A Look at Westchester's Nuclear Fallout Follies

Phil Reisman brings us to a time when fallout shelters were all the rage

Westchester is known for many “firsts,” but few are aware that the county seat of White Plains was the first city in America to get an official, government-issue fallout shelter sign. Ignorance of such a trivial fact is excusable.

Given the current spike in anxiety over imminent global obliteration, it seems appropriate to note this dubious distinction and to hark back to a less cynical age — a time when Americans actually believed (or hoped) they could survive a nuclear attack by hiding in a crude backyard dugout stocked with canned peaches, crackers and Spam.

In the late summer of 1961, almost a full year before the Cuban Missile Crisis, the federal government announced that White Plains was chosen, along with Baltimore and Washington, DC, as a “test city” for a program called the Atom Shelter Study. Architects were awarded contracts to design model fallout shelters that would accommodate 50 or more people.

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This was the height of the Cold War — a nervous time when the Soviets had accelerated their nuclear-testing program over the Arctic and boasted the development of a 100-megaton “super fire bomb” that, according to the New York Times, was powerful enough to scorch a path of ruin from New York City to Poughkeepsie. (For those of you too young to recall, the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, was an ill-tempered chap who stood 5’2” and wore cheap suits, and as such could be crudely considered the original “Little Rocket Man.”) Fallout shelters were the rage then.

In 1961, I was a first-grader at the Murray Avenue Elementary School in the town of Mamaroneck, where every kid was issued a special name tag. The tags were only worn during civil-defense drills, a fun event because you got out of class and were briefly reunited with your neighborhood friends, who like you, had no idea on earth that the brightly colored tags were for identifying  bodies.

Small and midsized newspapers in those days had a habit of creating Civil Defense Test editions, which, conceived in the spirit of public service, breathlessly reported imaginary nuclear attacks.

In Westchester, one localized masterpiece of mass destruction was headlined: “203,000 Killed As A-Bomb Hits Bronx; County Is Rushing Aid.”  Somehow left out of the apocalyptic “breaking-news” was the miracle story of how the editors could possibly produce a full newspaper with photos and sidebars when the entire region was supposedly blasted to smithereens.

Against this dark backdrop, a modest but nonetheless history-making ceremony was held on Oct. 3, 1961, outside the County Office building at 148 Martine Avenue in White Plains. Only 12 people attended the unveiling of what later was to become a ubiquitous symbol of atomic age kitsch: the aforementioned fallout shelter sign.  The sign included three equal-sized orange-yellow triangles touching point to point within a black circle placed above the words “Fallout Shelter.”

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Among the few who showed up was the man who created the fallout sign — Robert W. Blakeley from the Army Corps of Engineers. Blakeley died last year at the age of 95. Obituaries gave a lengthy account of his prototype design and how some 1.4 million copies were eventually distributed to public fallout shelters across the country.

Most of them have long been taken down, including the first sign in White Plains. Every now and then you may spot one nailed to a brick wall… rusty, faded, and forgotten. Some can be found on eBay.

But today the threat of nuclear war seems greater than ever, thanks largely to a reckless game of brinksmanship between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s bellicose dictator Kim Jong-un.

Speaking of Kim, I have a dream. In the dream, he has an epiphany. From on high, a commanding voice tells him: “Hey, schmuck, you want to be respected? Forget about who has the bigger button. Here’s what you do: You put on your big-boy pants, get a decent haircut and announce that you are dismantling your atomic weapons program.”

Amazingly, Kim obeys.

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A great sigh of relief is heard across the land. Guam is saved! Kim is universally praised.

He is respected.

He is loved.

They give him the Nobel Peace Prize and a free trip to Disney World.

Well, like I said, it’s just a dream — a dream for an April fool.

The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think: email edit@westchestermagazine.com

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