It is the Buck Rogers Atomic Pistol and Atomic Goggles that really catch your eye.
They are symbols and glimpses of a childhood spent amid the constant threat of an atomic bomb.
The items are just two among more than 70 artifacts in a new traveling exhibit called “Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow: Living With the Atomic Bomb” that opened Sunday at the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum. The exhibit runs through Aug. 11.
“Anyone who grew up in that era was acutely aware of the atomic bomb,” said Eric Cale, director of the museum. “Everyone knew someone who had a bomb shelter or where they would go in case the worst came to pass.”
Indeed, from 1945 through 1965, Americans were encouraged to make provisions and plan for a bomb attack.
Baby boomer Wichitans might recall the 18 Titan II missiles that were within a 45-mile radius of McConnell Air Force Base from 1960 to 1987 and which were part of the 381st Strategic Missile Wing. The 10-story missiles could be launched in a minute and arrive in Moscow 20 minutes later.
“The nuclear threat was an important part of our local history,” Cale said. “It was a much bigger threat than a tornado would have been. You can deal with tornadoes, to a point. The atomic bomb was apocalyptic. And Wichita was very high up on the strike list.”
The exhibit includes signs for bomb shelters, a pamphlet on facts about fallout shelters and books with titles such as “How to Survive an Atomic Bomb” and “Your Family’s Survival Plan.”
“As far as tangible evidence of that period, there is not much left to see,” Cale said of that time when an atomic threat loomed large in Americans’ lives – at work, home, school and play. “When we think of the Victorian period, there are plenty of Victorian houses to look at. But the Cold War and the nuclear threat now seem like a distant memory. But at one time, they were at the forefront of everyone’s thinking.”
The atomic bomb threat began in earnest on Aug. 6, 1945, when an atomic bomb was dropped by an American B-29 on Hiroshima, Japan. On Aug. 9, another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.
The bombs effectively ended World War II but ushered in the Atomic Age, with government and civic-minded Americans remaining ever vigilant against the threat of atomic war. Public bomb shelters were built in churches and schools – and in homes where residents were wealthy enough to afford them.
“It was a matter of self-awareness and what’s shaped our thinking through the years,” Cale said. “It’s what affected our parents and grandparents, and when you look at that part of history, it puts things into perspective.”
There is canned drinking water amid the pamphlets and books. There are toys such as a U.S. Army train carrying an atomic reactor and atomic kites. Then there’s a quote from Mrs. Elise E. Beiler, a teacher from Indian Springs, Nev., who in 1952 said: “The first graders … learned to spell ‘atom’ and ‘bomb’ before they learned Mother.”