Editor's note: This piece originally was published on Nov. 18, 2007, as part of David Harding's "Everyday History" column in The World-Herald.
The Cuban missile crisis in 1962 jangled the nerves of Americans everywhere.
Knowing that President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev each had a finger on the nuclear trigger scared people into action.
Civil defense authorities stashed food and water supplies in the basements of public buildings and designated them as fallout shelters in case of attack. Schoolchildren rehearsed the famously pointless "duck and cover" routine of diving under their desks for protection.
J. Gordon Roberts, the owner of Roberts Dairy in Omaha, opposed the very thought of nuclear war. It spooked him enough that he had a large fallout shelter built at his company's Elkhorn dairy farm in 1963.
He wanted to be ready in case of attack, and he was thinking about more than his family if the missiles were ever fired.
Roberts proposed an experiment to the Office of Civil Defense in Washington, a two-week test to see how dairy cattle and their human handlers would survive the likely living conditions after a nuclear attack. Roberts would provide the cattle and the shelter; the feds would conduct the study.
Two students from the University of Nebraska's Dairy Science Department would care for the cattle in the underground shelter during the test period.
What may have been the nation's first bovine fallout shelter went into test mode in August 1963 as an air raid siren pierced the afternoon.
Thirty dairy cows and one bull were herded into the reinforced concrete shelter by keepers and college students Ike Anderson of Genoa, Neb., and Dennis DeFrain of Fairbury, Neb. Up above, an engineering team from the University of Florida monitored heat, humidity and other conditions.
DeFrain is now retired in Arizona, but he hasn't forgotten his two weeks as part of a Cold War science experiment.
"Ike and I were friends. We both grew up on farms, and we had worked together at the ag college, " DeFrain said. "I think we were chosen for this project mostly because we were available. It was a way to help pay our way through college."
The cows and their handlers settled into a routine pretty quickly. Research had shown that radioactive harm from a nuclear blast diminishes after two days, so the cows were let out briefly for exercise each day after that.
While indoors, the students fed the cattle, spread straw around to limit the odors, monitored the animals' vital signs, and made diary entries every half-hour.
"Other than that, it was pretty boring, " DeFrain said.
They lived in a separate, cramped room with a bunk bed, a hot plate and a small table. They ate canned stew or spaghetti, pop, peanut butter and emergency crackers called "Nebraskits."
They read books and played cards. They listened to the radio until the battery died. They swatted a lot of flies.
A flock of press was also on hand, including NBC News. More than 600 news stories were printed nationwide, according to Omahan Larry McNichols, who coordinated the experiment for Roberts Dairy.
Roberts' Elkhorn farm was later sold and subdivided as the town grew around it. A local VFW group used the fallout shelter as its clubhouse, and for a decade it served as a bar called Barry's Underground.
The government came away from the experiment with a list of ideas for improving cow fallout shelters.
But the two students didn't tell all in their official reports. It turns out the experiment was tainted in a way that hasn't been revealed until now.
According to DeFrain, the students pined for regular showers even more than they missed milk. After the first week, they began to sneak out in the middle of the night and take quick showers at a nearby employee shelter.
The hidden lesson of this underground experiment? It's not the odor of cows that will do you in.
Want more of this? Check out Omaha.com/history for more stories from our city's fascinating past.