Connections: Cold War brought its own fallout
Posted: January 8, 2013
We had been in our new house in central Pennsylvania for just over a year in the fall of 1962 when my father began his largest construction project.
To this day, more than 50 years later, the fallout shelter in the basement that he built in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis is the most significant home alteration I can recall him ever single-handedly undertaking there.
Over the years, there have been kitchen and bathroom renovations, a sunroom conversion to a medical office suite, a new bedroom added in the attic, and the addition of large back porch.
All those were done by contractors at various times over five decades, but in 1962, there wasn’t any time to wait for help.
The fallout shelter is still there, its gray cinder blocks dark and gloomy in the dimly lit space. It is still an attraction when we take occasional visitors on tours of the old homestead.
My mother, now deceased, was the prodder and mastermind behind the operation. With four children from the ages of 2 to 9, she spurred my father to action. She had worked as a secretary at the Pentagon after World War II. She took government orders seriously.
For me, the 9-year-old, it was an exciting time. My dad, a physician, came home from work early for days in a row and, working from plans provided by Civil Defense officials, built a cement block shelter along the interior walls of one room in the basement that earlier had served as a workshop.
I remember him cementing the blocks into place, while chatting with us. I remember being fascinated with the framing of the wooden doorway to the cozy space, which seemed to me more like a playhouse than a symbol of danger.
The only scary thing was his explanation that, once we were inside, he’d block off the door with more cinder blocks, which were stacked inside.
I don’t recall much fear on my part, since I wasn’t told much except that the shelter would protect us from “fallout” from a bomb. I took his word for it that the shelter would absolutely work against those worrisome rays.
I was actually kind of looking forward to the excitement.
President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation on Oct. 22, 1962, in a televised speech, announcing the presence of offensive missile sites in Cuba. U.S. military forces went on high alert, and the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay was reinforced by Marines. The U.S. began a naval quarantine of the Cuban coastline.
I can only imagine the terror my parents felt.
On Oct. 25, Kennedy openly blamed Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev for the aggressive tactics in Cuba. On Oct. 28, after a very tense week, Khrushchev announced that he had agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba.
In Cold War terms, the two nations “stood down.” But, in my house, we didn’t.
We had a drill one Sunday afternoon during which all of us were herded into the shelter. We were encouraged to play board games quietly, which worked briefly.
Despite the fun of having a bunk, choosing baby doll pajamas and other “essentials” (like Barbie dolls) to bring and store there, the whole idea lost its glitter when I realized I’d be stuck in such close contact with my siblings for days.
After a couple of hours, when my parents couldn’t take the chaos any longer, we were released. That was the last of our “family time” in the shelter, though they kept it stocked with fresh water and canned goods for several years.
I think of all this when I see old films of terror-stricken public school children being instructed to climb under their desks.
We went to Catholic school, and all we did there was pray with the nuns for the “danger” to pass.
That — and the fallout shelter — seemed like reasonable enough precautions to me.