The fallout shelter down the street

4109623614_472d89beb1_b.jpgIt looks like any other 1950s-era split-level ranch-style home on the street I grew up on in west Redding (in far northern California). Until a few weeks ago I didn’t know it contained a relic of the Cold War — a bomb shelter.

Two neighbors, teachers at Shasta College, built it of concrete block in the basement. At one time it contained a long shelf with a collection of canned food, the home’s 80-something owner explained as she gave me a tour.

This was back in the early 1960s, during a particularly hot period of the Cold War. Khrushchev was testing Kennedy, our young president, in Berlin and Cuba, and at Manzanita Elementary we were practicing “duck and cover” and evacuation drills.

As usual, entrepreneurs emerged to capitalize on The Bomb scare. In response to a query on my blog, reader Charlie Schaupp remembered seeing backyard fallout shelters for sale at the state fair.

“It was just a large piece of galvanized pipe 8 feet wide and maybe 15 feet long. It had access on top with a manhole and access pipe about 3 feet wide. The one at the fair (had) two bunk beds, 2 chairs, a fold-down table and storage cabinets.”

History lesson

Remember those distinctive civil defense symbols indicating bomb shelters in public buildings?

Reader Bonnie Lampley recalled spending a night in the shelter below the Redding post office sometime in the early ’70s — the idea of her high school history teacher, a Mrs. McGowan.

The teacher felt “we should learn first-hand about nuclear war issues. We even ate the biscuit-type emergency food,” Lampley wrote. “I’m not sure how seriously we took the experience, but I remember it was dank and cold.”

Commenter “Joe” remembered an underground “bunker” at the Calaveras cement plant near Bridge Bay, stocked with “all manner of supplies from food to sanitary napkins. It was built in the very early ’60s.”

Futile exercise?

The Cold War dragged on and the nuclear cloud persisted and darkened from time to time, but home shelters never caught on in a big way. Even my neighbors failed to finish their concrete bunker.

Why? Perhaps it was because the whole exercise seemed futile. Had there been an all-out nuclear war between the United States and the USSR, those left living might have envied the dead. At least that was the conventional wisdom.

Over the years — from the mid-’60s to the end of the ’80s — I thought about nuclear war a lot, maybe too much. Cold War black humor like the movie “Dr. Strangelove” always left me cold. What was funny about Armageddon?

In the ’70s I read every 10,000-word piece on the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks the New Yorker published.

Nuclear paranoia

In early 1980, at a moment of dangerously strained relations with the Soviets (the Iran hostage crisis was dragging on and Carter had pulled the U.S. team out of the Olympics because of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan) I happened to be staying in a hut on a beach on the southwest coast of India, very far from newspapers and radios.

One night way out on the horizon of the Arabian Sea there were flashes of light like I’d never seen and I talked myself into believing that someone had dropped the Big One somewhere in the Middle East. Such was the state of my personal nuclear paranoia.

The fall of the Berlin Wall near the end of that decade brought a collective sigh of relief and, as it happened, naïve and premature talk of a “peace dividend.”

Not long ago I caught up with “Atomic Café,” a documentary that came out in the early ’80s. Basically it’s a bunch of Cold War-era U.S. government films about The Bomb and civil defense. I guess it was supposed to be funny, in the way old TV commercials for cigarettes are funny.

So long ago

There was footage of smiling Micronesians being moved off their island home so we could test a nuke. Of servicemen scrambling out of foxholes in the Nevada desert and running in the direction of a nuclear blast — wearing zero protective gear. Of proper “duck and cover” procedures if you happened to be riding on a bike or enjoying a picnic when The Bomb dropped. Of earnest 4-H girls talking about the preserved foods they made for the family fallout shelter.

It all left me feeling confused and conflicted. My takeaway emotion: Half my life had been spent in some sort of a strange dream, a dream that seems so long ago now and hard to explain to those who didn’t live through it.

It’s funny, though — at times I feel almost nostalgic for that MAD (as in mutually assured destruction) world.

The very insanity of nuclear war made the world’s leaders act rationally. Today’s apocalyptic-minded terrorists, should they ever get their hands on The Bomb, might not feel so constrained.

(Note: I wrote this column in 2011 for the local newspaper, the Redding Record Searchlight.)

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