A few Fridays ago, in the Kalorama neighborhood of Washington, Smithsonian curator Frank Blazich put on headlamp, checked his bag for a tape measure, and descended into the subbasement of Oyster-Adams intermediate school in search of the past.
“Oh, wow,” he said, coming to a metal door marked with a yellow and black pinwheel. “Look at that.”
Blazich had come because my colleague and I invited him. We’d become obsessed with talking about nuclear attacks and fallout shelters, and that’s what was on the other side of this door: an intact fallout shelter dating to 1962. A time capsule to a nation’s panic, lined up in a long, concrete hall.
“These were the water barrels,” Blazich said, pointing to a wall of 17 ½ -gallon drums labeled “Office of Civil Defense.” “Think five people per barrel, and we could get a rough approximation of who would be down here.”
We counted: More than 100 people would have sheltered here to save themselves from nuclear apocalypse. The world outside, in this scenario? Annihilated.
“So, each person would get 10,000 calories for two weeks,” Blazich continued, blowing dust off a stack of tinned crackers. The crackers — “All Purpose Survival Biscuits” — would probably have been made of bulgur wheat, he explained. When the pyramids of ancient Egypt were excavated, archaeologists discovered unspoiled bulgur wheat; Cold War scientists figured the stuff must be indestructible.
We’d gotten interested in this shelter for a few reasons:
1) Intact ones are rare; they were supposed to be dismantled in the 1970s.
2) North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is scary. He keeps surpassing predictions related to his nuclear arsenal — in September, he tested a weapon with seven times the yield of those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On Monday, a North Korean official said the country wouldn’t stop until its missiles could reach “all the way to the East coast of the mainland U.S.”
3) Our own president, a man not known for measured responses, has said that attacks would be met by “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” and has taken to calling Kim “Little Rocket Man.”
So, to the fallout shelter.
We found first-aid kits. Tongue depressors, cotton swabs. A yellowing pamphlet with instructions for treating everything from skin rashes to “sucking-wounds in the chest.”
We found the latrines: barrel-shaped containers meant to be topped with a rubber seat. Blazich sat on one to make sure he’d assembled it correctly, then noticed my colleague, Erin O’Connor, filming him. “You’ll have a video of me online,” he said, bursting into laughter. “The guy sitting on a 50-year-old toilet.”
Here we sit, on the fallout shelter toilet, because of the last reason we’re down here:
4) We want to solve a mystery. Who this shelter was intended for, who the stuff belongs to now. We want to understand, in a grimly practical way, what it felt like the last time the country saw bunkers as a solution because we were all going to be blasted to holy hell.
What is a fallout shelter?
President John F. Kennedy had a problem. It was 1961 and Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev was threatening to cut off access to West Berlin. “We do not want to fight, but we have fought before,” the president said in a July speech. He requested the government shell out $3.2 billion in military spending — including $207 million to identify spaces for fallout shelters. The United States could be bombed at any minute; shelters represented last-ditch hope for survival.
The money wasn’t enough to actually build shelters — it was up to volunteers to see through construction. Civilians would be defending themselves against nuclear war.
The District of Columbia took the lead, explains David Krugler, whose book, "This Is Only a Test," tells the story of nuclear preparation in the nation's capital. Churches and schools were surveyed. Basements were measured. In offices, employees signed up as air raid wardens, prepared to slap on armbands and shepherd co-workers to safety. In the food industry, companies produced shelter biscuits and "carbohydrate supplements" — fruit-flavored candies to add flavor to confinement.
Krugler tells us all of this, then says that we are not the only ones to have recently called him asking about nuclear warfare. North Korea has everyone worried.
The D.C. public school spokeswoman says the same thing: Lots of people have been inquiring about the fallout shelter in Oyster-Adams — probably who had read the history-buff blogs we had, which catalogue possible shelter locations.
And speaking of Oyster-Adams, here’s what we’ve learned so far:
In the summer of 1962, a bunch of D.C. schools were designated potential shelters (Adams wasn’t on the initial list, but was added a few months later).
“What is the civil defense using as an interpretation for this word, ‘fallout shelter’?” asked a school board member identified as Mrs. Steele in meeting transcripts from September of that year.
A Mr. Riecks explained: a fallout shelter was a place with a lot of radiation-resistant concrete between you and a nuclear bomb. “We have in our schools spaces for 28,000,” he said, citing a school called Macfarland, which could shelter 340.
He noted, however, that Macfarland’s population was 1,300. The thousand students who couldn’t fit would just be taken to areas that were “as safe as possible.”
“Is there any basis for determining which 340 students go into those spaces?” a Mr. Yorkelson wanted to know.
“What is to prevent people in the street from rushing into the building and preempting the spaces assigned for children?” asked a Col. Hamilton.
The short answer was, nothing. Nothing to determine which third of the student body got the shelter spaces, and nothing to keep the space from being swarmed. The short answer was that if there was a nuclear attack in the capital of the United States of America, people would by flying by the seats of their pants.
Prep for war that never came
But that, of course, was the urtext of what was happening in America in the era of fallout shelters.
We wanted to know about our little shelter. What patriotic first-grade teacher had volunteered to be the air-raid warden at Oyster-Adams? What did fourth-graders remember about practice drills in the basement? How did the experience shape them, and when they looked at those walls of survival biscuits, did they see fear or salvation?
Our search for answers became a lesson in the slipperiness of history: When the fallout shelter was built, the elementary school was called John Quincy Adams. When it later merged with another school, all records of the previous incarnation were jettisoned.
Seeking old yearbooks or class rosters, we visited the D.C. public school archives, digging through old newsletters and floor plans. Nothing. The public-school archives led us to a public-school warehouse, which led us to the District’s city archives. Nothing.
We reached out to the District’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, which is what the Office of Civil Defense transformed into. Nothing. Someone recommended we try the National Archives in College Park, Md., but we didn’t, because the odds seemed slim. And because we are journalists, not Indiana Jones. And because it was beginning to feel a little weird, for the two of us to take such fervent responsibility for a bunch of old barrels of water.
So there it is, an unsolved mystery. Biscuits, tongue depressors, latrine covers, thermometers and salt tablets, all meant for a nuclear war that never came. Nobody knows who they belong to, and nobody has any reason to take them away.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, we are at war’
We did find something else, though. Just when we had given up on our mystery, we found somewhere else to poke around. A different address. A different time capsule, but with the same kinds of memories.
While rifling through DCPS archives, we started to notice correspondence between the Office of Civil Defense and Gordon Junior High School in the Glover Park neighborhood.
In 1963 the school had a proposal. The only highly publicized trials in fallout shelters had been conducted on naval officers who, it could be argued, might not represent the average American. A Gordon teacher was proposing to place 62 students in the school’s shelter for a period of 36 hours to see how they made out.
A roster was assembled. The school had an illustrious student body, and some participants received notations: “Mother is Press Secretary to First Lady, Mrs. Johnson,” said one. “Father is U.S. Representative Arnold Olsen, Montana.” There were children of Ethiopian and Indian diplomats, the son of a Turkish attache.
An article was written about the proposed experiment in the Evening Star, and caused a minor uproar. “Some of us believe that a shelter program may be psychologically damaging,” read a letter to the editor signed by social workers and ministers. “It would tend to make nuclear war seem inevitable to children.”
Nevertheless, the experiment went forward. Participants assembled in the auditorium, greeted with seriousness by Principal J. Dallas Shirley. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are at war,” he told them. “We are under threat of imminent attack.”
The students filed down to a subbasement none of them had known existed. They were divided into committees: Sanitation. Medical. Food. The shelter was filled with cots covered in paper blankets. “Like an olive-green paper,” remembers Christie Carpenter, the student whose mother was Lady Bird Johnson’s press secretary. “They made a lot of noise. My recollection is I didn’t sleep a wink.”
Barry Truder remembers being assigned to the Recreation committee and organizing an impromptu talent show. He invited people to make their own bingo cards. They sang “Little Bunny Foo Foo” in a round.
Verona Budke was placed on the Communications team, staying in radio contact with the outside world, which came in the form of pretend news updates: A number of bombs had fallen in Washington, one told them. “There is great danger from radioactive fallout.”
The night wore on. The students were told another group was seeking refuge — allowing them in would expose the students to radiation poisoning. But the other group contained children, they were told, so they voted to let them in.
The night wore on. One of the students, a boy whose father had been Kennedy’s assistant press secretary, started feeling lethargic. The Communications team radioed the outside world; it was determined the boy had German measles. They moved his cot to the other side of the room.
Walter Combs was on the Contamination committee, the group whose job it was to measure radiation levels in the shelter. He watched as his science teacher swung a Geiger counter around his head like a cowboy with a lariat, to capture the ambient air.
Walter was in seventh grade. That year, he’d seen yellow megaphones rise above the Washington skyline, which would be used to tell the city when the Russians were bombing. He’d sat through the Cuban missile crisis, when a social studies teacher said, “We are not going to have class today. We are just going to sit and look at each other because, depending on what happens, we might not ever see each other again.”
Now, in the shelter, he watched his science teacher lassoing the air to see if it was poisonous, and he began to wonder whether it was all futile. What, after all, was the point? If this had been real and if the readings had been bad, what would they have done? Gone outside where the air was worse? There was no available treatment. There was only sitting below a school auditorium in a roomful of his 12- and 13-year-old classmates, and hoping the walls were thick enough.
And, they weren’t. Or, they were, but not entirely. Or they were, but not as surveyors had intended or hoped for.
The story of fallout shelters, it turns out, is partly a story about safety in the nuclear age, but it’s more about the placebo effect in times of panic. In a grimly practical way, the emotion of being inside one was a pleasant reassurance of self-deception.
Originally, when the government sent surveyors to find suitable shelter locations, they sought buildings that had a protection factor of 200, meaning that anyone in the shelter would be 200 times less exposed to radiation than a person outside, in the elements.
But the surveyors didn’t find enough spaces, so the criterion were expanded: The fallout shelters at Gordon Junior High and Adams Elementary could have had a protection factor as low as 40, which mightn’t have killed you, but it could have made you sick.
In many ways, Washington was the least sensible place to develop an extensive fallout shelter program. Shelters were never designed to withstand bombs, only radiation aftermath.
But in a dense, urban environment like Washington, it’s the bombs that would have killed people — quickly and before anyone could seek cover. Shelters in a rural town would have greater lifesaving potential, but that was the Catch-22: places where fallout shelters would have worked best were the places that nobody was likely to bomb.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the dismantling of the shelter program began. Attention was turned to safeguarding against natural disasters instead — preparations that seemed both more tangible and more likely needed.
“The people who stayed really passionate about civil defense were laughed at by some; they were shrugged off by others,” says Krugler, the author.
There were other, smaller indignities in the fallout shelter program:
The “carbohydrate supplements,” meant to add a nutritional boost, were probably made with the red dye that was later banned because it was found to cause cancer.
Frank Blazich, the Smithsonian curator, heard a rumor that after the quiet decommisioning of fallout shelters, the carcinogenic fruit pebbles were sent to secretaries in government office buildings where they were then placed in candy bowls, to be eaten by the American public.
It was not clear what happened to the biscuits. Another mystery.
Down in the subbasement of Oyster-Adams, we found a tin that had already been opened. Not 50 years ago, we assume, but more recently, by some other intrepid seeker of history. The bulgur crackers looked like Saltines, and under Frank Blazich’s advice that they were probably still good, we tried one.
It tasted awful. Stale, mostly. It tasted like all the things we are afraid of, and all the things we do to convince ourselves that we are safe.