A look at bygone days | Aug. 10, 2018

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Many of what came to be called the baby boom generation can recall helping Dad build a bomb shelter in the back yard, the duck-and-cover drills at school and the supplies mom stocked in a cupboard in case an atomic bomb did fall close by.

I remember neighbors who were arrested by the FBI and taken who-knows-where because they were thought to be Soviet spies. We never found out what happened to them or what the actual charges were, but everyone in the neighborhood wanted to distance themselves from them in case they too would be accused of espionage or worse yet of being a Communist.

I can’t forget the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, which happened when my dad was in Florida, and my mom was all alone with us kids. She ushered us into the hallway of our small home and showed us where she had stocked-piled water and supplies. Glued to the television, she told us if there was an attack, we should go to the hallway and close all the doors to keep out radiation. Everyone was in a panic, even though they were told a Cuban-launched missile probably couldn’t make it as far as Southern California.

Those that lived in Long Beach and Signal Hill may not have known, or didn’t want to admit, that Long Beach was one of the prime targets in case of a nuclear attack. In the harbor, there were the Navy base and shipyards, the nearby Seal Beach Naval Weapon’s station and the Los Alamitos Naval Air Base. There was also the Air Force base at the municipal airport and one of the nation’s largest aircraft companies, Douglas Aircraft, next door. Not to be overlooked were the oil wells on Signal Hill, which was a lifeline the Soviets would want destroyed since the wells supplied fuel to the military as well as civilians.

Then there were those flying-saucer reports that kept on coming, such as the one reported on Feb. 6, 1948, when a “squadron” of 15 silver discs was seen spinning at lightning speed over the oil derricks of Signal Hill. Witnesses at 4552 Lime Ave. described them as being about the size of a small plane, but with an internal glow. The observers watched as the flickering saucers moved from formation and then back into a pattern. Seconds later, they disappeared in the direction of the ocean. What were they? Where were they from? Were they of Russian origin? United States secret test flights? Or were they aliens from another planet looking in on us since we had now entered the Atomic Age?

Courtesy Claudine Burnett
The Red Scare, UFOs & Elvis: Long Beach Enters the Atomic Age is the fourth and final of a series of books written by the author.

Many of us who grew up at the beginning of the Atomic Age tried not to think that we might be the last generation to inhabit the Earth. One way we escaped that possible reality was by inventing our own style of music– rock ‘n’ roll. Elvis Presley, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones entered the scene. Here in Southern California, surf music got its start with the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean and Dick Dale and the Del Tones. Many Long Beach teens formed their own rock groups, such as the Pyramids, Illusions, Adrian and the Sunsets, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Aunt Dinah’s Quilting Party and the Saxtons.

Teen night clubs were the place to hang out, such as the Gay ‘90s at 2508 Palm Dr. in Signal Hill, but the most popular was the Cinnamon Cinder near Long Beach’s traffic circle.

On opening night, Dec. 6, 1962, 500 youngsters danced deliriously inside while 350 disappointed others lined up outside, unable to get in because the place was jammed. The Beach Boys were the opening act. The Twist was the rage at the time, and hundreds of young people twisted all night long. But fads come and they go, the Twist was replaced by the Stomp, followed by the Bounce, the Shuffle and Mashed Potato. On weekends the Cinder drew 600 to 800 dancers, most 18 to 20. Only 25 percent came as couples, the rest went “stag,” arriving in groups of two, three or four.

Hot rods were a national passion, certainly among 1950s and ‘60s teenagers, who conferred names to their cars and related to them much more closely than teens do today. Teens back then saved their money to buy a car and then kept adding to it– this week a new radiator, next week a muffler. In the end it seemed as though the cars had been nurtured scrap by scrap into existence. One of the key components of a hot rod was a radio, where songs such as the Beach Boys’ ode to cars “409” could be played. Teenagers cruised into A&W Root Beer stands where carhops served them on roller skates. Girls dressed in bobby socks and poodle skirts, while leather seemed to appeal to young males. Adding to the culture of the day was a new type of theater perfect for the hot-rod, teen set – the drive-in.

In Long Beach, the Circle Drive-In was the place to hang out. Opening on April 4, 1951, the new theater was hailed as the most modern of its type in the nation; it also had the largest screen of any drive-in in the country, measuring 70 feet by 46 feet. To make sure it remained a wholesome place to bring families, staff patrolled the parked cars looking for foggy windows and unobservable bodies, pounding on windows until couples rose for air.

Car clubs also became a “teen thing.” In Long Beach, the Associated Car Clubs of Long Beach, the first of its kind in the nation, was formed by nine local car groups in June 1951. Members realized they needed a responsible central organization that would have the approval of police and civic groups. By 1961 there were an estimated 1,500 such groups in Los Angeles/Orange counties, with an average membership of 15 to 20. But not all car clubs were “responsible” associations– some turned into gangs. Fights often ensued over the slightest issue, some resulting in murder.

These are just a few of the things I talk about in my latest book, The Red Scare, UFOs & Elvis: Long Beach Enters the Atomic Age. It’s the fourth and final of a series of books I wrote that began with Murderous Intent? covering the 1880s to 1920, followed by Prohibition Madness, which dealt with the 1920s and ‘30s, then came Fighting Fear, which talked about World War II.

If you would like to learn more about my most recent book, please visit my website, claudineburnettbooks.com/the-red-scare-ufos-elvis-long-beach-enters-the-atomic-age. In it you will find excerpts from the book. You can also check out the index to find names of those who claimed to have witnessed UFOs, built bomb shelters and more.

Burnett is a former Long Beach librarian who, during her 25 years of researching local history, has uncovered many forgotten stories about Southern California that she has published in nine books. She has degrees from UC Irvine, UCLA and Cal State Long Beach. For more information, visit claudineburnettbooks.com.