Blasts From the Past

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

Never mind that the two Air Force bases and several defense plants scattered across the Valley almost assured whatever was left of Phoenix, post-blast, would be the new South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Nuclear war--threat to humanity or inconvenient nuisance? In the early Sixties, you could play it both ways. In grade schools, "duck 'n' cover" drills sent kids diving under desks while singing along with an animated civil defense turtle. On The Twilight Zone, party guests, startled by word of attack, battled one another to get into a fallout shelter only to discover that--oops!--it was all a false alarm. And across the land, the abundant civil defense literature was filled with Heloiselike helpful hints--like the one advising citizens to shield themselves from deadly radiation by crawling under a car that they've filled with dirt ("You can always sweep it out").

It's no wonder people are now eager to experience a bit of nuclear-war nostalgia, particularly something as goofy as crawling into an underground crypt for a few minutes.

One of the directors of The Atomic Cafe, the acclaimed 1982 "collage movie" made up of clips from government-produced nuclear-war propaganda, has a theory on why fallout shelters have evolved from objects of perceived necessity to the morbidly humorous artifacts that they've recently become.

"We are in less danger now of having World War III than at any time since 1949, when the Russians exploded their atomic bomb," says Jayne Loader, who has become a sort of historian of Cold War culture. "So as the threat of nuclear holocaust dwindles away to practically nothing, people start to relax. They are free to laugh at the A-bomb.

"Younger people, who never experienced atomic anxiety, see the whole World War III thing as totally ridiculous," says Loader, who's also created a CD-ROM titled Public Shelter. "They cannot believe that once upon a time, people thought they could survive--and even win--an atomic war."

For Americans of a certain age, "fallout shelters definitely have a cachet," says Valley real estate agent Scott Jarson. Specializing in "architecturally unusual" homes from the Fifties and early Sixties, Jarson has over the past few years sold a handful of homes equipped with fallout shelters, primarily in older upper-income neighborhoods.

While the shelters rarely affect the appraised value of a house one way or another, Jarson points out that you can't put a price tag on their value as conversation pieces.

"Some of them can still be used for storage; others can't," he says. "But the minute someone finds out you've got a shelter on the property, they want to see it, believe me."

Like Cheri Stalmann, other Valley homeowners whose properties harbor old fallout shelters find it impossible to believe that people seriously thought they could tough it out for two weeks in the underground digs.

Describing the roomy, 400-square-foot concrete shelter beneath the patio of his northwest Phoenix home as a "heat sink," architect Richard Fairbourn says, "In the summer, it's horrible down there, just miserable."

Built by the original owner at the same time as the rest of the house, the spacious, fluorescent-lighted basement could easily double as a rec room were it not for the unrelenting heat four months out of the year. "I really don't know how [the original owner] expected anyone to survive the temperature," says Fairbourn, who has used the space for storage since he bought the house a few years ago. "I'm not so sure it wouldn't have been better to be outside during the big one."

When Beverly and Lawrence George moved into their home, also in northeast Phoenix, one of the first things they did was cover up a backyard stairwell leading down into a concrete-block shelter. While quite similar to the structure buried in Cheri Stalmann's yard, the Georges' tiny shelter has slots in the walls to accommodate makeshift bunk beds during sleeping hours.

The mother of two small children, Beverly says, "If I had to spend two weeks with those kids down there, I think I'd rather run under the bomb. People joke that if there's ever an attack, they'll come over and join us. Then they take a look and say, 'Never mind--that's okay.'"

The 20-foot-long corrugated steel culvert buried in Dr. and Mrs. Hugh Hull's backyard is probably one of the very few fallout shelters still owned by the people who installed it. According to Eleanor Hull, the shelter was built because her husband was then serving on a civil defense committee and, like other board members, was expected to set a good example.

Hull would appear to be a font of info on contemporary Sixties attitudes toward fallout shelters.

Did the neighbors think the Hulls' building a shelter was nuts? Or did they make nice, hoping they'd be invited over when the big one fell? And did Hull ever try to envision what would happen if she and her family actually had to climb down into the earth?

For some reason, however, Eleanor Hull prefers not to answer many questions surrounding the large underground pipe that might have been her temporary post-holocaust home.

"It was all so long ago," says Hull, who is considerably chattier about the shelter's peacetime uses.

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