For today’s column, we’re playing armchair atomic tourist. I’m tired; it’s been a busy stretch for me, so instead of jetting-off to some exotic location like Washington or Nevada or Tennessee, we’re going to take a look at how Atomic Age wackiness as a whole, and a certain brand of bank vaults (stay with me), permeated the American culture of the late ’50s and early ’60s; particularly as seen through the lens of The Twilight Zone.
I am very much a fan of The Twilight Zone (OG series). In fact, two of the very best holidays of each and every year are the Fourth of July and New Year’s, not because of the fireworks generally associated with each of them, but because the SyFy channel usually airs a marathon of the show over the days surrounding the two holidays.
The original series aired from 1959 to 1964 and ended-up with a run of 156 episodes. Although essentially a science fiction series, its episodes were almost always a commentary on contemporary American society, as I suppose most good science fiction is anyway. Of the 156 episodes, approximately six are directly tied to the Atomic Age/Cold War Fever/General Nuclearness of the American landscape. The number of episodes loosely tied to the theme are almost innumerable.
You’ve seen the “Time Enough at Last” episode. It’s one of the earliest (eighth ever) and most widely viewed episodes. It’s very likely what you think of when you think of The Twilight Zone. This is the episode in which the bespectacled bookworm, Henry Bemis, moves through his dreary workaday existence as a bank teller and husband, completely unmoved by anything in his life except for reading. One day Bemis sneaks into the bank vault at lunchtime to read. The A-bomb falls. The world other than Bemis is destroyed. After lamenting his lot for a bit, Bemis has his ah-ha moment and realizes that he can now read ALL the books without his bitchy wife (she crossed out all of the text in his poetry book, psycho!) and his supervisor putting up a stink. So, he gathers all the books he plans to read in the foreseeable future, and piles them into monthly reading piles on the library steps, and then—whoops!—drops his Coke-bottle glasses.1 Without his glasses, he can’t so much as see a footnote.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that nuclear war isn’t THE point of this episode, and is merely used as a device to propel the story, but the very use of it in the first place does a damn good job of reflecting how immersed in the stuff the American people really were. And then there’s the vault.
Even though this is a work of fiction, a bank vault may very well be the best place to ride out the apocalypse. Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and basically obliterated the entire city aside from a few reinforced concrete buildings and… American bank vaults! The Teikou Bank had a few (the number varies from one to four) American-made bank vaults along side at least one Japanese-made bank vault. The American-made bank vaults were built by the Mosler Safe Company of Hamilton, Ohio, and the fact that the American-made bank vaults survived an American atomic blast on a Japanese city, while the Japanese-made did not, didn’t escape the Mosler clan.
Within a few months of the bombings, Mosler came out with an advertisement proclaiming the awesomeness of their product in the face of the atomic bomb—too soon, ya think?! The advertisement was supposedly based on a letter written to the Mosler Company by a US soldier who happened to be surveying damage when he came across the American vaults standing nearly unscathed in the rubble. Now, this sounds fishy as all get out. First of all, why did this US serviceman pay enough attention to vaults to know where they were made? And didn’t he have better things to be doing?
So Mosler thought it prudent to run a series of advertisements noting the hardiness of their vaults even in the face of atomic war—America, Fuck Yeah! Local banks soon got on this batshit bandwagon proclaiming that their branch in this or that Midwestern small town used only Mosler vaults. Because in the face of an atomic attack, we want to make sure our coin collection makes it to the other side of the apocalypse unscathed. The push to protect belongings rather than lives is just stunning. Why not promote vaults as a place for people to ride out the atomic blast rather than protect your belongings, Mosler? And maybe that’s the very point this Twilight Zone episode was trying to make? I don’t know.
Mosler made a hardy vault. And the government had uses for such hardy things, and commissioned the company to build vaults capable of protecting documents and other valuables in the face of global-thermonuclear war. So, they built a vault and the government tested it’s fortitude. And I’ve seen it!
The Nevada Test Site has a Mosler vault, possibly more, but I only saw one, rusting away in the salt encrusted hellscape that is Frenchman Flat. I didn’t realize the vault’s significance while I was at the site, beyond a “hey that’s a bank vault. It didn’t fare too badly” sort of way, as our guide pointed out the vault along with the entrance to the giant underground parking garage/mass shelter and creepily bent railroad trestles.
This particular bank vault was exposed to the Priscilla2 test on June 24, 1957. Priscilla was supposed to test the effects of nuclear war on important documents and belongings. (Stuff more important than people.) You could definitely tell that this vault had seen some shit, what with the charred rebar (I didn’t even know that could happen!) and the exterior concrete chaffing away, but it—and I’m assuming the contents along with it—survived! Just like Henry Bemis!
There were other blast-riddled structures around, yes, but this one stood out in all of its Old West-gone-atomic glory (is this steampunk?). I mean, I’ve been to my share of ghost towns. And generally, you’ll see a bank vault and a jail, even if most of the rest of the town is gone due to fire, flood, time… whatever. The damage meted out by Mother Nature over the span of a couple of generations was inflicted on this particular vault in a blink of an eye. Crazy.
Anyway. The protect-your-valuables-from-atomic-bombs ad campaign inevitably became fodder for the writer/artist set of the Atomic Age. This is exemplified in Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead.” Not to get too English major-y on this poem, at its simplest the poem serves as Lowell’s reflection on the changes to the Boston of his childhood and a meditation on the Boston of the Civil War, and the changes to all sorts of things since then.
There are no statues for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling
over a Mosler Safe, the “Rock of Ages”
that survived the blast. Space is nearer. (53-57)
Lowell calls out the fact that though there are remembrances to the Civil War, particularly in the form of statues, in the city, but none commemorating WWII, save an advertisement for Mosler safes (again, highlighting the importance of the material) stuck in a window on Boylston street. Weird how we went from statues of actual people to advertisements for something that can protect material possessions at the end of the world.
The Twilight Zone, (and Lyn Venable who wrote the story on which the episode was based) Robert Lowell, and countless others took this damn atomic blast proof safe and created entire works of art around it, and I’m even writing about it nearly seventy years later. Why?
Well, I’ve thought about it a lot, actually, and the best I can come up with is that post-World War II America was all about consumerism. Conspicuous consumption was the name of the game—the more you had, the more American you were. It’s the American Dream. And where were you going to store your most precious belongings? In the safe deposit box at your local bank, which was hopefully housed in an atom bomb proof Mosler safe. Because, who cares if you survive the blast if you don’t have your bling and your house deeds to prove that before the blast you really were someone, picket fence and all? And it’s always been the role of the writer or the artist to knock down society a notch. The Twilight Zone does a great job of showing that, hey people can be saved in a Mosler safe too, but really, what good is it, if everyone else is gone and you break your glasses?
1 The folks at The Twilight Zone do a fantastic job foreshadowing the importance of his glasses with a shot of him ever so gently placing them on the back of a sofa while he reclines in the rubble of the once-city for a nap.
2 Okay. Let’s go further down the rabbit hole. Priscilla was likely named after a beautiful strumpet in Pahrump, Nevada, which is about 45 minutes from Mercury, the site of the test. Going even further, this desert whore idea served as an influence for the 1994 movie, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Or at least for the name. Told you I was good at connecting the dots.