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.

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.

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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