In the midfifties, a civil defense short was created to address what can only be called the Tidiness Gap. Clearly, extensive human intel, backed up by U-2 flyover photos, was collected and analyzed before a single, inescapable conclusion was reached. And while no transcript exists of a presidential cabinet meeting in which this urgent matter was taken up, rumors and off-the-record comments seem to validate the following account:
Top General: So what are these Bolshevik bastards up to?
CIA Agent: General. Mr. President. I’m not going to soft-pedal this. I’m going to give it to you straight. They’re painting their houses.
CIA Agent: Not only that, they’re raking up the leaves in their yards.
A gasp from the back of the room.
The President (shaking his head): My god. It’s worse than we feared.
CIA Agent: Yes it is, sir. They’re also tidying up in their homes. Vacuuming. Dusting. Do you want me to go on?
The President: No. I’ve heard more than enough (long pause before rising and addressing the cabinet members). Gentlemen, this is unacceptable. We cannot allow a Tidiness Gap!
“The National Clean Up–Paint Up–Fix Up Bureau” (undoubtably a front organization for the CIA) snapped into action and produced The House in the Middle. The short begins with an aerial shot of Anytown, USA. “One American town looks like any other when you see it from an airplane window,” notes the narrator, leaving out the observation that once hydrogen bombs have been dropped, they all look pretty much the same–no matter where they’re viewed from. Since the short was intended for the outlying suburbs and towns not immediately in the kill zone of a ground zero explosion, the whole issue of large metropolitan areas being vaporized is discreetly sidestepped. The short also tends to focus on the atomic heat or “thermal wave” from a nuclear explosion and doesn’t have much to offer on the other side effects like . . . well, for one thing, radiation.
For the purposes of the short, Anytown, USA, is replicated by two one-story, one-room houses at the Nevada Proving Grounds. Despite the admittedly minimalistic representation, you’d be hard-pressed to single it out from any of hundreds of other towns in America—that is, if the two houses didn’t look like anomalous objects stranded in an deserted Daliesque landscape. A huge melting watch wouldn’t look out of place there.
Structure-wise, the two houses are identical. Inside, however, it’s a different story. House #1 is notable for its domestic clutter. Newspapers and magazines are left lying around, and tables are littered with junk. House #2, on the other hand, is spic-and-span. The trash has been thrown out and the tabletops cleared.
In a portentous tone of voice, the narrator enumerates the different steps in a nuclear explosion. First, there is the light flash! Then the thermal wave! Which is quickly followed by the blast wave! Surprisingly, both houses on the outskirts of the atomic detonation survive, but the clutter inside house #1 catches fire, and even though the structure survived the blast, it ends up burning to the ground.
After viewing this footage, it comes as something of a shock to realize that Hazel might have been America’s first line of defense against nuclear attack. Perhaps the Civil Defense Seal should have been replaced by the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
A final test is staged with three houses, and ultimately, what the short comes down to is a retelling of The Three Little Pigs—with the atom bomb in the role of the Big Bad Wolf, huffing and puffing and blowing the houses down. House #1 is an eyesore with leaves and trash in the yard. House #2 (the house in the middle) is painted and its yard uncluttered. House #3, however, is dilapidated and rundown.
To no one’s surprise, the house in the middle survives the nuclear explosion, but if the test had been an actual Russian sneak attack, not only would the owner of the house in the middle have lived to dust and mop another day, he would have had the extra civic satisfaction of helping dig mass graves for thousands of irradiated corpses. Still, when the fastidious homeowner considered the rubble on either side of his house, he could at lease take satisfaction in being alive.
“I tried to warn them,” he might say. Then the tumorous growth on his shoulder, which had appeared soon after the nuclear blast and increased in size until it became a second freakish head, would add, “Yes, you did. You and the National Clean Up–Paint Up–Fix Up Bureau.”
Here’s the helpful warning in its full-length glory, produced as it actually was by the friendly folks at the Paint, Varnish, and Lacquer Association. No doubt it was the hit of their convention that year (and what a rip-roaring event that had to be).