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Bunker Mentality

Swerve, Aug. 7, 2015

Her father built a bomb shelter during the Cold War. But this modern mom deals with her kids' fears subtly.


As a child, I wasn’t afraid of monsters. I was scared of nuclear war.

I grew up on an acreage in Evergreen, Colo., in the foothills west of Denver. As far as I know, I was the only kid at school who had a bomb shelter. It was built into an east-facing slope, about 30 paces from our front door. From a distance, it looked like an abandoned mine shaft—my dad had used railway ties to frame the entry. This was all part of the plan: in the event of nuclear war, roving bands of radiation victims would think it was an old mine and would pass by without further investigation.

Inside, it was about as inhospitable as a mine. It was a rectangular room (about 170 square feet), boxed in concrete and surrounded by earth meant to absorb radiation. My dad had it custom-built with plans approved by the Office of Civil Defense (the predecessor of FEMA), a branch of the U.S. Department of Defense responsible for planning community-health programs and medical care of civilians in the event of a military attack. It was the late 1970s, and, for my dad, the possibility of nuclear war was very real.


Dad didn’t like the concept of mutual assured destruction—the idea that no matter who sent over the nukes first, the Soviets or the Americans, both sides would be obliterated. He wanted his wife, two kids and two incompatible cats to survive. He also didn’t trust the government to take care of civilians when (not if) the Russians attacked, so he’d taken matters into his own hands. “It was my duty to protect my family, period. It sounds old-fashioned, but that was underneath it all,” he says, nearly 40 years later. “The threat of nuclear war was every day.”


It would have been basic survival—nothing fancy. A single bare bulb in the centre of the ceiling illuminated an old mattress wedged into a corner, a year’s supply of freeze-dried food stacked in boxes along a wall, and a short-wave radio poised to deliver breaking news of Armageddon and its aftermath. If the power failed, we had an off-site generator capable of running for 30 days before the propane had to be replaced (I’m not sure which family member would have been sent outside wearing the lead apron to perform that task; presumably Dad). A line ran from the shelter to our well to pump in water. My dad had even purchased an air-filtration system from the Office of Civil Defense (which was evidently profiting from its fallout expertise). There were games, candles, back issues of National Geographic, a chemical toilet and, according to my dad, lots of wine. There was also, unbeknownst to me, a gun—as a survivalist, dad’s greatest fear wasn’t radioactive fallout, it was the prospect of having to harm or kill someone while defending our hideout. For additional protection, a pile of concrete bricks, located just outside, could be stacked in front of the door to block radiation (and, I suppose, desperate survivors not fooled by the whole abandoned-mine thing).

I used to bring elementary-school friends inside the bomb shelter when they came over, treating it as a playhouse. We’d haul dolls and a broom into the dank room, which always had a thin layer of dirt on the floor, and, until our noses started running and we began shivering, pretend we were pioneer girls. (Like a cellar, the shelter stayed a constant 12 C—the chill seeped into your bones after a few minutes.)

As a kid, I also bragged about the bomb shelter and how we were going to survive the fallout while everyone else died. There’s something unsettling and macabre about a child blithely talking about nuclear war as if discussing Barbie dolls or the latest Scooby Doo episode. As an eight-year-old, my idea of war was informed by black-and-white footage I’d seen on TV shows about previous wars: soldiers on foot fighting with guns and grenades.

Looking back, it seems so quaint: the belief that a room dug into a hill and encased in concrete could save us from a nuclear apocalypse; that after a year we’d just saunter out unscathed and life would resume; the fact that I grew up in the shadow of a political war of posturing and armament, hating Russians because of it; that the biggest insult you could hurl was to call someone a commie. Ah, the good old days.

In contrast, my 10-year-old daughter, Avery, and her friends, as well as the teens we know—neighbourhood kids, nieces and nephews—don’t fear the word “nuclear.” Zombies definitely, but not “radiation” (unless it’s in relation to cancer) or “communist.” The U.S.S.R. and its James Bond-worthy villains no longer exist, replaced by new bogeymen from Al-Qaeda and ISIS. (In fact, one evening in the spring, when I was talking about writing this story at the dinner table, Avery asked, “What’s a bomb shelter?”)

Instead, she fears animal extinction, caused by climate change and habitat encroachment by humans. Will the polar bears lose the ice they need to hunt? Will deforestation continue to threaten frogs and other species? Her elementary school puts on performances where the children sing about bee-colony collapse, pollution, and energy-efficient light bulbs. The school also holds an annual lockdown practice, to prepare students for emergency situations such as a gunman entering the school. She’s blissfully unaware of the reason her teacher locks the doors and instructs them to hide under tables during the drill. “It’s in case a wild animal gets in, like a deer. Even though they look nice and tame they’re still wild and could hurt someone,” Avery says.


Thankfully, she’s not quite old enough to worry about terrorists or Ebola or being murdered—fears that plague today’s youth, along with natural disasters and airplane crashes. There are so many things to worry about; as adults we learn to filter the headlines, but for kids every bombing, cancer diagnosis or earthquake they hear about becomes a possibility. Parents acknowledge the fears—pirates exist but are unlikely to attack the cruise ship; a pilot has in fact crashed his plane on purpose but I’m sure ours won’t do that; yes, cars pollute but it’s impractical to grocery shop by bicycle—and try to ease their worries by doing the right thing. We “think globally, act locally” by recycling, walking when possible and eating right for health and the environment. Usually, bad things happen somewhere else, and we donate money to relief efforts. We don’t live in a city prone to earthquakes, tsunamis or tornadoes—only floods.

Our basement filled with water during the 2013 flood after the power was cut and the sump pump stopped working, allowing water and sewage to bubble up from below. The Bow River eroded the land in front of our house right up to the street, and everyone thought the homes would be swept away. Avery and her little brother, Bennett, stood in the backyard crying while my husband Blake and I rescued precious mementos from a watery doom.

The flood was as close to real personal trauma as we’ve come, and it was something we couldn’t really have prepared for (tip: buy real estate in a neighbourhood whose name includes the word “Heights.”

My dad built a bomb shelter, but he didn’t try to shelter his kids in the modern sense of the word. He felt he’d missed his calling—to be a history teacher instead of an oil man—and he talked at length about the Second World War and his belief that another major conflict was inevitable. My sister and I became his students on car rides around Evergreen or down to Denver. Dinner-table conversations revolved around politics, the arms race and the evils of communism. I don’t recall whether his talks made the leap from artillery fire to atomic energy, but even if they had, I’m not sure I could have grasped the notion of metropolitan decimation at that age.

I do remember my best friend in Grade 3, Pam Gordon, becoming quite upset over the prospect of annihilation (hers) coming between our friendship. She repeatedly begged me to ask my father if her family could come and stay with us in the bomb shelter if the Russians attacked. Being a dutiful friend I brought it up with my dad.

“No,” he said. “There’s just enough room and supplies for our family. If the Gordons come knocking we’ll have to turn them away.”

I’m quite sure I cried about that, picturing Pam and her family melting into a toxic puddle outside the bomb-shelter door.

The facts of nuclear war—and the reality of the Cold War—didn’t really sink in until junior high. The Day After aired when I was in Grade 7, to an audience of 100 million people. It depicted the nuked U.S. Midwest as a blackened wasteland of burned-out cities filled with radiation victims. My parents forbade me to watch it, but I pried the horrific details from classmates. The same month, Silver Spoons tackled the Cold War in an episode in which Ricky Schroeder daydreams that he’s the president talking to the Soviet leader on the phone. (The Ricker’s best line: “Why don’t you go to the edge of a cliff, Yuri . . . Andropov?”) And who can forget the 1983 movie War Games, which sees the world pushed to the brink of nuclear war by a high-school computer nerd, played by Matthew Broderick?


Through school, the news and popular culture I learned what acronyms like ICBM (inter-continental ballistic missile) and SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) meant, and how to pronounce the names of the endless parade of 1980s Soviet leaders, from Brezhnev to Gorbachev.

As a parent today, I try to steer dinner conversation away from politics and alarmist headlines, into territory that is (I hope) interesting and pleasant for Avery and Bennett: animal facts, school projects, weekend plans. When she asks the hard questions like, “What’s Ebola?” I try to give her the facts in a way that won’t make her anxious. Where my dad might have run out and purchased hazmat suits, I arm her with practical knowledge about the virus, its transmission and the unlikelihood of catching it.

Avery often Googles subjects that worry her, and then shows me pictures of endangered species on the iPad. Today’s technology sure beats those library index cards I used to research essays in junior high.

In Grade 8 I wrote a report called The Long-term & Climatic Effects of Nuclear War, complete with a cover-page illustration of a mushroom cloud obliterating Denver. The paper discussed the likelihood of a nuclear winter and its devastating impact on the planet: “Vast areas of the earth would be subjected to prolonged darkness, abnormally low temperatures, violent windstorms and toxic smog,” I wrote. (Toxic smog aside, I had no way of knowing I would experience prolonged darkness, abnormally low temperatures and violent windstorms as an adult living in Calgary.) I reported on the societal effects of nuclear war: communication breakdown, government collapse, mass starvation, hypothermia and radiation sickness. As a result of my research, I desperately hoped no Russian would be stupid enough to push the big red button (naturally, an American would never do it first). Even the knowledge that my family had a means of escaping the worst of it was cold comfort—as a teenager, the only thing scarier than the possibility of fallout and climate collapse was the prospect of spending a year imprisoned in a spider hole with my family.

By high school, with the Cold War thawing and Eastern Europe on the verge of freedom, the bomb shelter was becoming a relic, a curiosity in which to shotgun beer or smoke pot during house parties when my parents were out of town, or a conversational bombshell to casually lob on a date that was going south. “So, my dad built a bomb shelter . . . ” Relish awkward silence.

My mom sold the house in 2004 after my parents divorced, so I have no way of knowing whether the new owners razed the shelter (like they razed the house), turned it into a wine cellar or cold storage, or kept it as a panic room.

I do know that growing up with a bomb shelter didn’t make me a survivalist like my dad; it turned me into a pragmatist able to assess threats and act accordingly. It also makes me almost nostalgic for the 1980s, a time when there was only one fear and one enemy concrete enough for my dad to adequately prepare for it.

Kids today face a daily barrage of a thousand small fears, but there is no missile shield to deflect any of them, only ethereal practices meant to somehow reduce risk. So instead of preparing for the worst the world can throw at me and my family, I do what I can to make it a better, healthier, safer place. I grow heirloom kale and radishes in the backyard, donate to the Calgary Humane Society on Avery’s behalf, and have both kids wash their hands during flu season. And come hell or high water, I’ll make sure the new generator and old sump pump work during the next flood.

I’ll grant that having a bomb shelter sounds kind of crazy (cue date asking for the bill)—it was definitely quirky—but I admire my father’s foresight and fervour. He was a prepper before it became a thing, a survivalist who aimed for a kind of self-sufficiency back when the word “grid” didn’t even exist. And it all stemmed from a desire to protect his family no matter what—to take the “assured” out of mutually assured destruction.

I like to think I’d do the same for my kids—protect them at all costs—but today it’s impractical to go to such extremes, even if the new Russian enemy, Vladimir Putin, continues his military exercises and sabre rattling. Besides, I’ve read The Road and I watch The Walking Dead, and those bleak portrayals make me question whether I’d want our family to survive either a biological, chemical or nuclear terrorist attack, or, if a virus goes rogue, a zombie apocalypse.

I know my vegetable garden won’t halt environmental decline, but I’d rather spend my time worrying about plants getting adequate sunlight, than making plans to survive the gloom of nuclear winter in a windowless concrete box. Dad and I both have our worries. He answered his with a year’s supply of MRE bomb-shelter suppers—and pre-apocalypse dinnertime lectures to prepare us—while my equally dubious remedy puts a homegrown, home-cooked meal on the table.

Bunker Mentality

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