This all started because my little sister got married. Again. My little sister.

Last summer my little sister got married in Las Vegas. Nearly the whole famdamily was there, with attendees ranging in age from 8 to 80, and aside from my 8-year-old nephew, I was the only one in attendance without a date. Everyone felt sorry for my sister’s spinster sister (me, keep up). I think. I don’t know why else they would have agreed to attend the Atomic Testing Museum with me.

Now at this point, I hadn’t yet been infected with Nuclear Fever and only wanted to visit the museum because it was weird. I would have just as likely dragged them to Barney Smith’s Toilet Seat Art Museum or Grampa [sic] Jerry’s Clown Museum. Just kidding. Clowns are creepy.


As we pulled into the Atomic Testing Museum’s parking lot, I was quite surprised by the temporaryish nature of the sign greeting visitors. It was one of those giant plastic banners most commonly sighted at county fairs and after work concert series. Despite my spinster-immunity, I began to envision my family’s revolt at the excursion I’d planned. I tend to have a much higher level for awesome in museums, roadside attractions and the like than the rest. In their book, wacky but legitimate museum, “okay.” Weird dude’s stuffed nutria rats dressed as Civil War soldiers reenacting the Battle of Vicksburg in his backyard, “not okay,” even though we all know that this would probably be the most amazing exhibit of all time.

My fears were squelched as we walked into the lobby. This was indeed a permanent and substantial museum; it even has some affiliation with The Smithsonian Institute. The lobby is bookended by a reading room on the left, and a shiny stainless steel Wackenhut security booth to the right, which is part of the exhibit (atomic testing sites are generally heavily guarded) and the admission center. At the guard station we tallied our AAA memberships and senior and student discounts, and were given, get this—wristbands instead of tickets! I would imagine that the museum issues wristbands because it is part of the larger Desert Research Institute complex, but I really want to believe it is because the ATM is as cool as any posh club on The Strip.

The U-shaped to the main museum was flanked on either side by great pieces of atomic age memorabilia. At this point, I was honestly so overwhelmed by all of the nerdy goodness, that I don’t really have a clear sense of order to the exhibit. I’m sure it’s there, my brain was just on overload. Some of the things I remember seeing in this part of the museum were atomic-themed barware, toys, books, literally anything you can think of with that atomic age stamp upon it. There was also a re-created office from Mercury, Nevada, which for those of you not in the know, was the “town” created to support the atomic testing activities at the Nevada National Security Site. It had a bowling alley, cafeteria, schools, office Christmas parties, all of it.1

Just past the Mercury mock-up, was a display on the wall listing each of the 1021 nuclear detonations that occurred at the Nevada National Security Site. Each of the names was printed in letters approximately a half inch in height. Just seeing all of the names listed like this really made me realize the scale of the testing that went on in the Nevada Desert. The list of names reads like 500 or so CAPTCHAS:

  • Wasp
  • Zucchini
  • Wineskin
  • Shave
  • Scissors
  • Concentration
  • Rushmore
  • Muenster

In the list of names, I spotted, Apple II. Do you think this is where Steve Jobs got the name for his generation-shaping computer? Puts a whole new spin on things, doesn’t it?

Falling hard for this stuff already, I was probably moving at less than half the pace of the group. While the rest of the family watched an atomic blast reenactment in the Ground Zero Theater, I was stopped dead in my tracks, mesmerized by the mannequins in the fallout shelter.

The ATM had a mannequin nuclear family hunkered-down (I didn’t know mannequins could do that either) in a mock-up of a cinderblock basement fallout shelter. The display was an amalgam of several setups used in different atomic tests. The stated goal of most of these tests was to test the resiliency of different space age fabrics — your –ester, –yon and –lon families in general — the melty stuff. Instead of testing, say a swatch of fabric, like a normal person would do, these scientists went whole hog, testing them while the creepiest, most Stepford-looking mannequins of the nineteen-sixties were wearing them.

The museum’s display was like seeing Henry, Better and little Eugene awaiting the bomb while dressed for dinner; I guess Sally and Bobby were left to fend for themselves. Or maybe this was one of the times Dad dropped-off the kids at the curb and sped off, never making sure that they actually made it to the door. Also in the fallout shelter was a three-gallon drum of “drinking” water (fresh!) and a cabinet television playing Duck and Cover on repeat. If you aren’t familiar with Duck and Cover it is an animated film that taught an entire generation of children to associate nuclear warfare with turtles. There is also a poster-sized blow-up of a typical page from the Yearbook of the Damned. More on that in a bit.

The Betty mannequin wore a gorgeous royal blue shirtdress, matching heels and pearls (it is before 6 pm, after all) because everyone knows that the dress code for the fallout shelter is at least smart casual. I assume the dress was made from Rayon and the shoes from Satinex. (I made-up that fabric name.) Henry wore a smart set of slacks with knife-sharp creases, that thanks to the unnatural makeup of the fabric, are sure to look spiffy even after the apocalypse. He completed his “dinner” outfit with a poly-blend button-down shirt and a sport jacket. Eugene, however, wore what looked to be a cotton T-shirt and overalls from the Ernie and Bert line. I guess we’re giving the toddler a pass on the smart casual thing.

The museum wisely placed the visitor above the fallout shelter, driving home the point that this sucker was underground. The shelter was also surrounded by a sort of guardrail because no one wants to take a tumble into a fallout shelter, I suppose. Balanced in a permanent sort of way, was a large board book containing before and after blast images of our Stepford mannequin friends wearing all sorts of fabulous atomic age fashions, all from J.C. Penney. The images were arranged on the page like a yearbook, with the before and after pictures grouped together. Each set of images included a description of the clothing, as well as any damage caused by the thermonuclear explosion. It looked like the Yearbook of the Damned. The most chilling thing about the annual was the lack of empathetic language. A common entry went something like this:

Rayon shirt, frayed at left seam. Two and one half buttons missing. Pants, poly-blend, general wear, overall good condition. Jacket, leather, scuffed only. Ear partially severed. Left leg wrenched from torso at hip. Left arm, missing.

I wondered why, through a cruel twist of fate, this description writing was not my job? Granted, this vacancy was filled several decades ago, but I would have rocked it. Second, I realize that the supposed aim of the tests was to test the integrity of the fabrics, not the mannequins, but the very fact that they looked like humans was a little unsettling. I spent enough time talking to the WWII veteran/museum volunteer working in this area that I suspect I made him very uncomfortable. Because I was at the museum with my family (they were getting bored), and mainly because my eight-year-old nephew had had the crap scared out of him in the Ground Zero Theater (on hindsight, it probably was not the best idea to have him witness an atomic blast that was at least as real as Star Tours), I could not satiate my growing infatuation with the mannequins. Upon arriving back at the hotel I took my first deep dive into the world of the atomic test mannequins.

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Most of the mannequin testing, using ones like those in the display and board book, occurred on mannequins in Survival City2. Survival City was a purpose-built typical suburban American neighborhood with buildings, cars and utilities. Most of the houses looked strikingly similar to the Cleaver family’s colonial. But instead of picket fences and a tree-lined street, these houses were smack in the middle of the bleak Nevada salt flats. Also striking was the lack of porches, plants and pink flamingos that generally make a house a home.

From what I can tell, test mannequins were either field-hand mannequins or house mannequins. The field-hand mannequins were strapped to metal posts at measured distances from ground zero, out in perdition without protection. House mannequins were set-up in realistic tableaus straight out of Mad Men in the simulated suburbia of Survival City.

The house mannequins got to hangout in typical suburban homes of the day, complete with fully stocked pantries, loveseats, fireplaces and all of the other trappings of early 60’s America. I’ve stared for hours at images of the mannequin tests and these houses (what?), and I can’t escape the chilled, fake feeling they’ve left with me. The before blast pictures remind me of Banquet TV dinners: everything is cold and kept exactly in its place. The potatoes look kind of like mashed potatoes, but creaminess is just off. The Salisbury steak is too well formed to be tasty. It’s the nuclear generation’s version of Sunday dinner. It’s just not quite right.

I think this is why I like the after blast pictures better. Sure, the microwave has done a number on our frozen dinner, but at least they’re no longer frozen. Something has clearly happened in these images. Granted it’s something horrible, but at least there is no longer that sterile stillness of the before blast shots.

The house mannequins were arranged in realistic formations. In one particular test, father and children mannequins are chatting and playing in the living room in front of the hearth. Junior, again in what is apparently the mannequin child uniform of striped T-shirt and overalls, is balanced on the arm of a sofa. A pair of couples is sitting around a fully set, minus food and silverware3, dinner table, chatting the night away. You can almost hear their non-existent conversation. And last but not least, we have the spinster aunt upstairs, ready for what will prove to be a wild night in. I’m actually a bit surprised that her bed isn’t flanked by four or five cat mannequins, since the scientists seemed to be so spot-on with everything else. Ethel, as I’ll call our spinster friend, is decked out in a modest polyester nightgown straight-out of Laura Petrie’s closet, laying alone in her single bed. While wearing shoes.

Ethel is the mannequin I most identify with. Because you’re supposed to identify with single lady mannequins staged for an atomic test, right?

So how do the fake people fare after the blasts? I’m sorry, J.C. Penney, how did the space age fabrics fare? Actually everyone looks better than you’d expect. But maybe that’s just because there isn’t any blood, because mannequins don’t bleed. Everyone is injured of course. It seems that glassware and windows did a number on pretty much everyone. All of the mannequins have spots of bare plaster, which I’m taking to mean an abrasion. Maybe the lesson here is that everyone should be using Texasware when dining in the face of a nuclear threat. Actually, Texasware would probably just melt, as I know my dishwasher has been the endgame of a couple of plates. The atomic age was pretty melty it seems. On top of the surface wounds, there are joints wrenched from sockets, the uncle mannequin sitting in the easy chair looks severely burned, and all of the child mannequins present in the before shots are missing from the afters. Granted this could be due to the camera angle, but bastion of positivity that I am, I think this is because they were horrifically injured. Blown to smithereens if you will. Or maybe they were all raptured away to meet mannequin Jesus immediately before the blast.

Remember, while all of the cool, pair-bonded mannequins were enjoying dinner and drinks downstairs, Aunt Ethel was tucked-away in her spinster bed. Even though the window frames are literally blown from the walls, Aunt Ethel looks relatively unharmed. Granted she’s missing her crisp white sheet, so now she’s immodestly flaunting that prim and proper negligee in front of the world.4 And her shoes. She’s still wearing her damn shoes. Shoes flying-off is like the first rule of traumatic death, so I guess she’s still alive. Spinsters abide.

Our field-hand friends strapped to the posts in the insistent sun, which I imagine would have done a number on the mannequins (and fabric) sans thermonuclear explosion, didn’t fare quite so well. In one particular test, the mannequins were lined-up in some avant-garde Pinocchio firing squad a mile or so from the blast site. After the blast, most of the mannequins were missing their hands at the very least. And several looked like the barbequed Barbie in that Soundgarden video. Others were bent into odd angles. Think Gumby mannequins. One poor mannequin actually had the shadow of her hand burned into the fabric of her pants. It looks like those sun prints we made at summer camp as kids, except this camp is run by Dr. Strangelove.

The field-hand mannequins were dressed in essentially the same garb as the house mannequins, with the exception of the young lady swaddled in a white bed sheet. Like Aunt Ethel, this mannequin survived with the most minor injuries, as white reflects the heat of the bomb. And I’m assuming she’s a spinster. The mannequins wearing full-on dark clothing, were mostly no longer recognizable as fake humans. Many of them reminded me of those body casts from Pompeii seen in the pages of National Geographic. So basically, frat boys and the ancient Greeks had it right; wear togas.

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My family finally managed to pull me out of the exhibit and back out into the lobby. Crankiness had infected almost everyone. As we started for the door, I realized there was a whole rotating exhibit space just off the lobby. The Atomic Pop exhibit was on display during our trip. I managed to convince everyone to wander through it. It was probably bringing-up a picture of my cat, Nathaniel Pawthorne, on my iPhone or adjusting my sensible underwear to drum-up some more spinster pity. And man am I glad I did.

This part of the museum essentially showcased Las Vegas and environs during the early sixties, at the height of the atomic age. Everything was amazing. Remember our mannequin family hunkered down in the mock fallout shelter? And how I was only able to see the after effects through pictures in the Yearbook of the Damned? THEY HAD AN AFTER-BLAST MANNEQUIN IN THE EXHIBIT.

The after-blast mannequin on display was strapped to a metal pole, similar to the field-hand mannequins in the pictures, though I don’t know if this was an actual pole used in the test. And I honestly don’t know if this mannequin was a house mannequin or a field mannequin, though from the looks of her I would say a house mannequin.

So what did she look like? Let’s pretend I work for J.C. Penney in their Apocalypse Assessment Unit, or whatever they call it. First, her before picture description probably went something like this:

Fashionably styled ash blond hair, chin length. Pretty face with blue eyes, and formal makeup. Bisque complexion. Pale blue shirt dress, with a small floral pattern. Rayon fabric. Matching shoes and hat. Pearl necklace and post earrings.

Then after the blast, this:

Poly-blend dress, moderate wear. Three buttons missing. Left leg missing at knee. Right leg missing at hip. Left arm wrenched from body, and found several inches away. Hair, disheveled. Minor abrasions covering the body. Eyes shattered.

Yes. Her eyes are shattered. I assume that mannequin eyeballs were made from glass during this era and it looks like hers were shattered and then fused back together. Have you ever seen lightning glass, made when lightning strikes sand during a storm, fusing the sand together into otherworldly glass sculpture? Well these are the closest things I’ve ever seen to that. It was horrifying to think about the power it took to do this to her eyes, but it was also unbelievably beautiful. The closest thing I’ve ever seen to them is the way that the light bounces off of the artificial lenses in my dad’s clear blue eyes when the light hits them just right. Except my dad’s eyes are real. Except for the lens. And not shattered. I have never seen light refracted in the way that the shattered/fused mannequin eyes did in any other way.

The Atomic Pop exhibit guided us past the shattered mannequin through several pop culture exhibits and finally to an interactive section that I assume was setup for children. Now, I’m a touchy feely person. And I also have a really strong morbid streak. The goal of the exhibit, I guess, was to get children to express their feelings about the exhibit they’d just seen. Drawing to relieve traumatic stress is a pretty common tool. Now, I’m an asshole. And I like to draw. So, I drew this picture to represent my visit to the Atomic Testing Museum.

I almost went to art school.

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1 Don’t worry. I’ve got much more to say about Mercury in later pieces. I know you’re absolutely dying to hear more.

2 Again with the “survive.” Were the scientists trying to be ironic?

3 I have yet to find a good reason for food and silverware to be missing from these images. The best theory I’ve come up with is that food and beverages were tested in separate tests (they even tasted the after blast beer!) so didn’t feel that it was necessary to test it here. And it would surely make a mess. I’m not going to lie though; I would definitely like to see some images of thermonuclear-exploded food.

4 Aunt Ethel’s sheet, interestingly, is the reason she made it through the blast fairly unscathed. The white sheet reflected the heat of the blast, and actually did a rather good job of protecting her.