Boomers and the Nuclear Age

The recent tragic earthquake, tsunami and unfolding nuclear events at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan has made Mister Boomer realize how little he knows about the origins of the nuclear power industry. We boomers were the first to grow up in the Nuclear Age, and it was, first and foremost, an age of fear over nuclear annihilation during the Cold War. We recall people building underground shelters and “duck and cover” drills at school (see Laughing Through the Cold War). Yet, if your boomer education was anything like Mister Boomer’s, nothing was ever mentioned about the path toward controlling nuclear power for peaceful means. How did that dual path unfold in boomer years?

In 1938, World War II was underway in Europe, though the United States wouldn’t enter the fray until 1941. The Allies became aware that the Nazis had split uranium atoms in Germany, which led them to believe they were pursuing the development of a nuclear weapon. Leo Szilard wrote a letter to then-President Franklin Roosevelt urging him to develop an atomic bomb as a counter weapon. He also got Albert Einstein to sign the letter. It was delivered to Roosevelt in 1939.

Six years later, the U.S. was deeply involved in the War and the bomb development was near completion. Germany had surrendered mid-year, but the war continued against Japan. Albert Einstein reversed his earlier urging that the bomb be built and wrote to Roosevelt that the weapon should never be used. He cited not only the mass destruction that would ensue, but the post-war implications of nuclear proliferation, to many countries, that he feared would result in a world-wide build-up that would eventually lead to preventative use of the weapons that could destroy the world. Roosevelt died and Truman became the first and only U.S. president to issue an order to use nuclear weapons. One year after the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, Einstein said he was on record as opposing the dropping of the bomb. Before he died in 1954 he elaborated, saying he felt that if Roosevelt had lived, the bomb would not have been used to end the war.

Immediately after the war, scientists were aware of the possibilities for harnessing nuclear energy for peaceful means. The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 was passed in an effort to stop the spread of nuclear technology. It was ineffective, and the Soviet Union soon had a bomb of their own. The British soon followed, and France was also experimenting with developing their own bomb. In the meantime, each of the nuclear countries experimented with harnessing atomic energy for powering electric plants. The U.S. had already entered an arms race with the Soviets, but now another race was simultaneously underway with the Soviets and other countries: the race to place a nuclear power plant into service.

In January of 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower became president. As the former Commander of Allied Forces in the war, he was well aware of the destructive power of nuclear weapons. In a speech to the U.N. General Assembly in December of 1953 called “Atoms for Peace,” he proposed an International Atomic Energy Agency that would, in effect, hold down the proliferation of nuclear power by controlling which countries could or could not receive the technology. Some historians argue his speech was more politics than vision, being an attempt to slow down the Soviets’ progress in developing a nuclear power plant rather than a plea for peaceful coexistence in the Nuclear Age. His idea was not passed (though it was later ratified in 1957), and the Soviets won the race to put a nuclear power plant into production. The city of Obninsk, outside of Moscow, would become the first in the world to receive a small fraction of electricity generated by nuclear means.

Meanwhile, back in pop culture, the threat of nuclear radiation hit gigantic proportions. Hollywood churned out film after film with thinly-veiled warnings of the dangers of what could happen should science fail to control this new monster. By combining the fears of nuclear power with our new-found fascination with space, the end result was what has been called the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

Perhaps the best of these was The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). It carried the overt message that unless nuclear power was controlled, it would be the end of civilization. Soon after, a rash of films where creatures of all types grew to monstrous size were released to an appreciative reception. In each, the monsters grew because of exposure to radiation. Most often, it was through the well-meaning efforts of scientists looking for a way to improve life and agriculture. Considered one of the best of the science-run-amok films, Them! (1954) had gigantic irradiated ants terrorizing the Southwest.

The Japanese, having been the only country to experience the horrors of an actual nuclear event, released Gojira (1954). In this film, a mutant dinosaur that was the result of underwater nuclear testing destroys Tokyo. The film had a blatant anti-nuclear message that was deemed too direct for American audiences, so when it was remade as Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956), the references to the dangers of the bomb were removed.

A string of films followed, including The Beginning of the End (1957). As was the case in several other films, in this one a scientist attempts to grow bigger and better vegetables through radiation. When locusts eat the irradiated crop, they grow to gigantic proportions and attack Chicago. Coincidentally or not, the population of Chicago in the 1950s was roughly ten times that of Hiroshima when the atomic bomb fell on its citizens in 1945.

The mutant size didn’t only apply to animals. The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) pictured an Army colonel blasted by a plutonium bomb in a test in the Nevada desert. He grew to a size of 50 feet, and as he grew he became mentally unstable and went insane. The city that bore his wrath was Las Vegas.

Many historians and film buffs surmise that the gigantic size of all these creatures was, in actuality, a metaphor for nuclear fission running out of control. The films, then, were allegories to deliver the warnings of walking the nuclear path.

Throughout our boomer youth, this dual path of destructive nuclear bombs and the peaceful application of nuclear energy played out mostly behind the scenes. In July of 1955, the U.S. tested its first nuclear power plant at Aro, Idaho. It was designed to run only a few minutes for the test. The first U.S. nuclear power plant went on-line in Shippingport, Pennsylvania in 1957.

Nuclear bomb tests continued throughout the 1950s. In 1957, the first U.S. underground test was performed in Nevada. By the early 1960s, the baby boom was winding down, and the world began to take nuclear proliferation a bit more seriously. In 1963, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty. It prohibited the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere and under water. Since both countries had successfully launched men into space by this point, it also called for banning the testing of nuclear weapons in space.

Maybe it was the steady diet of sci-fi films in his early days that has made Mister Boomer hesitant on the question of nuclear power in our present day. It seems the warnings of those films were not taken to heart, as the headlines continue to unfold with first, Three Mile Island, then Chernobyl and now, Fukushima. Throughout our lives, the Nuclear Age has played out across the world stage. It seems we boomers still have a front row seat. Will we be the generation to finally get control of the monster that man has created?


Boomers Ate Their Just Desserts

For centuries, dessert in the Western World had primarily been the privilege of royalty and the merchant class. The working and lower classes reserved desserts for special celebrations and religious holidays, as ingredients were often expensive. As the middle class developed in the early 20th century, anytime-dessert found its way into American homes. The Depression seriously curtailed the trend, then just when North America was getting back on its footing, just when it looked like the trend would continue, World War II arrived. The rationing of sugar, butter, milk and eggs limited the making of traditional cakes and pies. The governments of the Allies wanted their people who remained on the homefront to maintain morale and their way of life, so they released a barrage of war-time recipes that helped promote substitute items like margarine. It was our parents and grandparents who lived through that time, bringing their newfound tastes and favorites with them after the War.

By the 1950s, American factories and technical ingenuity were humming once again. Processed foods of all types hit the markets, contributing to what food historians sometimes refer to as the worst food decade for Americans. But the timing was right for this “modern” cuisine: Women, having been employed during the War, now returned home and had babies in record numbers. The Space Age was soon to arrive and dreams of a modern future weaved their way into all aspects of 50s life, from furniture to cars, fashions to food. Our parents did not want the same things as their parents, and that also meant mothers of boomers were going to take advantage of any technological breakthrough that would be presented to them. As a result, dessert was not high on the list of things moms wanted to do for their families. While they would bake for hours for holidays, the everyday meal would be dessert-less if it wasn’t for the processed foods available.

Cake mixes, first introduced in the late 1940s, became a tastier convenience than the previous decade and ushered in a new definition of “from scratch.” Jell-O®, around since the late 1890s, started gaining national prominence in the 20s and 30s due to massive advertising campaigns and the branding of its famous name. The gelatin dessert was quick and inexpensive, so it was a nice fit for the housewife and mother of the fifties. As the middle class grew along with the country’s hope for a better tomorrow, the desire for “the good life” meant having your dessert, and eating it too.

Dig this crazy commercial from the 50s, man. The beat poetry-like narration and minimal linear drawing style really represents the era in advertising as well as food trends of the decade.

That same decade instant pudding was introduced, allowing for another quick taste of the dessert good life with minimal fuss. In fact, it was marketed as so easy to make even the children could do it. Mister Boomer certainly recalls making instant pudding, as well as the stove-top method of the regular pudding mixes. Instant pudding had the advantage of being a no-cook mix: just add cold milk and beat to a creamy consistency.

Throughout the fifties and sixties, women wanted convenience while families desired tasty treats. Every decade had its food fads, so when it comes to the dessert category for boomers, many recall what Mister Boomer can remember in his own household: Dessert wasn’t an everyday occurrence. On special occasions and holidays, there were pies and cakes; Mister Boomer’s mother specialized in pineapple cream and banana cream pies, and pineapple upside down cake, all staples of the era. Though not in a consistent manner, dessert in the Boomer household went in spurts of one week with, several weeks without, sometimes Tuesday, sometimes Wednesday. Mostly it was no dessert.

Mister Boomer’s parents reflected their generation in the dessert department. His father preferred a simple dish of fruit, which was more often than not, canned fruit cocktail in heavy syrup. It was thought of as a healthy alternative at the time. Boomer children will remember fighting over the one, or if you were lucky, two Marischino cherry halves in the can. Inevitably, the can contained mostly grapes. His dad would on occasion buy a can of Mandarin oranges, in step with the expansion of “ethnic” foods of the day.

Mister Boomer’s mother was a modern woman who wasn’t enthralled with spending hours in the kitchen. As a mother with a growing brood in the 50s and 60s, she ate a lot of cottage cheese. Served over a lettuce leaf or in a bowl with some fruit cocktail, it was her preferred dessert.

Jell-O gelatin and instant pudding were quite popular in the household, but unlike many homes of the day, Mister Boomer’s family did not eat “Jell-O salads” with any regularity. Every so often, a drained can of fruit cocktail was added to the mix, but it was more the exception rather than the rule. Mister Boomer’s sister loved cherry Jell-O above all the other flavors, despite the expansion of varieties introduced in the sixties. Both parents also succumbed to the commercial pitch of, “There’s always room for Jell-O!”

More than Jell-O, the Boomer children loved pudding. Jell-O had competitors, of course. In Mister Boomer’s area, that was primarily Royal pudding. Though the family tried it, they mostly stayed loyal to the Jell-O brand. In no time at all, it was the children who prepared the dessert. At that time, Jell-O had three pudding flavors: Vanilla, chocolate and Butterscotch. Mister Boomer’s sister led the way, and she wanted chocolate. Mister Boomer also enjoyed the Butterscotch pudding. It wasn’t long, though, before the Boomer children preferred the original cooked pudding to the instant variety, though that meant making it sooner and refrigerating it until after dinner. This cooking process also produced the children’s favorite part: the hard skin on top of the creamy pudding. Many people placed plastic wrap on their dessert dishes to avoid this layer, but Mister Boomer and his siblings left the glass dishes open so the chocolatey skin would form on top.

Somewhere around 1965, Jell-O brand Whip ‘n Chill was brought to the American public. It became an instant hit with Mister Boomer’s sister. The mousse-like dessert was easy to make and had a tasty chocolate flavor. Mister Boomer enjoyed an occasional cup himself, but whether it was the additional cost of this premium brand or lack of interest on the part of his parents, Whip ‘n Chill remained an occasional treat.

By the late-60s, Mister Boomer’s mother went back to part-time employment since her children were all in high school. With it, the desire for dessert waned and the family rarely ate dessert, except on holidays.

What family dessert memories are conjured up for you, boomers?