Maybe you had to be there to understand, but as a Cold War kid, I took some pride in the fact that Seattle would likely be one of the first places wiped off the map in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack.
We were instilled with fear in those days. In 1959, nearly 70 percent of American adults believed that nuclear war was imminent. The Berlin and the Cuban Missile crises in the early 1960s scared the bejabbers out of me. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev pounded the table with his shoe and promised to "bury" us, in radioactive rubble we assumed. He appeared on the cover of Time with a mushroom cloud behind his head. Lifemagazine, which introduced many of us to the outside world, featured stories on how to survive fallout from an atomic attack.
Every Wednesday at noon, a Rainier Valley air raid siren wailed mournfully (you could set your clock by it) and periodically we kids were schooled in "duck and cover" techniques. Occasionally we were herded into the John Muir Elementary's basement for bomb drills. We were told that if the commies dropped the bomb on us while we were walking home from school, we were to lie face down in the gutter to keep the atomic flash from melting our eyeballs. See Jane run! See Dick run! See Sally's eyes melt! Go, Spot, Go!
Still, at least Seattle could take a kind of fatalistic, swaggering pride in being on the front lines of this new kind of war. We were important, a prime target. Cuban missiles weren't a problem, but we were in reach of Soviet ones. And Puget Sound was vital to the national defense. Seattle was the gateway to the Space Age, we had Boeing, we had the Bremerton Naval Shipyards, McChord Air Base, Fort Lewis. We had Sen. Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson. If World War III was going to break out, it would be here. Sarah Palin might worry about the Russkies being on her doorstep, but what's to nuke in Alaska? Caribou?
Some of us wanted extra protection. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy helped boost the bomb shelter craze, which turned into a kind of atomic Y2K panic as people scrambled to figure out whether a nuclear war was survivable, and if so, whose job was it to make sure at least some of us did survive, even if as radioactive mutants. Everyone needed a game plan for the Apocalypse. The great mid-century amenity to a modern middle-class home became an underground rec room for waiting out Armageddon. Amid those recipes and gardening tips in Sunset magazine, the bible of Western living, were photo spreads of fallout shelters. Tip for the patio lifestyle: the only thing you want barbecued is a steak, not your whole family.
At one point in the early '60s, my parents considered moving to another part of Mount Baker and I remember we toured a fancy house on Cascadia. It was more than my folks could afford, but I begged them to buy it because it came with a fully stocked bomb shelter. I almost considered it child abuse that we didn't have one. My mom said our basement would have to do. But the only thing my dad ever stocked up on was beer. How many cans of Rainier would you need for a holocaust? A lot.
In his history of fallout shelters in American, One Nation Underground (New York University Press, 2001), historian Kenneth Rose does a good job of laying out the debates for and against bomb shelters, which of course became very problematic. If everyone should have one, who'd pay for it? Would only the rich have bomb shelters? Where would the poor go, or would we be better off without them? Were there other strategies that could improve nuclear survivability? Some suggested limits on urban densities to make us less easy to kill Hiroshima-style. The suburbs were the place to escape a first strike, yet building shelters also seemed, well, tacky, a downer message in upbeat subdivisions.
Then there was the debate over the "ethics of the shelter doorway," in other words, who gets in and who doesn't. Some adopted what Time dubbed a "gun thy neighbor policy," not unfamiliar today to various militia, millenarian and survivalist groups. Instead of shelters being public, they would be private, build singly and in secret, and defended with arms, even machine guns. A classic Twilight Zone TV episode caught the fears of how a mob mentality might kick in if too many people sought to squeeze into too little shelter. The bomb wasn't our only worry, but human nature. Would we tip over the "lifeboats" trying to crowd in, and what did that bode for civil society after the bomb? For civilization itself?
Seattle's Cold War legacy includes some interesting relics. While much of the confrontation with the Soviets was about military might, it was also a broad cultural war that impacted roads, schools, banks, and other civilian institutions. The once ubiquitous fallout shelter signs marking basements and parking garages is one type of leftover (you still see them occasionally). But there are more, shall we say, concrete examples. They include the Brutalist Nuclear Reactor Building at the University of Washington, which once encased a working reactor used to teach the next generation of nuclear engineers, right in the middle of campus. It's now on the National Historic Register. Another is the endangered Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco Seattle branch downtown, built in the early 1950s. As nuclear weapons became a reality, Kenneth Rose notes, protecting the U.S. money supply for atomic weapons became vitally important. The Fed building features a massive bank vault that was supposed to be nuke-proof.
I recently heard about another atomic era relic that is right under our feet (or, more accurately, wheels). Did you know there is a big, public bomb shelter under I-5? It's no secret: it was ballyhooed when it opened in the early 1960s. It was an experiment in constructing public "community" bomb shelters, advocated by the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization and funded by the federal government as part of the construction of I-5. The shelter was approved by then-Governor Al Rosellini. In 1963, if the Russians fired missiles our way, this bunker off Ravenna Boulevard in the Green Lake neighborhood would have been the place to be. Too bad I lived south of the Ship Canal.
You'd hardly notice it if you happened by. It's on Weedin Place NE at 68th NE, and the entrance is a metal, graffiti-tagged doorway that indicates it's a facility for records storage, which it was until a few years ago. Above it runs I-5, and even with an 18-inch thick concrete ceiling covered by fill dirt, you can hear the rumbling of overhead traffic from inside. The shelter itself is a 3,000 square foot round room with a large highway support pillar in the center that looks a bit like a modernist mushroom (cloud?). The walls are painted a light, ugly, and familiar shade of government green.
The shelter is mostly empty now, but evidence of its Cold War use remains. There are his-and-hers decontamination showers. You can see where the food distribution area was (canned, nothing fresh). In the utility room, there's a big diesel generator and a water tank apparently connected to an underground well. There's also a stash of brown metal folding chairs with Civil Defense decals on them: who needs comfortable seating at the end of the world? On the wall are technical instructions about how the equipment works, carefully typed and diagrammed. It looks like planners provided for the fact that those who might make it inside the shelter would be amateurs who'd have to figure things out for themselves. In the phone closet, there's still a receipt from the company that installed it in 1961. On the floor, there's an old black rotary dial phone and a 1969 desk calendar reminding its owner of a bowling date.
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