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It was a time of buoyant optimism in the United States. Less than a decade after the American industrial machine first roared to life in a bid to help vanquish the Axis forces in World War II, the baby boom was well underway. Though the spectre of an apocalyptic nuclear war with the Soviet Union loomed ever-present and the Korean War continued to drag on, the country was thriving. The middle class had expanded rapidly, thanks in part to the strength of domineering unions, and consumerism and conservatism came to dominate much of American life. Scientists Francis Crick and James D. Watson prepared to unveil the double-helix structure of DNA. The first production Corvette – a sleek white convertible with red interior and a black canvas top – rolled off the production line at the iconic General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan. The manufacturer’s 50 millionth car, a golden-hued 1955 Chevy Bel Aire Sport Coupe, would be produced at the same plant in November of the following year. In December, Marilyn Monroe’s nude figure would be immortalized in the first issue of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine.
The Cold War was never far from the surface, however. On the arid, sandy Yucca Flat in the eastern portion of the Nevada Test Site, the U.S. Military conducted a frenzied series of atomic bomb tests in a never-ending effort to keep a leg up on the Soviets in the developing nuclear arms race. In the predawn hours of June 4, a Convair B-36 Peacemaker rumbled down the runway at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico and took to the dark skies 40,000 feet above the test range. As the first Air Force plane capable of delivering any nuclear device in the military’s arsenal without modifying its bomb bays, the B-36 quickly became the go-to choice for delivering a nuclear payload. As the doors to one of the plane’s bomb bays eased open, a relatively small, 30-inch fission bomb released and plummeted toward earth. At approximately 1,500 feet, a brilliant white flash and a gigantic, churning fireball burst into the sky. The bomb, codenamed “Climax” and a part of the curiously named “Operation Upshot-Knothole” series, was the most powerful ever tested on United States soil at the time, releasing a staggering 61 kilotons of explosive energy. The blast could be seen from Los Angeles and felt more than 500 miles away in Oregon, where it reportedly rattled windows and knocked items off shelves.
And despite a relatively quiet start to the year, the weather had been making the news as well. Just before 4:30pm on May 11, one of the deadliest tornadoes in the nation’s history tore a path through the heart of Waco, Texas. The six-story R.T. Dennis furniture store collapsed under the violent force of the wind, crushing 32 people inside. The same story repeated as pedestrians scurried inside several other large downtown buildings to escape the pounding rain, only to be killed when the structures gave way. Still others were crushed while trying to escape in their vehicles. When the dust settled and the victims had finally been extracted from the massive piles of rubble, 114 people had lost their lives. Another 13 were killed further to the west when more than a dozen blocks on the north side of San Angelo were obliterated by an extremely intense tornado. Though no one could have known at the time, it was about to get much, much worse.