Gimme shelter

Nostalgia has always been a big business, and for the Baby Boomers the best-selling decades are the fifties and sixties.

Ah yes, the Glory Days!

Of course, looking back at our salad days always involves selective vision filtered through fully-tinted rose-colored glasses. The fact is if that period is examined with a gimlet eye, there’s a lot not to be yearned for. A partial sample: Segregation, lynchings, the McCarthy Era, peaceful protests with violent counter-protests, no real help for people with disabilities, and more.

Perhaps the real star of those years was the Cold War. It got its name because it involved all sorts of military threats and arms buildups between us and the USSR, but no actual wars. Apparently, hot proxy wars like Korea and Vietnam didn’t make the Cold War any “warmer.”

The Cold War’s Big Kahuna was nuclear weapons. Their threat was omnipresent but amazingly repressed. We knew they were there and could lay everyone and everything on God’s Green Earth to waste, but the threat never seemed immediate. I think that was because of a few things.

One, we’d never been invaded, so war on our own soil was vague and abstract. Two, we’d had air raid drills since kindergarten, which repeatedly reinforced the delusion that we could actually survive The Big One. And three, due to a World War II victory mentality, aided by a steady diet of war movies of Our Boys, God Love ‘Em mowing down our enemies du jour, we not only believed we were safe and protected – we were downright smug about it.

But all that smugness vanished once the Fabulous Fallout Fiasco hit the stage.

Fallout shelter fallout

It started with bomb shelters. These were areas in public buildings where you stood the best chance of surviving conventional bombing (or at least we were told it was the best chance). They were

designated by a standardized sign and were a quaint hangover from WWII, whose bombings were survivable … kinda sorta. As I recall, they were just the buildings’ basements and I think the Hotel Saranac and the Town Hall were labeled such.

Once nukes made conventional bombs look like kids’ toys, the government figured what we needed wasn’t bomb shelters, but fallout shelters. And to that end, overnight the bomb shelters became fallout shelters. In typical government fashion, all that changed was the sign. Those “shelters” couldn’t have withstood a nukie hit … or its aftermath. But no one noticed it — at least for a while.

At some point, the great minds who’d come up with the public fallout shelter plan did some math so simple even I could do it. And when they did, they found, no matter how they figured, fudged, or faked it, we had far more people than room in our shelters.

So what to do?

The great minds decided the answer to Mushroom Cloud Malaise was private fallout shelters, as in, “No home should be without one.”

Suddenly we became barraged with plans aplenty for how to survive a nuclear holocaust in the basement of our very own homes.

Thus a slew of pamphlets, plans and pubs rolled off the Government Printing Office presses. They showed how to equip your cellar so you and the fam could eat, sleep, pee and poop in perfect comfort for two weeks till things above ground had cooled off, literally, figuratively, and radiationally.

It was, of course, total bumpf. If you didn’t get atomized in the first strike and actually lived two weeks on your cans of Spam, Campbell’s soup and Chef Boyardee Spaghetti and Meatballs, then what?

I’ll tell ya what. Then you’d really be in the soup — and I don’t mean Campbell’s either. In an urban area, you’d be wandering in a contaminated moonscape looking to plunder a grocery store that hadn’t already been plundered. And good luck with that.

And if you were in My Home Town. Oh boy!

Well, you probably wouldn’t have to worry about bomb damage. Which I guess is the good news. What you would have to worry about, however, would be a small issue of how you were going to survive in a remote area that’s wholly dependent on importing damn near everything. So once the stores, fuel companies, and candy stores were depleted, then what? That depends on the time of year. Winter would probably easiest (and shortest) since you’d be booked on the Hypothermia Express before you knew it. As for surviving in the other seasons, you’d last longer … but not better.

Basically, what the government did with the home fallout shelter mishegas was take government paranoia and privatize it. Before, with the public shelters, useless though they were, we thought we’d be OK. We’d just show up with our jammies, blankets and teddy bears and we’d get through it all right.

But now that it was up to us,and no one else, the Pucker Factor increased a hundred-fold. We realized the horrors of trying to survive a massive nuke-out all by our little selves. It seemed like an impossible task because, as we should’ve known all along, it was.

Want to know how weird it got? I remember reading a Time magazine article about home fallout shelter ethics. THE question being asked was what should you do to help your less-prepared townsfolk? One of the “experts” weighing in on this was a minister from somewhere in the Midwest. Using his sage interpretation of The Good Book, he opined that it’d be perfectly acceptable to cap the crap out of poorly-stocked Good Neighbor Sam (and fam too, if they got any ideas) . Forget my rod and my staff — just give me some trusty 30-30’d and ten thousand rounds and I’ll dwell in my fallout shelter forever.

After the fallout shelter fears hit fever-pitch, the government resolved the situation in their usual enlightened fashion – they ignored it. Knowing the American collective memory can be measured in hours, they no longer harped on what we had to do in case of “it,” either in our basements or anywhere else. And true to form, Fallout Freakiness died a natural death: Within a very short time fallout shelters and post-nuclear holocaust survival seemed as far in the distant past as the Donner Pass Party (though less successful).

Saving the best for last

Today, if you mention fallout shelters, I’m sure most peeps my age would chuckle, while younger people would have no idea what you’re talking about. That’s how obscure the issue is…at least to us. But not to everyone – especially our national leaders, those great minds who cooked up the nuclear nuttiness in the first place.

Yep, in areas surrounding D.C. (and I’m sure in D.C. itself) there are huge impregnable underground complexes equipped to keep our politicians alive and well darn near forever after any cosmic catastrophe. Maybe a nuclear war isn’t in the cards. Instead, they’re worried about the collapse of our entire economic and social systems — something they’re doing their level best to cause.

Hey, no sweat — all they’d have to do is sit around in their shelters and wait it out. And you can bet they’d do in sultanic comfort. Plus there’s no doubt they wouldn’t do it alone; they’d have their families in there, too – spouses, children, concubines and/or cabana boys — and guards, lackeys, and servants galore.

But it makes sense, really. They run the country now; they’d run it then. But what they’d be running in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, is anyone’s guess.

I can think of only two things they’d do. One is to give themselves fat pay raises. The other is to have the last laugh. After all, it’s what they do now…and what they do best.


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