Blasts From the Past

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

Exactly how well her family would have fared if it'd ever been forced to take refuge in the underground bunker is questionable. Perhaps fearful of tempting fate, Hull says she never got around to stockpiling many of the supplies necessary to see her family through the two-week aftermath of a nuclear attack.

As the threat of Cold War cooled, pizza and Cokes--not canned goods and bottled water--turned out to be the sustenance of choice in the family's backyard burrow.

"When they were in high school, our kids used it for slumber parties all the time," Hull remembers. "We had eight bunks down there; they had a lot of fun with it."

But not too much fun--Hull instituted a house rule forcing the kids to keep the shelter door open at all times.

"That way we could keep tabs on them," she says, adding that the open-door policy also ensured that the teens received enough oxygen.

For many years, however, the door has been permanently closed. Seals inside the culvert began leaking, allowing irrigation to seep into the former party pad. "It's full of bugs and water," says Hull. "We need a big load of dirt to fill in the stairway, but that costs money."

Noting that most of the other committee members she's aware of have long since had their shelters filled in or removed, Hull says, "Ours is still there, though. We just ignore it."

Which is probably just as well. In the event of atomic attack, today's experts say Valley dwellers' best course of action would be evacuation out of the target area--not hunkering down either in home-built or community shelters, like those that were once set up in the basements of various public buildings around Phoenix.

"Unless you were in a blast-reinforced-type shelter, it wouldn't do any good to be in the basement of a building because it's going to all come down on top of you anyway," says Bob Spencer, director of Maricopa County Emergency Management Department. Instead, expect massive traffic jams when Phoenicians are directed to get the hell out of Dodge.

Interestingly, that's the exact opposite of what local civil defense experts were advising in a 1962 newspaper story: "If [Valley citizens] flee with attack near, we will let them go but will advise them they could be signing their own death warrants," explained a civil defense officer. "You cannot get away from radiation."

Although Spencer's organization (previously known as Maricopa County Civil Defense) still provides literature about building home fallout shelters--they haven't changed much--there's reportedly very little demand for those plans.

"Every once in a while," says Spencer, explaining that a few inquiries will trickle in, "when the news comes up with how there are still despots in the world with their finger on the button."

Way back when, the despot of the hour was Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, who briefly sent fallout-shelter sales skyrocketing by banging his shoe on a desk and shouting, "We will bury you!"

Staring at the concrete hole in her lawn, Cheri Stalmann sees an irony in that sentiment.

Laughing, she tells how she and her husband were having breakfast one morning when they noticed a young man out in the yard attempting to steal a bicycle. Although the would-be thief fled empty-handed when her husband hollered at him from the window, Stalmann says the pair joked about catching the thief and confining him in the fallout shelter until the cops came.

"Can you imagine how he would have freaked?" she asks. "As long as we've lived here, that's the only use I've ever been able to come up with for this thing."

And fortunately for Mr. Green, that's one more use than he ever found for it.

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