In 1962, shortly after the Cuban missile crisis, my father hired a crew of workmen to convert part of our basement into a bomb shelter. We lived in a small town that would definitely not have qualified for the Soviet High Command’s list of nuclear missile targets (unless they needed to destroy a nonstrategic Erie Lackawanna train depot).
But there was an Air Force base 20 miles east of us. To my father, it was the proximity of this potential military objective that put our town and my family in danger should the Soviet Union’s hot-tempered head of state, Nikita Khrushchev, decide to start World War III, which was a very real possibility in those days. That was exactly 60 years ago.
I was 13 and watched the news every night with my parents so I knew that the world had come dangerously close to nuclear war in 1962. My sister and I had nightmares about mushroom clouds and how the explosion would be so bright that you’d instantly go blind if you looked at it, or so we were told. In most of my nightmares, I could not resist looking at it and bolted up in bed, eyes wide, terrified that I could no longer see.
Like most schools, ours had periodic air raid drills in which we were required to assume the famous “duck and cover” position. We were told that this would protect us from an atomic bomb explosion. A few years later, when I saw aerial footage of the blast that vaporized Hiroshima, I realized that “duck and cover” would have been about as effective as an umbrella in an avalanche.
My father stocked our bomb shelter with canned food, bottles of water and enough toilet tissue to wallpaper a medium-sized European palace. There were two bunk beds, a complex labyrinth of pipes and filters and a small curtained-off toilet. I could not bear to look at the toilet — it would just have become the source of a different kind of nightmare.
Our basement bunker was actually a combination bomb shelter and fallout shelter, to protect us from both the explosion and the subsequent radiation. My dad wasn’t taking any chances.
Most of us were scared of Khrushchev who, to my young eyes, did not seem to be in possession of all his marbles. I recall seeing footage of his famous shoe-banging performance at the United Nations. The notion that an unstable leader could annihilate everything in the world was, to say the least, unsettling.
Now, 60 years later, long after most of us Cold War kids had settled into complacency about the possibility of nuclear war, along comes Russian President Vladimir Putin, and he’s not in a good mood. As an ex-KGB agent, his cool, emotionless demeanor would never allow him to engage in shoe-banging or other public displays of anger but, according to experts, he’s unbalanced. It’s not difficult to imagine him venting his Ukraine frustrations in private or taking his displeasure out on oligarchs with questionable loyalty. The latter seems to already be happening.
Hopefully, one of those tantrums will not result in several thousand nukes rising from their silos. Yet the fact that Putin has even threatened to use them brings back those unpleasant childhood memories that I thought had faded. Cyberwar, I had concluded, had made tanks obsolete. There are treaties now. Mutually assured destruction seemed like a deterrent and I believed that cooler heads would prevail over unhinged leaders. Maybe not. Is Putin bluffing? The TV pundits discuss it in a calm, thoughtful manner but oddly, people don’t seem particularly frightened, certainly not nearly as panicked as I was 60 years ago.
Today, nuclear weapons are far more destructive and plentiful than they were in the 1960s. I don’t think bomb shelters like the one my father built would do much good this time. Some experts now claim that shelters like ours would not even have provided adequate protection in 1962.
For my father’s sake, I prefer to think they’re wrong but if the unthinkable happens now, there will surely be nowhere to hide.