Growing up with the bomb – part I

In this week that commemorates the 62nd anniversary of the use of atomic weapons against the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, we turn this column over to Bainbridge historian Jerry Elfendahl for a two-part essay entitled, “Hi-Yo Plutonium – Away!”

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At the end of World War II, there were no TV sets in our neighborhood. On rainy evenings, we kids listened to radio. I’d pull back the rug in front of the speaker, spread a flattened paper grocery or laundry bag upon the wooden floor and draw with crayons while listening to “The Lone Ranger” and his trusted companion, Tonto. The stories always had a moral.

The radio was “modern,” an RCA art deco console covered with mahogany veneer. In addtion to AM stations, it had several international short-wave bands, important during the war as grown-ups tracked events overseas. A built-in magazine rack held LIFE magazines that weekly provided images of the horrible conflicts. The radio sat beside Dad’s favorite chair – soft, deeply padded, comfortable. I snuggled into it and tuned in voices and messages from far away lands. Once, after everyone had gone to bed, I sneaked downstairs and curled up in the chair. I was found asleep, illuminated by the glow of the radio’s dial, as crackling sounds of Morse code filled the darkness and my dreams.

Early in the war, everyone had to put black curtains over their windows at night so no light shown outside. People feared that light could guide enemy bomber pilots. It was scary, I guess, though I didn’t understand the fuss. Mom assured us toddlers, “Don’t worry. All will be fine.” After the war, the “William Tell Overture” on KOMO-AM continued to announce the weekly adventures of the Masked Law Man and his friendly Indian companion. They were sponsored by Cheerios breakfast cereal. My brother and I ate them by the ton. They helped transform Radio Flyer wagons into Wells Fargo stagecoaches, and mops and brooms into white stallions named “Silver” and old paints named “Scout.”

“Hi-yo Silver, away!”

Cheerios often had prizes for Lone Ranger’s radioland posse – serious items, no Cracker Jacks toys. No ranger could be without them. For a cereal box top and dime, you could receive a hollow “Silver Bullet” like ones used by the Lone Ranger in which to hide messages. Or for 15 cents, your own “Secret Decoder Badge” could help decipher weekly dispatches from the masked man himself! For a time, cereal boxes came with printed building cut-outs of a frontier town – banks, saloons, schools, churches, general store, livery stable and sheriff’s office. The Lone Ranger was training a generation of architects, story tellers, moral citizens – and spies.

One night, the announcer could hardly contain himself. In a high-pitched voice, he proclaimed, “Rangers, nothing like this has ever before been offered. For 35 cents and only three Cheerios box tops, the Lone Ranger will personally send you something very special – the Official Lone Ranger Atomic Bomb Ring!”

Wow! It came with a secret compartment known only to other Rangers for hiding top-secret messages! And that wasn’t all. It was made of “a new ‘miracle’ substance that is revolutionizing the world… plastic!” “Plastic! Oh, double wow!” “Just wait and see, Rangers. You’ll love it. The Lone Ranger has one himself!”

Well, that was it. We rented ourselves out to do extra house and garden chores, sold popcorn and lemonade on street corners and robbed piggy banks. The 35 cents was a snap! The box tops were another matter. We gorged on Cheerios’ miniature doughnuts of oats and wheat, little lifesavers floating on pasteurized seas of creamy Dairy Milk electronically squeezed from the biggest udders ever seen on a mammal, pumped into sterilzed bottles and delivered to the door in clanking metal carriers by milkmen whose trucks rolled out before the sun came up. “Mooooo!”

“Whoa, Silver. Whoa, big fella. Tonto, look over yonder …”

Science was doing wonders. We saw it in LIFE. One post-war issue showed folks in bathing suits frolicking on manicured lawns of an Atlantic coastal resort while a biplane sprayed them with a wonderful, new, heavenly cloud of health: DDT. Mom bought a DDT bomb for the one-room cabin we rented that summer, rolling the hissing, fogging canister across the floor before we entered, “so it would be safe!”

“Kemo sabe, this cereal give you plenty energy.”

“That’s right, Tonto, Cheerios are good…and good for you.”

East of the mountains, some radio rangers ate Cheerios with radioactive iodine in the milk; that came from the cows; who ate the grass; that grew from the soil, rain and fallout; that lay downwind of the Hanford Nuclear Facility and real atomic bombs that “Uncle Sam” built – including ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

A secret compartment held that truth for years.

Saturday: the ring arrives, and the moral of the story.