Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Bomb Shelter

Part Four

The next day, my wife surveyed her restored front yard.

"Are those ugly pipes in for good?"
"Yeah." They'd been in the plans from the start, but I'd never thought of their finished appearance. They had shown on the plans as four tiny circles. Three feet of filled dirt had decreased their height, but they still stood four feet out of the ground, and two were close to the sidewalk.
"They look like giant question marks."

She spent some time with the gardener, and they eventually found a type of fast-growing yucca which would, hopefully, so entwine, shade, and leaf over the offending pipes as to hide them from view. Over the last 50 years, they have not only grown fast; they have never stopped growing. We now have
a jungle in the middle of our front lawn which must be cleared with a machete every five years or so, at which time the question-mark pipes emerge to excite the curiosity of a new generation of passers-by.

I left all that to her, as I was now busy planning a sales campaign. I posted all my construction-progress photos on sheets that I would give to the firm that would produce my brochure. I had decided that the Twilight Zone article might have helped me. In addition to a sheet metal door, its shelter probably had sheet metal vents. The same crazed mob that could rip open its door could also rip out its vents, leaving holes for dirt and radioactive fallout ash to drop through. A mob would have no better luck ripping out my vents than they would in breaking down my timber-blocked door. I retrieved some of the articles I had cut out of magazines and the newspaper over the past weeks for future reading. I read them now to establish a rebuttal to their negativism. In one particularly frenzied scenario, a shelter owner posts himself outside his shelter door with a gun after allowing such family and friends inside that his shelter can support. Since his door opens to the yard, rather than the basement, he can protect his vents as well, presumably. He withstands several attacks until the decimated mob moves back in sullen retreat, leaving its dead scattered about on the lawn. Then, as in Twilight Zone, the all-clear siren sounds. One can only surmise a future for him in that neighborhood.

I countered that scenario easily. My client would be safely inside an impregnable fortress; he wouldn't have to be outside killing his neighbors. However, another scenario proved more troubling. Suppose that my client had children in school that had to make their way home after the alert - how would they break through the mob, clamoring at the door, and how would he pop it open for them, without a mob forcing its way in? Or suppose he had friends he had promised to shelter? Even if they lived only five minutes distant, his neighbors were closer. Suppose his wife was at work or shopping and had to fight her way in? Worst of all, what if he were not there, and his wife and children had to cope with the mob before he could get there? Ironically, my wife interrupted my pondering.

"What about supplies?"
"Supplies? What supplies? Look, I'm thinking about deep stuff here."
"So am I. People are going to need a lot of stuff when they're deep inside that thing."
She never called it a shelter, only "that thing."
"Any stuff in particular?"
"Toilet paper, soap, food, water, candles, all the basics."
"He'll need a porta potti, a 30 gallon barrel to dump it in, and I'm thinking of some kind of hose and hand-operated fan to get the stink out."
"I don't want to even think about that."
"I'm planning to put an old water heater down here for water storage. I have a sleeve in the roof deck, and I'll run a water line to connect to the nearest water faucet. Every time we turn it on, we run new water through the tank. We'll always have fresh water stored even it the blast takes out everything above us."
"Okay, he has water. I guess he could store some batteries and flashlights. But what about canned goods and dried food?"
"That's up to him to get."
"But shouldn't it be in your model shelter? If I were going to be down here, I'd like to visualize it. Like turn off the lights and poke around with a flashlight. Turn on the little butane stove and think about making a meal."

I realized then that she was giving me the housewife's view point. Before I printed brochures, ran ads, did mailings, and got buyers here, I should have my water and toilet basics in place, and supplies in boxes or maybe a cabinet. I'd need a bed, table and chairs. I decided to get the dried food and supplies, particular to shelters, first. I couldn't find fallout shelter supplies where they used to be in the want ads, so I turned to the Yellow Pages, where several were listed. The phones of the first ones I called were no longer in service, so I called the one with the quarter-page ad. He told me he'd be open until noon. I wondered about that since it was a weekday, but it was still morning so I drove over. Inside, nothing was displayed, but there were a lot of boxes scattered about. A salesman approached.

"What lot are you interested in?"
"Lot? I came to stock my model shelter."
"We're no longer in retail."
"I see. You're wholesaling now. So where can I find one of your retail stores?"
  He stared at me.
"Are you serious? We're going out of business. We won't be here after Friday."

I looked around. Posters showing happy people in front of sheet metal shelters were strewn about the floor. This was probably one of the gyp joints  that supplied the fly-by-nights. Good riddance; they were giving us all a bad name.

"You have dried food in one of those lots?"
"Sure do. Two hundred fifty dollars for that lot. Enough for 100 shelters." He pointed to a stack that would need a large truck to haul.
"What happened to all your contractors, dealers - whatever you called them?"
"They've returned to previous occupations."
"Like selling snake oil?"
He stiffened. "Our franchisees were honest businessmen. Excuse me, but why are you here?"
"I've just built a shelter. Now, I want to stock it and use it for a sales model."
"In today's world? Where have you been? Didn't you see Twilight Zone? Read the papers?"
"I did. I've built a blast shelter. No mob will break down my door."
"How much you charging for it?"
He went back to staring, then shook his head.
"Nobody will pay that. Even when they were selling, $3,500 was max. Same price as a swimming pool."
"Can you sit out a nuclear blast in a pool?"
"The scared ones bought the shelter. The others bought the pool. Now they're all buying pools - or saunas - or house trailers. Whatever. Look, the world's at peace. Who wants a shelter? Who wants all that hassle with the neighbors?"

I could feel the old anxiety building in me again. Could he be right?

He did have one crank-operated blower for air intake and a radiation measuring kit which he could sell separately. I took them home and, because each was designed specifically for shelters, I could call each manufacturer. They were reputable firms that built other products, and could, presumably, give me an unbiased look at my market. The receptionist at the fan manufacturer told me that they were no longer manufacturing the blower. She put me through to a division manager.

"We filled our last order a month and a half ago. We're back to standard industrial fans and blowers."
"I suppose you have a large stock on hand."
"One entire warehouse bay. We went gangbusters for a couple of months, then it slowed, then it stopped cold."
"Twilight Zone and the media killed the market?"
"You'd have to talk to Sales about the why. I'm in Production."

I didn't have to talk to Sales or to anyone else. During the months that I had been designing and building my model shelter, an industry had emerged, grown, and died. I decided that the media were not responsible; they had reported the news and made analyses - that was their job - and they were not responsible for the results. The President had told all of us that we should build shelters. He might just as well have told us that we needed to build castles, complete with moats, drawbridges, and defending knights.  We had developed this monstrous bomb as a nation. Shouldn't our nation defend us from an enemy's use of it against us? How many shelters would it take to keep us from clawing at each other for entry? The British had been able to build enough shelters to prevent that from happening in London during the Blitz. However, that had been one city, and the bombs had been building destroyers, not city destroyers. Nor did they produce radioactive fallout.

I took a call from the graphics firm designing my brochure, asking if my picture layout was ready.

"It's on hold."
"Any idea how long?"
"Like forever?"

Sam came by for the payroll, and I asked him to follow me down to the shelter. On the way, I grabbed a bottle of vodka and a carton of beer.

"You planning to mix those?"
"The beer is for you unless you want to join me in vodka. We're going to conduct a wake."
"Who are we going to bury - the shelter?"
"It's already buried, and the lawn is growing back over it. We need to bury an industry or, maybe, the idea of an industry."

I had two folding chairs in the shelter, and we sat down with our drinks. Sam popped open his can.

"I guess this means we're out of the shelter business.
"Hell, we were never in it. I've been building a model for something that can't be sold."
"How do you know?"
"I've called every firm in the Yellow Book that has a fallout or shelter category. I get "no longer listed" from the operator. I called Classified at the L.A. Times. They haven't had any kind of shelter or shelter supply ad for over a month."
"Nobody talks about them anymore. Was it just a fad?"
"Is the H-Bomb a fad? Our national strategy is supposed to be massive retaliation. So what happens after we massively retaliate each other?"
"Community shelters? 50, maybe 100 people in each shelter - a shelter at every park or school?"
"You could have 500 to 1,000 people living around each one of them. What happens when a community shelter fills and closes it's doors? You'd have more panic and killing than at a family shelter. Unless everyone just stays home and watches TV until the big flash."
"A few might. I wouldn't. I'd want my kids to have a chance to live."

We sat, each with his own vision. Now, that I no longer thought of a shelter as something to sell, I thought of it's necessity, and I thought of raging mobs as terrorized people needing help rather than as targets for a shelter-owner's gun.

"You'd need a shelter for every block if you're going to save everyone in a community, assuming it's far enough from the blast center. What city could afford that?"
"Some of the richer ones might. Malibu or San Marino, to name two."
"Okay. What about the surrounding cities who couldn't? Won't their residents be storming in, demanding what the rich have - maybe, even bringing their police with them? Then, you'd have full, military battles."

I laid out my previous conclusion: the federal government had created this monstrous bomb; it should be responsible for defending us from it. The government doesn't expect us to man our own anti-aircraft guns against enemy air attack. Sam didn't like the idea of the government doing it; it was doing too much now that we should be doing for ourselves.

"Only the government could do it. Say a million were needed to stop any possibility of riots. Say they wrote off everyone in the blast areas - probably most of our population - and built just for fallout. The survivors would emerge as communities."
"I still think the individual should do it."
"He's just told us he won't. Those willing to build and prepare don't want to deal with the riots. Those willing to do whatever is necessary have built whatever they built, good or bad - some built before Twilight Zone and all the stories. There is no market left."
"So what will happen?"
"We still have MAD, mutual assured destruction. I don't think the Soviet Union will destroy us if they know that we're trigger-ready to destroy them. We're at stalemate."
"That's the way I see it. It's a dictatorship, but its leaders aren't crazy like Hitler. He might have done it."
"A huge Twilight of the Gods spectacle."
"Yeah. What if another country gets the bomb, with that kind of nut in charge? Or a terrorist group?"
"Who knows? Maybe, it won't happen. You and I are going back to general construction."

* * *

A year later, I was in Las Vegas building an apartment building on speculation. The Cuban Missile Crisis was underway, and my wife called one evening.

"A woman came by, and said you have to build her a shelter. She was really scared."
"Did you tell her I no longer build shelters?"
"Yes. She said she'd pay any price. I showed her ours and she wants one just like it."
"Did you tell her that we now think of it as the basement addition we always wanted?"
"Why would I do that? Do you want her number?"
  "No. You call her. Tell her I couldn't build her one in time to protect her from whatever is going to happen - or not happen."
"She knows that. She says she just doesn't want to go through it all again."

My thoughts went back to that previous time when fear had created a market. I wondered how many like her were out there, looking at old brochures, and calling phone numbers no longer in service.

"I'm not going to gear up again for a market that runs on panic."
"You knew it was that from the start."
"True. I didn't know it had such a short life span. Up here, they build for people who gamble, drink, stay up all night, and watch bare-breasted women on stage.  Old-fashioned values. This market will never die."

 Jack Eiden

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