Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow
Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow highlights the civil defense preparations of Reading, Pennsylvania, a modest sized community in the southeastern corner of the Keystone state. The industrial nature of Reading and surrounding Berks County, as well as the local government's massive investment toward emergency preparedness, made the city ideal to place under a national microscope. Andre Baruch, a popular radio personality and play-by-play commentator for the Brooklyn Dodgers, provides narration. (1) He begins by tracing the communal spirit of America while the opening scenes depict acts of goodwill and
neighborliness including the sharing of a ride, a lawnmower, a rake, and bit of gossip over the clothesline. Looking at this attitude throughout history, it is suggested the nation was built upon the idea of working together, from trading posts, sewing bees, and roof raising parties to the wagon trains of the Oregon Trail. "The lone covered-wagon seldom made it!" Baruch's cheerful narrative is halted by footage of a mushroom cloud, which prompts a stern warning: America cannot hope to stop all enemy aircraft and recently developed ballistic missiles. To counter the threat of an enemy attack, a group effort is needed to organize an effective civil defense force. A brief tour of the Federal Civil Defense Administration headquarters in Battle Creek, Michigan, explains that while civil defense policy is organized at the national level, it is best implemented by city and county governments, as has been done in Reading.
Released in conjunction with National Civil Defense Week in September of 1956, Alert Today-Alive Tomorrow borrows its title from the slogan of Mr. Civil Defense, the cartoon mascot of the Federal Civil Defense Administration. Mrs. Marguerite Osman, chairwoman of the Berks County Civil Defense is among the first of many local residents to be featured. Mrs. Osman had previously traveled to Nevada to witness atomic tests first hand. She would later tour Pennsylvania giving talks before screenings of the film.(2) Extra emphasis is placed on the training each branch of civil defense receives. Among the many groups in training are the Reading Pistol Club who
will serve as auxiliary police, and several rescue groups comprised solely of women. The pride of the Reading civil defense forces, however, is the early warning system. If an attack takes place, a box in the headquarters lights up and triggers alarms in fire stations, hospitals, schools and religious institutions. Communication after an attack has also been carefully assessed and the recruitment of local women to work call centers at the phone company is the main solution. In case there are no phones, local ham radio operators will are utilized. Motorcycle clubs act as couriers and escorts for medical personnel. In a creative throwback to the previous century, it is noted that officials keep lists of private horse owners with the hope that animals may be pressed into service as messengers. Local jockeys and riders are cataloged as well.
Of course, all of this preparation would be moot if there were not institutions in place to take on the wounded that would result from an attack. The finale of the film documents the transportation and assembly of a pre-packaged disaster hospital. Meticulously crated into several semi-truck trailers, a fully functioning and self-contained 250 bed hospital is driven to a prearranged location miles outside of the city limits. In the basement of the Berks County Home, three medical professionals and thirty volunteers, including some from the previously mentioned motorcycle club, can have the hospital completely set up in four hours. Electric generators provide power for an x-
ray station, operating room lights, steam baths to disinfect bandages and surgical instruments, and other necessities. Evenly spaced cots give the comforting appearance of an orderly affair. The entire demonstration is carefully watched by observers who use a stopwatch to calculate the timing of the volunteers. Concluding, Baruch returns to his opening narration, only to have his words of wisdom again halted by a mushroom cloud. "You've seen it here as direct evidence of how any American community can easily . . . there's the interruption again, the kind that's always with us in an uneasy world."
The Life Atomic
In 2011, the Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles, located in Boyertown, Pennsylvania (just outside Reading), began hosting an exhibit called The Life Atomic. Featuring plenty of civil defense memorabilia and displays centered on growing up at the height of the Cold War, the centerpiece of the exhibit was the restored REO Civil Defense Rescue vehicle that was used in Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow. Here is a link with photos of the exhibit and the REO truck.
Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow may be viewed in its entirety, HERE.
1. Burt A. Folkart. "Andre Barcuh; Your Hit Parade Announcer. Los Angeles Times, Sept. 17, 1991.
2. Rehrersburg Lions Hear Talk By CD Chairman. Lebanon Daily News. December 8, 1956. 11.