Our Bombshelter in…The Twilight Zone

twilight zoneIf the words, Bomb Shelter, or Twilight Zone don’t make a lot sense to you, you’re not going to understand this article.  Sorry.   You’re just…too young.  Go and play your Miley Cyrus album and leave us alone.  If you’re still curious, pour yourself a cup of something (preferably strong) and make yourself comfortable.

At the beginning of each episode a tight-lipped Rod Serling would take a puff from his cigarette and describe in deadly earnest, another tiny pocket of humanity,or inhumanity in the shadowy land, known as The Twilight Zone.   And, for friends of mine, new and old,there always comes a moment when one of you will sit back and say in equally dead earnest, “Henry, how did get sooo weird?” You are about to see.

duck and coverDuck and Cover:  For me, it all started around 1960, when our schools taught us that during a nuclear war, when the brilliant flash appears from the atomic blast: don’t look at it because it’ll blind you.  Second: duck under your little wooden desk and cover your face from the shock-blast that’s about to flatten your entire school.

 Well…for a variety of reasons, that always seemed a bit problematic.  Unfortunately…my dad was a writer and did articles on all kinds of cool (and horrible) stuff for national magazines.  Around our kitchen table, I learned at a tender age that  the most effective way to use nukes is to explode them about 50,000 feet in the air!  That way, your entire state can be crispy-fried within moments.  In our house, we had a Geiger counter.  I even took it to school.  It was yellow, heavy, and when you turned it on it’d click ominously…more ominously if you had a wristwatch with a radium dial.   And, of course, I’d explain to the class about all those advantages of nukes exploding at high altitudes.

Cronkite, Huntley, and Brinkley:  On the news things got bad and things got worse.  Chet Huntley, Dave Brinkley and Walter Cronkite became perpetually grim and the subject of radiation-poisoning and bomb shelters became the in-thing to talk about.

That was when, barely a teenager then, I asked my mom if we couldn’t at least make some preparation…just in case.  We lived in an historic 150-year-old field-stone house.  In some spots the walls were three-feet-thick.  Seemed viable and Mom, being Mom, gave me a thumbs-up.   I dragged sleeping bags and blankets into the cellar, along with canned food, flashlights, bought extra batteries, bottled water, a radio, my .22 Remington, boots, gloves…the usual bomb shelter stash. I chose the most fortified spot in the house, behind the furnace where it was toasty-warm, and dry.

But…believe me, up until this precise point Rod Serling had not yet entered stage-left.  These were the sixties, and this was just normal garden-variety insanity.

bulldozingMy dad, (only now with ole Rod following invisibly behind to watch) clomped down to the cellar to inspect the small but tidy little bomb shelter I’d created for the family.  He looked around and then clomped back upstairs, having said essentially nothing.  Days went by.  I forgot about the whole thing.  But then one morning a huge truck towing a bulldozer pulled into our upper field.  (We lived in farm country…Jersey farm country to be accurate, though these days that sounds like an oxymoron.)

The Orange Volcano:  For reasons unknown, I even remember the guy’s name.  Stan Dabrowski, stuck a stogie in his cheek, fired-up the dozer and began chugging around in the upper field, back and forth, up and down…for days.  I watched in fascination as he dug the deepest hole I had ever seen…two-stories deep, but then…with all that soil which, by the way is the toughest, thickest, orangey-ist Jersey clay you ever saw, he then began mounding all that extra dirt around the hole to make it even deeper.  A small weird orange volcano was springing-up in our upper field.

Neighbors:  We lived on a quiet country road.  John Deeres chugged by on a regular basis and very soon, the more curious ones began pulling into our driveway in a very neighborly way.  They’d climb out of the car or off their tractor and say,  “Hey, Frank.  What’cha doin’?”  …..I’m building a bombshelter.  “Why so deep?”  ….It’s gonna be two-stories.  Nervous laughter would ensue, but eventually the conversation always drifted to:  “Say, Frank…me and the wife…ya think ya might have room for two more?”  ….Sorry, Joe.  There’s just room enough for my family.  And then it always got ugly…sometimes really ugly.  Much posturing.  “Ya know, Frank, I got a 12 gauge at home.”  Yeah…and I’ve got an M-16.

the fingerThe Finger:  Shortly afterwards, when cars trundled by, tractors chugged, as they went by, they looked over and gave us the finger.  I can’t blame them.  If the tables were turned, I’d probably have been doing the same thing.  Arlene at the A&P no longer chit-chatted with my mom.  She just glared and chewed her gum.

Construction began:  The hole was a perfect Jersey-Clay-Orange with a temporary trail to the bottom.  The slab was poured, and then reinforced cinder block, up to the second level, where another slab was poured, more cinder blocks…….only this time, as the masons got toward the top…right at shoulder height, they left blank holes about every six feet or so, with the reinforcing bars exposed pillboxthere were now a total of twelve gun-slits with bars.  On the inside, twelve heavy steel plates that could be slid shut…just in case.  My dad had essentially built a two-story (deep) huge Nazi pill-box.  My mother would peer out the kitchen window and just sigh.

Still keeping Rod Serling in mind?  Good, because here is where it gets even weirder.  My dad, who was bright in some things, but not so much in others, then orchestrated even more genius.  What if it rained?  Water might seep in at the lower levels soooo… he had the exterior of the bottom level tarred to keep the water out.  Then………he had Stan drag in about fifty tons of sand to fill up the hole…with six inches of topsoil on top so Mom could plant some geraniums to soften the look.

Just before Stan was to back-fill, Mom asked: “What about breathing?” Phew… Dad sent away for a big heavy hand-crank blower.  If someone cranked for ten minutes every hour…we just might survive…extraneous details to be discussed later.  Shelves were built and stocked with months worth of cans of all shapes and sizes.  Boxes of Rice-a-Roni, cornflakes, batteries, pillows, pencils.  Pencils?  Shotguns, pistols and rifles appeared. Then boxes upon boxes of ammo, Dad’s M-16 and candles.

SHOW and TELL:  Mom had steered clear of the whole thing and the subject was not discussed at the dinner table. But then one day, Dad declared that it was ready for Mom’s inspection.  Dad had cleverly left an 18″ square hole in the side of the top level only…remember the roof to this thing only stuck up about 18″ or so.  In order to climb in you had to grab hold of two metal pipes and then swing-in, upside-down through the small rectangular hole, while at the same time, feeling  around with your feet for the step ladder that was propped up inside.  (Make sure you don’t knock over the step ladder.)

Mom was…buxom, sturdily built and never swore.  I remember her face, lying on the ground, spitting dirt out of her mouth and trying to fit through that hole while feeling around for the ladder.  Words were uttered…  Finally…finally she made it into the top level which was utter darkness except for the twelve barred gun-slits.  But then…there was the second 18″ hole in the floor so she could get to the second level.  More feeling around for another step ladder, followed by out-and-out swearing.  Once we were all in the bottom of the shelter and peering around in the darkness, it smelled of wet concrete and the beginning of mildew setting in.  All the cans, everything had a layer of condensation, as if it had just rained.  A dehumidifier was lowered in.  Mom was ushered out (never to return by the way).

A thought occurred to me, though it just never seemed like there was a good time to ask my dad.  What do we do when we have to go to the bathroom?

twilight zone 1Is there a God?  Well, if you change that to “Is there a God with a really good sense of humor?”  The answer just might be, “Hell, yes!”   Everything was…okay, I suppose.  Not wanting the project to end, Dad had slowly moved just all kinds of stuff up to the bomb shelter. Long orange extension cords fed down into the bowels of the place…to provide some kind of lighting and keep that dehumidifier going.

But then one day…the rains came.  It rained five days in a row…heavy, heavy rain.  When it was all over, Dad trundled up to the bomb shelter to see how well the fifty tons of sand had performed.  I went with him.  Top floor?  Not too bad.  Lower level?  Well…  The splash gave it all away. Dad slipped on the third rung of the ladder but was not hurt at all….not when you fall into three feet of water!  The Jersey Clay had worked as a perfect clay bowl.  The sand?  It helped too, conducting all the water in the upper field into the lower level.  We now had the first underground swimming pool in Morris County, N.J.  Except for the guns and ammo, everything was left there…forever after.

rusty cansWithin a week the labels had slid off all the cans.  Within a month, they had turned a pretty rust color.  Thankfully, soon after, it was discovered that with the advent of what were now mega-powered thermo-nuclear hydrogen bombs, the whole thing was rendered moot, and we didn’t have to do duck-and-cover anymore.  At this point, it would be appropriate as Rod Serling used to do, for him to walk back on-camera, take a drag on his ciggie, and say, “An average family, in an average community, hidden in a field beside a tiny road…in the Twilight Zone.”


P.S.  For the astute, you will notice that the image of the shelter isn’t accurate.  It’s just a regular old pillbox.  Reason:  No one in our family, or anyone for that matter actually took a picture of our own pillbox.  When the place was finally sold, it was described as a place for growing mushrooms…and then the subject was changed.

6 Responses to "Our Bombshelter in…The Twilight Zone"

  1. Richard Rex says:

    Curiously, in the UK we never went in for the classroom drill of ducking under desks, etc., which is ironic considering we were a helluva lot nearer to the source of megatons than you. Maybe it’s because we were a bit more pragmatic about the whole deal, believing that no amount of fortification would help you come the day. We did so some “nuclear preparedness” stuff in the RAF, but only in afternoon lectures, so you just know how serious they were about it.

    Richard R.

  2. Eric Wasser says:

    My dad followed a similar arc as yours only, he bought a huge cylindrical tank (converted septic?) and buried it in the ground. You climbed in with a ladder from the top. Not good. Everything went to mildew within a month.

    Eric W.

  3. Marc Verona says:

    Yes, things are MUCH better now. Not worrying about mushroom clouds so much as little itty-bitty drones and helicopters and mechanical dragonflies that buzz into your house and take pix…or leave a bit of anthrax. Yeah, much better now.

    Marc V.

  4. Maria D'Onario says:

    How funny! I love the mental image of stocking the bomb shelter with canned goods and camping out on a cement floor. Sounds great! Your poor mom…she must have been a saint. If I got saddled with a left-over bomb shelter, what would I do with it? I’d convert it into an outdoor dance floor and serve atomic drinks and dance the night away under the stars.
    Maria D.

  5. Jim Tayoun says:

    So well done and humorous with a telling message!
    Editor Jim Tayoun (City Paper, Philadelphia, PA)

  6. Richard Barth says:

    My first instinct is to call you up and meet at a local pub and go down memory lane on our experiences in this nutty era.

    Much as you say, it all went away but I have no recollection of when/how. But I do still have clear memories of the under-the-desk routine and even going to our own basement. We didn’t have some of your accouterments, but there always was a pantry down there stashed with a ton of canned food.


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