, Chicago was America's second largest city — a military, transportation, manufacturing and business center. As such, it would have been high on theSoviet Union'slist of prime targets. Sitting just west of the city, Elmhurst would have been nervously looking over its shoulder. Tawzer wanted to use that connection to tie Elmhurst into the bigger picture and to the exhibit.
"I wanted to see how Elmhurst was affected. Were there people who built bomb shelters? Did the city have a (Civil Defense) program? Did the city take this seriously?"
The result of his research is the second part of the exhibit. Highlights include four taped interviews with Elmhurst residents who give interesting firsthand accounts of the years in question. There are also 1960s-era Civil Defense uniforms, Geiger counters (still in working order) and more printed materials. There are also displays that tell stories, both true (the basement at York High School was equipped to become a 200-bed hospital to treat radiation burn victims) and false (no, that reservoir at Ben Allison Park was not a Civil Defense headquarters bunker, though that was once contemplated).
Tawzer also has assembled four government films — delightfully ham-fisted propaganda — from the early days of the atomic era that are shown upstairs. They are "Duck and Cover" (1951), "The House in the Middle" (1954), "Operation Cue" (1955) and the feel-good romp "Survival Under Atomic Attack" (1951). Watch them and you'll learn, among other things, how to build a bomb shelter, how to protect yourself during an atomic attack by hurling yourself along a street curb, and how painting your house will help it better withstand an atomic attack. (As the announcer solemnly intones: "The lack of fire-safe housekeeping has doomed this house.") Be sure to bring a notebook.
The exhibit can resonate with all generations. Older visitors will remember the duck-and-cover drills shown in a large photo. For young people, their exposure to the era is usually in school, and in passing. "Alert Today" lets them see posters, maps and evacuation signs, and even lets them hear the Conelrad alert signal broadcast on a vintage AM radio. It can help them get a sense of what their parents and grandparents experienced and can help everyone draw parallels between America then and now.
"We're a decade past 9/11," Scheibach says, "but young people today have grown up with Bin Laden, terrorists, bombs and all these worries at home, at work. Another generation, a half-century ago, lived in a time that was much more precarious, I think. The young people couldn't go a day without seeing an air raid shelter sign, without having a duck-and-cover drill, without seeing a TV program about the bomb. It seemed to be everywhere."
In addition to Scheibach's Feb. 23 talk, the Elmhurst Historical Museum is planning two other exhibit-related programs. At 6:30 p.m. Feb. 15, there will be a showing of the Cold War film-noir movie "The Woman on Pier 13" and a discussion with Columbia College professor Ron Falzone. (Reservations are required; call 630-279-8696). And 7 p.m. March 15, Chris Sturdevant, director of the Cold War Museum, Midwest Chapter, will speak. Both programs are free.
'Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow'
When: Through March 18
Where: Elmhurst Historical Museum, 120 E. Park Ave., Elmhurst
Tickets: Free; 630-833-1457 or www.elmhursthistory.org