The end of World War II in August 1945 signaled the end of one epic conflict but also the beginning of another: the Cold War, which "touched the most familiar and remote areas of Florida," as historian Gary Mormino writes in his social history of our state, "Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams."
The 1950s and early 1960s are often depicted in pop culture only as a "Happy Days" time when bobby-soxers in poodle skirts and dungarees danced to "Rock Around the Clock."
But some postwar pop songs included lines such as: "A mushroom cloud hangs over my dreams. It haunts my future and threatens my schemes."
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And if your taste runs to country or gospel, you may know the Louvin Brothers' 1952 classic that begins, "Are you ready for the great atomic power? Will you rise and meet your Savior in the air?"
Under a cloud
We lived, then, under the shadow of the Bomb — the atomic-powered means to the end of the world. On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union shocked the U.S. with proof that it too had the Bomb, and "suddenly the world had two ideologically opposed countries with the capability of unleashing unprecedented devastation upon each other," Matt Novak writes on his blog, Paleofuture. "The campaign to mobilize average Americans by normalizing the discussion of collective death (even with children) was under way."
Good citizens rallied to the call of public-service ads like one that began, "Hi! This is Tony Bennett! Make sure you're prepared if a nuclear attack ever comes!" Other ads touted water packaged in cans that declared themselves "Impervious to Nuclear Fallout."
Cross hairs of Cold War
Because of the many military installations in Florida and its proximity to Cuba, our state sat in the cross hairs of the Cold War, most dramatically during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
Floridians busied ourselves building bomb shelters and designing school civil-defense drills.
As I remember it, my parents and grandparents didn't embrace my school's evacuation plans. If the mushroom-cloud crisis came, I was told not to get on the buses or cars that authorities hoped would carry school children to safety. Instead, I was to walk to my grandparents' house, near the school, and our family would at least be together.
Dog tags for kids?
Even more bizarre than escape by carpool was the early Cold War practice of issuing metal dog tags to schoolchildren. I'm almost certain I remember getting some in Orange County — I'm not sure when.
I had no idea of their real purpose — to identify bodies after an attack. I just vaguely knew that my dad had dog tags in World War II and somehow by association thought they were cool. Daddy still had his dog tags, and now I'd have some, too.
Looking back on this from adulthood, for a time, I thought I might have hallucinated about the tags, but my friend Sherry Meadows Lewis found her set from elementary school, also issued in Orange County. She remembers practicing evacuations, in cars rather than buses, and doing "duck and cover" drills.
Children were also issued dog tags elsewhere in the early 1950s, in school districts in cities that were considered likely targets of attack. Online, I found a memoir by a woman who grew up in New York City. "I treasure my military-style dog tag that the New York City Board of Education issued in 1953 or 1954 when I was a student in kindergarten or first grade at P.S. 11 in Woodside, Queens," Laura Graff wrote (see conelrad.com).
Graff adds that she, too, had no idea what the tags really meant. Unlike my friend Sherry, I no longer have my childhood dog tags, but wish I did. I can't think of a more tangible example of a time when postwar prosperity mixed with Cold War fear, and Floridians contemplated "that great atomic power."