Friday, February 22, 2013


You have to be of a certain age to remember the fallout shelter era. But it turns out I am of that certain age, and I started to freshly remember the era when I read Steuart Pittman's obituary in yesterday's paper.

The threat of nuclear war might seem like a memory that's not a pleasant one. The memories at least are not the worst ones.

Mr. Pittman was 93 when he passed away. He had been an assistant Secretary of Defense for Civil Defense, appointed by President Kennedy, to ready the nation for the possibility of fallout from a nuclear war. A huge part of readiness was the availability of shelters for people to spend the first two or three weeks in after an explosion, when radioactive fallout was at its strongest.

Mr. Pitman had a tough time convincing the nation and Congress that shelters should be built. The $3 billion cost in the early 60s was a huge showstopper.

But shelters were not just pitched as a government project, like building a missile, or a supersonic transport plane. You were encouraged to build your own, and I distinctly remember a series of articles in the Queens 'Long Island Star-Journal' newspaper that diagrammed out how you can do this in your home cellar: how big to make it for your family size, what to stock it with, the thickness of the cinder blocks and how they should be positioned at the opening to block radioactive waves from reaching you.

This was the early sixties, even before the Cuban missile crisis, and nuclear attack, "the bomb," was a topic for conversation. I remember trying to convince my father that we needed to build one NOW, before no one would be around to tell us how. This never happened. The effects of working, and drinking scotch and Manhattans left no time, and no energy, for his slinging cinder blocks around the cellar. There were already enough things to do.

Even as kids in the 50s, we all theorized that the Russians would drop a bomb in Times Square. Times Square was the epicenter of New York City, and this made the most strategic sense, even to young boys. Whether the Russians ever really planned to do this has never come out, but in 2010 a young sympathizer of the Pakistan Taliban did choose Times Square as the place to park his crude car bomb that was fortunately disarmed before it exploded. Times Square has always been attracting all types of people and things.

One of the people I worked with when I started at an insurance company in the latter 60s, told me of his prior job, inspecting apartment house cellars that had been designated as fallout shelters. This was a Pittman idea. Access to these places was designated by the sign above, a variation on the radiation warning sign used in WWII. Stored in these cellars were supposed to be barrels of dried food and milk that was meant to sustain people in the first weeks after attack.

The obituary correctly mentions that there were ethical debates about whether a shelter owner would be justified in using violence from stopping a neighbor from inviting themselves into your shelter. There were TV dramas that used this theme, notably a famous one on the 'Twilight Zone.' You knew Rod Serling was going to weigh in on that one.

The fallout era eventually gave way to the Super Bowl. It's very, very hard to find a building with one of the black and yellow signs still in place. And the drums of dried food and whatever was meant to sustain people have long been removed. The blankets went somewhere.

The obituary closes with the story that Mr. Pittman left his assistant defense post in 1964, highly frustrated at not being able to get budget money for building shelters. Apparently, still convinced there was a need, he and his wife started to build their own, only to abandon that effort after half a day of digging. Office people aren't too good at this activity.

Sometime in the 1990s my family and I visited Nantucket for a day. A typical summer day trip when you're in the Cape Cod area. The island, long a center for whaling, had given way to vacation housing for some of the most seriously wealthy-types in lovely homes, surrounded by preserved architecture. It's always the turn-of-the-last-last century on Nantucket.

The island sits 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, and is in a direct line from Hyannis, and Hyannis Port, home of the Kennedy family and their famous compound.

The tour guide on the jitney bus that was our island transportation pointed out many things. Including somewhere near the golf course he pointed in the general direction of where a network of tunnels had been built in the 60s that would serve as the bomb shelter for the famous residents of Hyannis Port, one of whom was the man who appointed Mr. Pittman to his assistant secretary post: President Kennedy.

When you're the president, you don't do your own shoveling.

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