Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Bomb Shelter

The cold war and the Cuban Missile Crisis had a significant impact on your life. One result that you’ve previously mentioned was that your father felt it was important to teach you, at the age of 12, to drive, even though he failed to explain exactly where you were supposed to drive to in the event of a nuclear war.

(That's your brother and you. The cinderblocks of the bomb shelter are visible in the background.)

And there were other ramifications. One was that your father decided to build a bomb shelter. This came at a time when your parents were adding a third bedroom and a playroom to the back of the house, so adding a cinder block and concrete underground room with a large metal trapdoor (in the floor of a closet) was not as far fetched as it might have otherwise seemed.

Once completed, the bomb shelter was the size of a bedroom. It had a large water tank, a hand-cranked ventilation system, bunk beds, and several weeks’ worth of canned foods. You cannot now recall what the bathroom facilities were, but certainly they’d been arranged for.

The creation of this bomb shelter gave you a great deal to feel anxious about, especially given the possibility that your father might be at work in New York City when the Russians attacked, and that you, as the oldest son, would therefore be somewhat in charge of your family’s survival. In no particular order some of your concerns were:

A) The sirens warning that a nuclear attack had begun. Your father told you that there would be a certain siren blast if a nuclear war started. Unfortunately, you cannot recall him explaining what that blast would sound like or how it would differ from the frequent siren blasts which summoned the local volunteer firemen to normal incendiary events. Hence, there were many moments when you heard the sirens and wondered if this was IT.

B) The devices for measuring radiation. Should the war come, you would have to spend several weeks in the shelter before it was deemed safe to emerge. To deem it safe to emerge would require testing the air and ground with several small metal and glass instruments that you were never quite sure how to operate.

C) Getting home in time. You attended school a little more than a mile away, where, now and then, the whole school practiced huddling under desks in case of a nuclear attack (Giving the phrase “bomb scare” an entirely different meaning. You also seem to have a vague recollection that for a while it was suggested that, as an alternative to huddling under your desk, you go to your locker and stick your face inside it, but this could be wholly and totally a figment of your imagination).

So this presented two problems. First, you would have to get out of school without being caught by a teacher and sent back to your desk (or locker), and second, you would have to sprint home in under fifteen minutes (you’re surprised your father didn’t make you go out for long-distance running).

D) The neighbor problem. Perhaps the most disquieting aspect of the bomb shelter was that all the neighbors knew about it. So suppose the war began and you got your mom and brother safely inside, and then Stecklers knocked? Or the Ostrowers? Or the Kings? Would you let them in or keep them out, thus sending them to almost certain death? How many of your neighbors would you let in? How many could you let in before it became too crowded and endangered the lives of all involved?

This was a lot of responsibility for a 12 year old.

It was around this time that you considered writing a letter to the dreaded Russian leader, Nikta Khrushchev, requesting that if he did decide to go to war, he would do it on a weekend afternoon, after your father got home from tennis.

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