Todd returns to his old home to see the bomb shelter
The one-story ranch house looks smaller than I remember. Perhaps that’s because the trees around it have grown larger. The white pine in the front yard that I used to climb as a boy now looms a dozen feet higher than the roof. The locust tree I helped my father plant fifty years ago is now almost as tall as the pine. The front lawn, which once felt so expansive, now looks hardly large enough for a game of tag.
The home’s current owner invites me in. The slate floor in the living room has been replaced with carpeting and the kitchen has been modernized. As we walk down the hall toward the back of the house, I am flooded with memories — the games my brother and I played, the fights, the chases, the nooks and crannies we hid in for hide-and-seek.
Todd and his brother, Leigh, in front of the construction
for the shelter.
At the back of the house, where the playroom once was, there is now a short hall and two smaller bedrooms. We go into the first bedroom — decorated in pink, a color virtually non-existent in the male-dominated home of my childhood — and there is a closet.
The owner opens the closet door and clears away some shoes and dolls from the carpeted floor. “Listen.” He raps the carpet with his knuckles, producing a dull, echoing clang. “We never had it removed.”
He means the metal trapdoor. He can’t show it to me without pulling up the carpet, but it evokes a memory just the same — of the years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the threat of nuclear war had diminished, and the trapdoor practically vanished under toys and balls and other sports equipment.
The owner tells me the trapdoor has been permanently sealed. No one will ever open it and climb down, as I did as a teenager to show my friends the shelter when they asked to see it. Instead there is an outside entrance to the shelter now, and, as the owner leads me out to the backyard, he asks me about the stories the neighbors told him when he and his family moved in twenty years ago.
The original construction plans.
Is it true that before he had the shelter built, my father had a twelve-foot fence erected around the property so that no one would be able to see? No, I tell him, that’s completely false. And not only that, but it makes no sense. Building such a fence would have only invited questions and scrutiny.
Was it true that building the shelter took every spare cent my family had, and as a result we had to forgo years of vacations, dinners out, and other leisure activities? While I was not privy to my family’s finances as a child, it’s doubtful. I recall that we vacationed on Cape Cod and skied in Vermont, and went out for dinners in Chinese and Italian restaurants.
Like the front, the backyard, feels smaller than I recall. Except for one large weeping willow, the trees I remember are gone. The entrance to the shelter is back here now — concrete steps leading to a subterranean wooden door. Before we descend, the owner tells me the story of having this entrance built: after inspecting the shelter from the inside, the contractor estimated that the job of digging the new outside entrance, breaking through the concrete wall, and installing the door would take no more than three or four days. At first the digging went quickly, but when the workers started to break through the cinder block concrete wall, they found something unexpected — an interior lining of quarter-inch thick iron plating.
A welder had to be brought in to cut through the iron with an acetylene torch, and when this was done, there was yet another surprise – on the other side of the iron plating was yet another wall of cinder blocks.
“Your father really wanted to protect you,” the owner says as he leads me down the entrance steps.
This is the shelter today. The new owners of the
house added the door. Originally, the only way in was
through a trapdoor above.
I wish I could say that once inside the shelter old, forgotten memories were unearthed, but almost everything down there is different now. Like the house and yards, the shelter itself feels smaller than I recall. The bunks and wooden shelves of supplies are gone, replaced with metal file cabinets. The overhead water tank has been removed, and a dehumidifier hums in one corner. The steel ventilator still pokes out of the wall, but the crank is missing.
Holding a flashlight the owner leads me around the shield wall and into the narrow corridor beneath the trapdoor. The rungs in the wall are still there, though, like the door above them, they are [KA3] now shrouded in spider webs. The owner offers an unnecessary apology for the webs, saying he rarely comes down to the shelter anymore, and it has been many years since he’s looked on this side of the shield wall.
We leave the shelter and go around to the front of the house, where I thank him for allowing me to visit, and for taking the time to show me the shelter. Then I get back into my car, and leave.
I already know I won’t drive far. I pass a few houses and stop at the top of the hill for which the street is named. The hill seems shorter and less steep than I remember. Lining the street are the houses of my childhood friends and neighbors, a few unchanged, but others almost unrecognizable thanks to redesign and renovation. Here my thoughts are once again filled with the memories — of baseball and football games we played on this street, of the Good Humor Man’s ringing bells as he approached and how we’d all run home to beg our mothers for quarters for ice cream, of playing in piles of leaves, splashing in puddles, and building snowmen. Ours were truly innocent childhoods.
The trapdoor as seen from below.
People say that the era of post-World War Two American innocence died on November 22, 1963 with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But I wonder if perhaps that innocence began to fade earlier than that, with the Cold War nuclear arms race, the threat of mutually assured destruction, and the Cuban Missile crisis. Certainly that was the first time my friends and I became aware that there were countries in the world that wished us ill will. Even today it feels so strange to think that thousands of miles away, on the other sides of vast oceans, were people who wanted to destroy us. People we didn’t know, had never met, and had no reason to dislike.
Why is it that since the dawn of civilization we have persisted in following a pattern where mere handfuls of influential men manage to convince or force vast masses of peaceful people to fear and hate each other enough to go to war? Has the result ever been anything other than misery, death and destruction?
Fifty years have passed since that week in October of 1962 when the world came the closest it’s ever been
to complete annihilation. And yet, we are still at war.
Will we never learn.