Saturday, June 07, 2008

A throwback

When I saw this in a friend's yard here in Newton, MA, I thought it was an opening to a cistern, or maybe to an aqueduct passing through. But no. The picture is the cover of a fallout shelter built in the 1950s. (The current owners keep it securely locked.) As young children of that era, we would practice hiding under our desks in school during air raid drills, being told that to do so would protect us from the atomic bombs that would rain on us from the Communist enemies of America who lived in the dark society of the USSR. It was all part of a fearful time that was manipulated by political leaders and corporations.

The cover of this bomb shelter is made out of lead to protect you from radioactivity -- since the government would promptly announce through the CONELRAD alert system that intercontinental ballistic missiles were en route so you would have enough time to get into the shelter. A nearby vent shaft brings in outside air -- no doubt through a filter that was sold as incredibly effective in sifting out any contaminants. Electricity was provided by, ahem, a line from your house -- as though the supply would stay remarkably reliable through the bombardment of the Boston metropolitan are. You would store lots of water and food in anticipation of your time in the shelter. Not exactly clear what you would do with solid waste, food waste, and human waste while you were locked up in your concrete bunker for several weeks. And what exactly would you come out to see after your hibernation?

As noted in this article:

The image of the nuclear mushroom cloud hovered above the thoughts of American citizens throughout the fifties, and in to the early sixties. Propagandists would capitalize on this, by creating an immediate need in the consumer mind for a bomb shelter. The idea was planted that a bomb shelter would protect you from the horrible effects of a nuclear attack, assuming you were able to construct such a shelter. Though the idea seems ludicrous now, since the effects of a nuclear attack are fully known, people were caught in the trap that the propagandist had set.

By 1960, The Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization, estimated that a million families had constructed their own private bomb shelters. Shelters ranged in price from $1,795-$3,895, and of course many came in kits that make assembly much easier. Advertisements were found in magazines throughout the country. Many companies were capitalizing on Americans fear. Life Magazine in 1955, included a feature ad for a H-Bomb Hideaway, and the sale price was only $3000. Bob Rutske, a Michigan Sheriff at the time, remarked that "To build a home today without a shelter, would be like leaving out a bathroom twenty years ago." The amount of shelters that were built in that era, show how well propaganda had penetrated the American mind.

How gullible were we then? How gullible are we still?


Anonymous said...

I know this friend of yours and have seen this bomb shelter. Legend in that neighborhood: the shelter connects to a series of underground tunnels that take you to the basements of other homes in the area. Wishful thinking again...that the homes would even be there should the shelter be needed. I've also been told that the people who built the shelter were driven from the neighborhood by the anger of their neighbors for constructing it. That said, other than the shelter, your friend has a lovely yard.

Unknown said...

The equivalent of the bomb shelter in today's world is the Panic Room. When you look at really high end real estate, you often see a panic room as a selling point, just as bomb shelters were in the 50's. I guess this proves that some people want to see evil around every corner.

Ari Herzog said...

I was raised in the 1970s and can only relate to films and books to understand what life was like in the age of the nuclear bomb.

Have you seen the quirky film, Blast from the Past?

The film stars Brendan Fraser who is living in a nuclear fallout shelter with his parents Christopher Walken and Sissy Spacek. After 35 years, when food supplies run low, Fraser ventures out into the "real world" and learns nuclear war never occurred but a freak accident caused the family to go underground. He falls in love with Alicia Silverstone and the two persuade the parents that outside life is okay.

Your question causes the association of nuclear bombs and fallout shelters to nuclear power plant radiation and potassium iodide pills.

Anonymous said...

One of the creepier structures in the Boston area is The Bunker, what is now MEMA headquarters off Rte. 9 in Framingham. Now, it's mainly used as a place for governors to look reassuring as they discuss the Nor'easter pounding the coastline, but it was originally built as a giant fallout shelter, from the multi-ton lead-lined door, to the zigzagging corridor from the door down to the bunkerr (because alpha rays don't bend) to the two-bed morgue. I always wondered what they'd have done after they locked the door and then they heard somebody knocking.

Anonymous said...

Early one sunny morning in mid-may, 1980, I was puttering around my family's trailer house. Mom and Dad were still in bed, sleeping off my aunt's birthday bash from the night before. I was setting up to take a radio outside, sit in a lawn chair, and listen to a Portland Trailblazers game broadcasting from the east coast.

I suddenly heard a muffled "WHUMP" sound, almost, but not quite like a sonic boom. I rushed outside in time to see a gray plume rising to the north, over the ridgeline and trees behind us. It leveled off into a mushroom cloud.

I went numb. Should I wake my family? Should I bother? How long until they hit nearby Portland?

I was 13 years old.

A neighbor must have had a radio on, and I heard the BEEEEEPPPPPPPP of the Emergency Broadcast System though the window. I turned on my radio in time to hear ... MT ST HELENS had just erupted catastrophically!

Such was the fear and terror of the cold war. A mushroom cloud could only mean one thing ... World War III.

Rita - Supporting Safer Healthcare said...


You and I must be "of an age" because I wrote about the "hiding under the school desk" memory myself a while back.

Our family never had a bomb shelter, and I remember being a little nervous about that. Although I just couldn't imagine all of us being crammed into such a small space and being very happy about it.

Interesting times, weren't they?

Unknown said...

I'm dating a "Bunkerite". Apparently it is a pretty sucky workspace with today's electronics overwhelming the cooling system, no sunlight (or any real connection to the outside world), sub-optimal layout, etc. However it does get used regularly - whenever there is a big civic event in the state, bad weather, stuff like that they go on alert.

The alternative to Mass's Bunker is what NYC did - put theirs next to WTC, on top of diesel tanks, with lousy access.

At least out in Framingham any Boston disaster is at some remove. The local (no longer rural) highways offer multiple access routes. There is plenty of room on-site for antennas, vehicles, even a shrubbery. And yeah, in case of emergency a Governor can go on TV and reassure everyone there is nothing to worry about - from a bunker! (Jane Swift's 'legacy' moment.)

Anonymous said...

I too was taught to hide under my desk in grade school.

My recollection of the times include heated discussions regarding the ethics of who to let in or exclude from one’s shelter. At least the shelters provided an opportunity to confront some of the ethical dilemmas of our society.

eeka said...

I'm quite a bit too young to have been around in bomb shelter days. We hid under the desks in school -- every time there was an earthquake.

(My coworkers here in Boston laugh at me every time there's a thud from construction or the elevator breaking or whatever and I dive under a table. The habit just does not die!)