Cold War fallout shelter survives in childhood memories | Whale’s Tales

Dad never finished the bomb shelter.

My brothers and sisters and I were children of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and we have the bona fides to prove it — the genuine, above ground, Cold War, brick-and-mortar fallout shelter we grew up with in our backyard.

When he started on the project in 1961, my dad was a 31-year-old Cold War father, alarmed by the conflicts with the Soviet Union, the tensions over West Berlin, and concerned for the safety of his growing family in the event of a feared nuclear attack. Those were scary times for everyone.

In that period, the Whale family, besides mom and dad, numbered four kids: my big sister, Carole, and my brothers Jim, Matt and Jack. My little sister, Diane, and I were still one-to-two years and a few twinkles in the eye off from filling out the final roster.

Photos show my sister and brothers pretending to perform mighty feats of strength holding up bricks by virtue of their own pint-sized strength. Truth is, wooden slats under the bricks that were hidden from the camera did the job.

Dad never finished the bomb shelter. As he told me many years later, one afternoon he’d paused in the afternoon heat, looked at the lovely northeast corner of the yard he was covering with a concrete box, and asked himself this question: “Why in the hell am I doing this?”

I am not certain of his reasoning. Obviously he still loved his family.

So dad abandoned his plan — never installed the ventilation system, never furnished the shelter with any amenities. I know in later years he regarded the shelter as enduring evidence of “the stupidity” of his young manhood.

The apple tree my folks had planted years before, and that we climbed on to reach the roof of the shelter, was left to stand in front of the building. It too played an important role in all of our childhoods.

So there the shelter sat, for more than 11 years, 8 to 10 feet high, eight or so pieces of scrap wood covering up the entrance where the single, bomb-proof and radiation-proof door was to have been.

Being boarded up, with an interior I could not get to, the fallout shelter was a thing of intense curiosity to a little kid like me.

Somebody kicked in the makeshift wooden barrier in 1971 or 1972. I seem to remember that a friend and I were the ones to perform the task, though I could be wrong. Nobody was angry. What I remember clearly, however, is that when I looked inside, the profound mysteries I’d imagined growing up in the shelter’s shadow were nowhere to be seen.

While the shelter never fulfilled its original purpose, it served a number of uses over the years.

Our baby-sitter’s husband, whom her parents had forbidden to see her because they disapproved of the marriage, used to climb on top of the shelter to catch a glimpse of his wife one block north at her folks’ house on 17th Street Northeast. My brother, Jim, later spray-painted a batter’s box on two sides, complete with right- and left-hand corners, and so developed his formidable pitching arm, tossing balls at it for hours.

During the backyard July 4 celebrations with our neighbors, the McCurdys, we ran around the structure, holding those wienie sparklers our parents handed us. Convinced I’d be closer to heaven, and the moon and stars would be more visible from a mere 8 to 10 feet off the ground, in the early 1970s, I set my prized telescope on the roof. A friend of Jack’s christened the setup “Goob’s laboratory,” using my childhood name.

I remember a couple of neighborhood girls tried to get me to smoke inside of it, but I hated the taste of cigarettes, so the lessons did not take. It furnished bodily protection during our pine cone and snowball fights, when we played army, and during our endless games of hide-n-seek. Finally, we always had a ready supply of bricks at hand for whatever purposes we imagined.

My folks talked about having the relic professionally wired and tricked out for a sort of gathering place for us kids, but that would not happen.

In 1975, my brother, Jim, died in a car accident, and the insurance money my folks had never expected to collect on, absolutely never wanted to collect on, came to them. They used it to build a rec room out back, and the money also covered the cost of tearing down the fallout shelter. On a spring day in 1976, Jack Watkins, a contractor and former owner of the long-vanished Hillside Lanes Bowling Alley, and his crew bashed it in with a wrecking ball and then carted away most of the remnants.

When the time came to remove the remaining brick fragments from that corner of the yard a year or two later, dad would not let me assist him.

“Hey, who asked for your help?” he barked.

I understood. I know he felt that, as he had made the “mistake” of building “Whale’s folly” in the first place, by God, he’d be the one to restore that corner of the yard to what it had once been. I am also sure that his determination to do the work by himself had something to do with how my family got the money to demolish the shelter.

To this day the long-gone fallout shelter appears in my dreams as a symbol of my childhood and good times. Time and the patina of memory have redeemed the beast. I wish they could have redeemed it for my father.

Robert Whale can be reached at