Blasts From the Past

Yesterday's nuclear family rooms are today's underground sensations

Nearly 30 years after "weird" Mr. Green moved away, people who live in Cheri Stalmann's Central Corridor neighborhood are still intrigued by the strange Cold War legacy he left in the backyard of the house where he once lived.

"It's really not much to see," says Stalmann almost apologetically as she leads a visitor across the patio of the 1950s Central Corridor tract home she and her husband bought several years ago. "Still, after they hear about it, everyone's got to see it for themself. Myself, I think it's just creepy."

At first glance, "it"--a large, weather-beaten doghouse--looks every bit as unremarkable as Stalmann claims. In fact, the most remarkable thing about the cobweb-enshrouded structure is that it appears that Stalmann's dog WeeGee has never set a paw in it.

On closer examination, it becomes clear that the little building was never really meant to be used as a doghouse in the first place. Instead, it was used to camouflage the entrance to a secret fallout shelter--something that becomes apparent when Stalmann flips the hinged structure over on its side, revealing the entrance to a subterranean chamber where Green and his family would have hidden in the event of a nuclear war.

Wait a minute--some people really thought they could escape atomic attack by hiding out in a hole under a doghouse?

Hard to believe as it may be for anyone who didn't live through the era, that was the plan back in 1961. It's a truly ludicrous notion today, but Stalmann's secondhand shelter never fails to spark spirited conversation among first-time visitors.

"You're sure you really want to go down there?" Stalmann asks a guest, brooming away spider webs that crisscross the entryway to the shelter. "It's really gross."

Nine wooden steps lead down into a steep shaft that reeks of mildew. At the bottom, this lightless claustrophobe's nightmare doubles back on itself, forming a low-ceilinged five-by-seven mausoleum made of concrete block. Dank, dark, humid--the plans for the stark concrete bunker might have been drawn up by Jeffrey Dahmer. By contrast, Anne Frank's attic hideaway must have looked like an Architectural Digest layout. Were Stalmann so inclined, she'd probably have little trouble leasing out the space to the local chapter of the Anne Rice fan club; the experience is probably as close as most people would want to get to being entombed alive.

As her ashen-faced visitor resurfaces into the sunlight, Stalmann shakes her head.

"Can you imagine anyone staying down there for more than a few minutes, let alone a few weeks?" she asks. "From everything we've heard, the guy who built it was pretty paranoid."

If Mr. Green was worried about the Red menace back in the early Sixties, he was not alone. Following White House advisories during the July 1961 Berlin crisis, untold numbers of jittery citizens across the nation prepped themselves for impending nuclear war by installing fallout shelters in their yards.

Atomic ants against the grasshoppers, Green and his family would be prepared when they heard the Conelrad alert. The high-pitched sirens screaming in their ears, they'd quickly file down into their backyard warrens. Then they'd latch the cover and try not to think about the screaming neighbors pounding on the door, vainly pleading for shelter.

Underground hideaways stocked with provisions--food, medicine, sanitary supplies, a Yahtzee game and even ammo--the shelters would provide sanctuary until, in theory at least, it was "safe" for postnuclear moles to emerge a mere two weeks after the blast to rebuild, repopulate and remodel the free world.

Yet now, on the 35th anniversary of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis--the last big nuclear scare--backyard bunkers like the one Green built look less like the salvation of man than they do apocalyptic kitsch. Grim curios of a time simultaneously more simple-minded and more complex, fallout shelters are now almost laughable pieces of history, an A-bomb adjunct to Sixties artifacts like Lava-Lites and lounge music.

Like swimming pools, backyard bomb shelters were something of a status symbol--even if you didn't exactly advertise that you had one. That's why no one has a clear picture of how many shelters were ever built. In Phoenix, where from 20 to 40 shelter-building permits a month were issued during mid-1961, civil defense directors guessed that many citizens were secretly erecting illegal hideaways so they didn't have to put up with neighbors and unwanted company when and if the time came.

Until that time, however, the nifty backyard cribs were a newspaper photo-op just waiting. The photo accompanying a 1961 Arizona Republic article about the new shelters being built around the state says it all. A smiling man in a sports coat ushers his wife and son (Dr. Seuss book in tow) into a coffinlike structure buried in their front yard. From the smiles on their faces, the beaming clan might as well be setting off on a two-week vacation in a brand-new car.

Similar naivete--and the fleeting nature of the fallout-shelter hysteria--is reflected in one of the 20 ads that appeared in the 1962 Phoenix Yellow Pages under FALLOUT SHELTERS, a listing that had virtually disappeared from the directory by the next year.

"Protect your family from blast [and] shockwave radiation," warned one soon-to-be-defunct contractor, exploiting the silver lining underneath the mushroom cloud. The ad is illustrated by a cutaway view of a family, complete with a pet kitten, sitting out a nuclear holocaust in spacious quarters--a homey tableau right out of a Holiday Inn brochure.

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