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Cold War Leftovers : Now That Nuclear Paranoia Has Died, Homeowners Are Turning Old Bomb Shelters Into Havens for Underground Adventure

November 10, 1995|DENISE HAMILTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, what many people really lusted after for their suburban dream home wasn't a spa or a tennis court, but an underground bomb shelter.

Death lurked in the atom, and the Russkies--later, the Chinese--stood ready to bomb America into submission. By the early 1960s, fear of nuclear holocaust had become a national mania as the federal civil defense distributed millions of pamphlets explaining how citizens could build their own bomb shelters.

Across the United States, tens of thousands did exactly that, digging themselves holes in which to await Armageddon.

Today, Russia is our friend and half of what we buy is "Made in China." And back-yard bomb shelters stand as curious remnants of a Cold War paranoia that once held a generation in its icy grip.

But what to do with an out-of-fashion bunker? Across Southern California, imaginative homeowners are finding new uses for them.

When Randy Nerenberg bought a bubble-shaped house in 1979, built by prominent architect Wallace Neff, he was surprised to find the Pasadena landmark came with a bubble-shaped bomb shelter.

"The realtor was calling it a wine cellar," Nerenberg, now 41 and a contractor, recalls as he sits 15 feet below the ground, his words echoing in the dome-shaped room.

"But when I bought it, I was 24, and there were a lot of 'six-pack and bongos' evenings.' " Nerenberg says he also used the bomb shelter "right off the bat for primal scream therapy. And it was great if you were into chanting or meditation."

When the 75-ton orbiting Skylab space station fell to Earth in pieces in 1979, the shelter seemed the safest place for Nerenberg and his wife, Marilyn, to throw a Skylab party.

These days, he often climbs down the wooden stairs with buddies to jam on the guitar. Over the years, the shelter has also served as a rumpus room for their two kids, a soundproof music studio and a New Age getaway.

No one knows how many bomb shelters were built between the mid-1940s and mid-1960s. But erecting them was a Cold War ritual for thousands of families. Their merits were extolled in newspapers, on TV, at social clubs and even from the pulpit.

Today, when death from random gunshots, AIDS and earthquakes are our biggest bogyman, they stand as mute reminders of that earlier era, a potent reminder that the "Leave It to Beaver" years were not as blissful as nostalgia would lead us to believe.

At wedding showers in the late 1950s, says Karal Ann Marling, a cultural historian at the University of Minnesota, popular gifts included bomb shelter supplies such as cases of baked beans or crackers.

Some people had formative experiences in bomb shelters. One of Marling's girlfriends at Vassar "was forced into an early marriage because her parents caught her and her boyfriend doing the dirty in the family bomb shelter," the historian recalls.

"That's one of the best uses for a bomb shelter, to practice life instead of death," asserts Marling, who adds, "I think people should preserve them as monuments to complete nuttiness."

Bomb shelters also seared themselves into the collective psyche in contemporary literature.

In Joyce Carol Oates' novel "You Must Remember This," family patriarch Lyle Stevick in Upstate New York agonizes over where he will find money to build a bomb shelter. He finally borrows from his boxer brother and constructs a shelter with a submarine-like periscope so he can survey the outside world from his underground cocoon.

John Cheever takes on bomb shelters and adultery in his short story "The Brigadier and the Golf Widow." Charles Pasterns, a right-wing military type who wants to bomb Cuba, builds a bunker on his Westchester County property, then initiates an affair with his neighbor.

When Pasterns' mistress asks him for a key to the shelter, Pasterns is affronted, but takes the warm bit of metal, "a genuine talisman of salvation, a defense against the end of the world--and dropped it into the neck of her dress."

Eventually, however, it is adultery, not the atom, that does the golf widow in.

*

The first California bomb shelters were built after Pearl Harbor, when many in coastal communities thought a Japanese bombing or invasion was imminent. Photos published in the Los Angeles Times during those years show a family in Brentwood huddled happily in their shelter, ready for the apocalypse.

After World War II, the enemy shifted from Asia to Eastern Europe as the Cold War heated up. People watched hydrogen bombs explode on their TV screens and heard scientists debate survival techniques and thought they had better get ready.

Jeffrey Hudder, a Santa Monica psychologist who grew up at the dawn of the atomic era, recalls the anxiety he felt as a child.

"These people weren't necessarily rabid right-wingers, they were genuinely scared. The government wasn't going to take care of you and you felt anxious, vulnerable and threatened."

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