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My Cold, Dark Place

Fallout From the Bomb That Never Came

January 27, 2002|PATTI PANICCIA | Patti Paniccia is a former CNN correspondent and the author of "Work Smarts for Women" (Ballantine 2000). She lives in La Canada Flintridge

I came home from school one day and it was part of my life--my bomb shelter. Actually, it wasn't all there that first day; they'd only just started building it. It would be several weeks before the gaping pit in our driveway in Eagle Rock would evolve into living quarters for a family of six trying to escape the atomic bomb.

I was 9 in the winter of 1961. The Cold War had just got off to an explosive start, and with Cuba pointing Soviet missiles at the United States, President Kennedy was encouraging Americans to prepare for war.

For several weeks, the jackhammers pounded and echoed from my driveway, disrupting the serenity of my usually quiet neighborhood. One afternoon I returned home from school to find them lying silent and lifeless at the bottom of what had become a 30-foot-deep crater. It was where my friends and I had played tetherball; now it was to be my underground home when the bomb came.

The cement was poured next--to keep out the radiation. At least that's what the cement salesman told my father. "Five-foot-thick walls," he said, "and we guarantee you'll withstand any atomic bomb." Every evening, after the workers left, I'd lower myself into the pit and carefully measure each wall, envisioning myself on a dangerous but vital mission to ensure that the walls were thick enough. I trembled at the thought that a sloppy worker might have poured one of them even a millimeter short of the required five feet.

"Mom," I remember asking one evening after completing my measurements, "I'm not quite sure I understand how Dad could collect if this five-foot radiation guarantee doesn't hold up."

"Oh, don't worry about those things," my mother replied. "You'll have your driveway back to play tetherball soon enough, and you won't even know the bomb shelter's there." I said nothing but immediately retreated to my bedroom, stunned. Tetherball? Did she really believe that my main concern was tetherball? That I'd forget about a 9,000-cubic-foot hole in the middle of our driveway?

Our home was built on a slope, so to get into the bomb shelter we had to walk out our front door, turn left and go to the end of the property. There we'd descend a narrow wooden staircase that took two right turns, forming a U-shaped course. The stairs ended facing the entrance--the first of three doors. This door was made of prison-like bars with a padlock that held it closed. Immediately after passing through this first door, we would make another right turn and face the second door, a monstrous floor-to-ceiling piece of inch-thick dark green metal. Once inside this second door, we would walk through a 20-foot-long concrete tunnel where a single lightbulb hung from above. At the end of the tunnel was a third door, exactly like the second one. This third and final door led into the main room, or what the pharaohs would have called the inner chamber. It was a perfect rectangle, 25 feet long and 12 feet wide, and it always smelled faintly of fresh concrete. What confused and troubled me most, however, was something my father told me the day construction began. "When the sirens go off," he said, "we can't let our friends and neighbors in. There won't be enough food or water for everybody."

With shame and embarrassment I confessed the sad news to my best friend, Michele. "I'm sorry, but you may as well know now. When the atomic bomb comes, I can't let you in my bomb shelter." Michele wrinkled her eyebrows and looked at me the way she did whenever I stepped on the sidewalk snails we encountered while walking to school. And then she laughed. I laughed too, but late that night I trembled in bed as I imagined her screaming and pounding on the thick metal door while the sirens wailed.

I imagined radiation to look like pinkish fairy dust, sprinkled across my lawn, covering the roof of my house. The sparkles would drizzle down on the entire neighborhood, covering trees and lights posts--and people unlucky enough to be outside when it happened. People like Michele. Maybe Michele would be there when we reopened the door. Maybe by some miracle she would manage to avoid the poisoned fairy dust. I prayed it would be so and pictured a thousand different ways how that fateful day might play out.

Word soon got around school that I had a bomb shelter. Two other children in my class also claimed they had bomb shelters, but after debriefing them I knew they merely had basements stacked with canned food. "How thick are your walls?" I asked, and then silently shook my head. I took it upon myself to make sure that everyone in my class knew the difference between a real bomb shelter and a basement.

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