Eventually the entire school recognized me as a bomb shelter expert--a consultant, of sorts, who would listen as kids described their makeshift shelters and escape plans. I'd then inform them how effective (or ineffective) their bomb shelters would be. Usually the news was not good. Many asked whether they could use my bomb shelter. "Sorry," I said. "My bomb shelter's full." And at the end of the day, I'd make a mental checklist of those of us who would live and those who would die.
Once the major construction was finished, my mother began decorating in such a manner that none of us would mind spending all of those days down there. She carpeted the bomb shelter in yellow and bought two lime-green Naugahyde couches, but no beds. Perhaps it was more appropriate to sit and chat while the bombs dropped and Michele pounded on the door.
My mother put in a portable electric heater, but it always stayed cold down there. It could also be darker than pitch when the lights were turned out. My siblings and I often played a cruel game on each other, turning out the lights and closing the door with someone left inside.
My father built some wooden cupboards and my mom painted them green and filled them with cans of tuna, jars of peanut butter and packages of Melba toast. We were ready. Or so I thought.
A short time after the bomb shelter was finished, my brother announced that he was leaving home. He was 19 and wanted to get an apartment by the beach in Santa Monica. The beach was 25 miles away! How could he possibly make it to the bomb shelter in time? I was horrified. How could he even consider such a thing? I pictured him by the shore when the bomb came, alone and crying with none of us there to comfort him, little pink waves lapping at his feet.
My parents also were concerned about him living on his own. They all began shouting at one another. I ran out of the room and continued to listen from my bedroom. Their shouts grew louder and my head began to hurt. I played out the pink-wave scenario in my head over and over. Soon I could no longer hear their voices because of my own screaming. Everything went black, and when I awoke I was lying on my parents' bed, looking up at the three of them. I fell onto my knees and prayed to God for a miracle.
The bomb never came. Something else, though, came in its place: a blinding flash of insight that tore open the entire tapestry around my 9-year-old existence. I learned that life's worries were much bigger than I had ever imagined.
And then the oddest thing happened--I never had to fully wrestle with this new concept. Instead I busied myself with a thousand childhood distractions. As the Cuban missile crisis defused, I filled my days with the familiar routines of life before my bomb shelter. And in the evenings after dinner, I often played tetherball.
As the weeks and months passed, my family found other uses for the bomb shelter. At first it housed our winter clothing and seasonal fishing gear. Then it became a sort of halfway house for junk that we no longer needed but weren't quite ready to part with.
As the years went by, we used it less and less until we sort of forgot it was there. The wooden steps leading to the entrance rotted out, and my father never replaced them. Eventually, on the surface, everything seemed completely normal, just as it once had been, just as my mother had said it would.
Yet, somehow, things were never quite the same for me after the winter of 1961--the coldest winter of my life.