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The Ultimate Congressional Hideaway

By Ted Gup
Sunday, May 31, 1992; Page W11
The Washington Post

The year was 1960 and Randy Wickline was building something so immense and unnerving that he dared not ask what it was. All the Superior Supply Co. plant manager was told was that he was to haul concrete -- an endless river of concrete -- to be poured into the cavernous hole that had been excavated beside the posh Greenbrier hotel in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va. He remembers an urgency about the job, his supervisor hollering "hurry up," even instructing him to push the legal weight limit on his truckloads, and paying the fines that resulted. To keep up with the job, Superior Supply had to purchase two more concrete mixers, and still it was stretched thin. Over the next 2 1/2 years, Wickline estimates, the company hauled some 4,000 loads to the site and poured 50,000 tons of concrete into the abyss that scrapers, rippers and air hammers had carved out of the shale. Cost was never an issue.

A warren of rooms and corridors took shape where there had been a hill. The walls were two feet thick and reinforced with steel. Later, the entire structure was covered with a concrete roof and buried beneath 20 feet of dirt. At each entrance, cranes hung humongous steel doors, as if giants were to inhabit the underground structure. Soon thereafter, Wickline was told, "sensitive equipment" was moved into the facility. The door was locked. A guard was posted outside. No one had to tell Wickline that what he had helped build had something to do with the atomic bomb. "Nobody came out and said it was a bomb shelter," he says today, "but you could pretty well look and see the way they was setting it up there that they wasn't building it to keep the rain off of them. I mean a fool would have known. There would have been enough room to get a few dignitaries in there, but us poor folks would be left standing outside. It kind of made me think about it -- and hope it never happens."

For years, the work that Wickline and scores of other local builders undertook at the Greenbrier fueled speculation, but in time the memories dimmed and the rumors died. History took its course, and the generation that was defined by its anxiety over the Bomb began to see hope for a future free of mushroom clouds and radiation sickness.

But inside the hill, time stood still.

Now, more than three decades later, interviews with numerous current and former hotel employees and executives, contractors and former government officials, along with a review of private blueprints, drawings and photographs, have confirmed Randy Wickline's assumption, and more. What he helped build, it is now clear, was a haven for members of the U.S. Congress in the event of a nuclear war.

Unlike other government relocation centers, built mainly to house military and executive branch officials who would manage a nuclear crisis and its aftermath, the Greenbrier facility was custom-designed to meet the needs of a Congress-in-hiding, complete with a chamber for the Senate, a chamber for the House and a massive hall for joint sessions. Its discovery offers the first conclusive evidence that Congress as a whole was even included in government evacuation scenarios and given a role in postwar America. Today, the installation still stands at the ready, its operators still working under cover at the hotel -- a concrete-and-steel monument to the nuclear nightmare. The secrecy that has surrounded the site has shielded it both from public scrutiny and official reassessment, and may have allowed it to outlive the purpose for which it was conceived.

House Speaker Thomas Foley, one of the very few in Congress who has been briefed on the Greenbrier facility, declined to comment for this article. But former speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill says the evacuation plan always seemed "far-fetched" to him. "I never mentioned it to anybody," O'Neill recalls. "But every time I went down to the Greenbrier -- and I went there half a dozen times -- I always used to look at the hill and say, 'Well, that's where we're supposed to live in the event something happens, and that's where we're going to do business, maybe under the tennis courts.' "

Situated in a lush and remote valley in the Allegheny Mountains five hours' drive southwest of Washington, the Greenbrier is one of the nation's premier resorts, a place that touts itself as a playground for foreign princes and America's political elite. Twenty-three men who were or would become U.S. presidents have stayed there. Dinners are six courses. The most elaborate are set with 24-karat-gold vermeil and served by waiters in forest green livery. A fleet of bottle-green stretch limos idles in front of the columned portico. Spread over 6,500 manicured acres, complete with golf courses, skeet shooting, spas and a stream stocked with rainbow trout, the Greenbrier wants to be seen as a resort of distinction and aristocratic carriage. It is designated a National Historic Landmark -- and seems among the last places one might expect to find a Strangelovian bunker.

Though the resort has knowingly hosted both the ultra-sensitive congressional hideaway and the people who maintain it, there seems to have been little concern that any of the Greenbrier's 1,600 employees would reveal the facility's existence. Many have heard rumors about what lies beneath the vast extension known as the West Virginia Wing, which houses luxury rooms and a complete medical clinic. Some have direct knowledge of the installation, but no one will talk openly about it. The Greenbrier is the only significant private employer in hardscrabble Greenbrier County, and its workers -- many of whom are second- and third-generation employees -- don't have to be reminded of the strictness with which the resort manages its public image. "Anyone who doesn't work here and who is of working age, there's a reason they're not here," says the hotel's president, Ted Kleisner. "Everyone comes to work for life here. People die. People retire. And a couple of people get fired each year. That's it."

Even before the facility was built, the Greenbrier and the U.S. government were no strangers. In the winter of 1941-42, the hotel served as a U.S. internment facility for Japanese, Italian and German diplomats. On September 1, 1942, the U.S. Army commandeered the entire resort -- purchasing it for $3.3 million from its owner, the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad -- then converted it into a 2,200-bed military hospital. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was twice a patient there. (He returned to celebrate a wedding anniversary in 1945.) After the war, the rail- road bought the resort back. Other governmental links followed. In 1949, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson met at the Greenbrier with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretaries of the Army, Air Force and Navy for what a history of the Greenbrier called a "top-secret discussion of postwar military strategy." In 1956 Eisenhower hosted an international conference there with the leaders of Canada and Mexico. Hotel operators at the time answered the phone: "Good morning, Greenbrier White House." The hotel has three connecting "Eisenhower Parlors," and Ike's bust is on display in the North Parlor.

There have also been frequent congressional visits over the years -- in the 1980s, Democrats from Congress liked to meet there -- and senior officials from every recent administration have been to the resort. A 1991 promotional publication features a photo of Greenbrier President Kleisner welcoming Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney.

Despite its many government ties, there is a touch of irony in the Greenbrier's selection as host for a facility built in response to the Soviet threat. Cyrus Eaton, the man who presided over the C&O -- now the conglomerate CSX -- enjoyed a cozy relationship with the Soviet leadership. Dubbed "the Kremlin's favorite capitalist," he took pride in having received the Lenin Peace Prize, and in 1954 organized a meeting between U.S. and Soviet atomic scientists in the hope they would warn their respective leaders of the perils of the arms race.

"What got me started was the atomic bomb and the realization that our civilization and theirs could be wiped out overnight," he once said.

When construction on the facility began in 1959, near the end of the second Eisenhower administration, the Cold War was at its height and fear of a Soviet nuclear attack was deeply embedded both in the psyche of ordinary citizens and in the thoughts of Pentagon planners. Americans were excavating back yards for bomb shelters, storing cans of Campbell's soup on basement shelves and screening "duck-and-cover" films for schoolchildren. Meanwhile, the government was building a number of relocation centers on the East Coast. Most were carved out of mountains and became alternate command posts for the president and Cabinet, or communications centers (see box, Page 14). It was the heyday of the doomsday planners. "Continuity of government," as it came to be called, evolved into a military subspecialty. Near Berryville, Va., Mount Weather was hollowed out of solid rock and filled with state-of-the-art communications equipment, underground reservoirs and banks of computers. Another such facility was located at Raven Rock Mountain in Pennsylvania near Fort Ritchie.

The Greenbrier was different in that it relied more on the element of secrecy than on any mountain of rock to shield it from incoming bombs. Yet despite the discretion of the resort staff, the existence of some kind of hidden government installation there was widely known. One former government official says he was told that so many people in the White Sulphur Springs area knew about the facility that the government dispatched two men who had not been briefed on the project to mingle with the locals, posing as hunters, to learn just how much was known and what was being said. According to the official, the two returned to Washington a few days later with so many details about the facility that they had to be given top-secret clearance.

Hundreds of people suspect that something hush-hush lies under the Greenbrier's West Virginia Wing. "I've always heard the rumors that there is some kind of bomb shelter under the Greenbrier's clinic," says County Assessor Clyde Bowling. Like many in this small town of 2,800, he remembers being told that a company called Forsythe Associates operated the bomb shelter, and that a man named "Fritz" Bugas ran Forsythe.

For many others, the facility is less a matter of suspicion than a certainty. "The government does have an installation there, no question about it," says John Bowling, a former mayor of White Sulphur Springs. "It's common knowledge here." John Bowling says he has known for years that the facility is a government relocation center. His family, long in the hardware business, sold many of the parts that went into the construction of the West Virginia Wing. His uncle, Bowling says, had an empty skating rink where the government stored C-rations before transferring them to the site. He remembers the concrete walls, two feet thick. "The depth of the excavation was very, very impressive," he says. "It was way down there."

At the time the facility was being built, White Sulphur Springs Police Chief Bernard Morgan recalls, he was told by the head of Greenbrier security, the late Harry Welsh, that without a security clearance he would not be allowed inside. Gerald A. Wylie, a Greenbrier security officer from 1963 until 1980, says he has been in the facility; unwilling to comment further, he says only that "it makes you feel safe." Martha Dixon is the widow of Arnold Dixon, who worked as an engineer at the Greenbrier. She recalls her husband telling her that he had to enter the facility periodically to test the generators there. "It was all supposed to be very secretive," he told her. "It was for the ones in Washington to come here."

Another former Greenbrier security officer, who asked not to be identified, says he saw bunk beds, shower rooms, an internal power plant and numerous offices behind the secured door leading to the facility. He also recalls seeing a vast number of crates of C-rations. "You could last a long time in there," he says. "If war had broken out, we {Greenbrier security} would have taken charge." An office inside the facility was designated for the use of security officers, he says.

Not surprisingly, most of the Greenbrier's current and former managers deny the existence of any hidden facility beneath the resort. The company line comes from CSX spokesman James A. Searle Jr. in Richmond: "There's no bomb shelter, no government facility. I can tell you what I know is the truth and that is the end of it."

Chuck Ingalsbee was the Greenbrier's general manager from December 1984 until February 1987. He now runs a Caribbean resort on the island of Anguilla. Asked about the existence of a classified government facility under the West Virginia Wing, he said he would have to "touch base with a couple of people" before he could answer. "I won't speak to the issue until I have had a conversation with the right people," he said. "It was an official oath I gave." In a subsequent conversation a week later, Ingalsbee said he had been directed not to speak about the facility.

Truman Wright, now retired and living in Highland Beach, Fla., ran the Greenbrier from 1951 until 1974, spanning the period in which the facility was constructed. "I did not know for certain of anything that was going into it," he recalls. "I purposely did not look into it." Wright acknowledges knowing there was a government installation there. "I didn't imagine it was for hotel guests," he says. But while "I was supposed to be as knowledgeable as anyone . . . anything that took place took place at a level far higher than mine, for example in the Terminal Tower Building in Cleveland {then C&O corporate headquarters}. I don't know what went on. I simply worked for the railroad."

During the construction of the West Virginia Wing, Wright recalls, he had a conversation with a contractor about one cavernous room he was working on. "This is an exhibit hall?" observed the puzzled contractor. "We've got 110 urinals we just installed. What in the hell are you going to exhibit?"

Wright says he was kept in the dark about the installation's funding as well. Told of another source's belief that in return for allowing the facility to be built at the Greenbrier, the government helped pay to construct the West Virginia Wing, Wright says it is plausible but he has no firsthand knowledge of the new wing's finances.

From the beginning, the Greenbrier relocation center has been run by Forsythe Associates, an obscure company ostensibly based in Arlington. Standing at the ready to operate the facility, whose entrance is only steps away from one of its Greenbrier offices, Forsythe has a cover that shows a genius for simplicity. The company's six or seven full-time employees emphatically deny any involvement with the government. They say that their job is to repair and service the Greenbrier's nearly 1,000 television sets and provide the hotel with television service.

It is true that Forsythe Associates' employees repair TVs and deliver cable programming to the hotel's guests. And it may be true that some of the company's employees know little or nothing about the classified site. But there have been plenty of signs that the company is not simply what it appears to be.

The first general manager of Forsythe's Greenbrier operation was John Londis, now 76 and retired to Boca Raton, Fla. Londis is a former cryptographic expert with the Army Signal Corps who had a top-secret security clearance and was stationed at the Pentagon. He arrived at the Greenbrier in 1960 as work on the installation was getting under way. During the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, according to one former government official, Londis made a point of leaving work on schedule so as not to attract attention, but then returned to the facility under cover of darkness. In a recent interview, Londis denied any knowledge of a hidden installation and said his only work was to provide television service to the hotel.

A series of recent calls to the Forsythe office in Arlington was greeted with this recording: "You have reached Forsythe Associates. Currently we are unable to come to the phone. Please leave your name and number and we will return your call as soon as possible . . . beep . . . beep . . . beep . . . The tape is full; please call again." A week later the tape was replaced, but no calls were ever returned.

Forsythe maintains a complex of antennas, ostensibly used to deliver cable programs, atop a nearby mountain. A former government official who visited the site says that one of the antennas had a tube-like sensor designed to detect the brilliant light emitted in a nuclear flash. That sensor, he said, would trigger an alarm within the underground facility. The company has at least two offices at the Greenbrier, one a maintenance shop for technicians and supplies, the other an administrative building in an area seldom frequented by resort guests. The front door of the administrative office has three separate locking mechanisms -- a Dayton time-lock on the inside, and, on the outside, a Yale lock and a magnetic key-card lock. Inside are the offices of Paul E. "Fritz" Bugas, who replaced John Londis when he retired in 1976.

Bugas is a short man with a salt-and-pepper beard, a dark hairpiece, thick glasses and an outgoing personality. A friend who asked not to be named says that, like Londis, Bugas was a career officer in the Army Signal Corps with a top-secret security clearance. His title is eastern regional director of Forsythe, though Forsythe employees say they know of no Forsythe business other than that at the Greenbrier. On his desk, behind his nameplate, is a small American flag with gold braid. On the bookshelf behind his desk is an eclectic collection of books including such titles as Robert Scheer's With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush and Nuclear War and Stanley Karnow's Vietnam: A History. In a brief phone conversation Bugas said, "I don't have any qualms about talking with you." He promised to call back, but never did.

Bugas's assistant is a man named John Nemcik, who says he worked as an Air Force radio operator and had a top-secret clearance until he retired in 1958. In 1977, he says, he came to Forsythe's Greenbrier office after learning of a vacancy. How he learned of the vacancy he does not remember. Prior to that, he says, he worked for an Ohio firm from 1975 to 1977. Asked what he did in the 17 years between military service and the Ohio position, he says, "I bounced around at odd jobs."

Across the hall from Bugas's office is that of his temporary secretary, Gladys Childers. The office contains a word processor, a printer and, in the corner, a high-speed shredder. Why does a television repair firm need a shredder? "That's to get rid of Gladys's mistakes," says Nemcik with a laugh.

Details of the desing and construction of the facility, of course, are scarce. But Randy Wickline, who hauled concrete to the site, remembers seeing the name "Mosler" on the enormous doors that were installed at the entrances.

"Mosler" was Mosler Safe Co., an Ohio-based manufacturer famed for its vaults and safes. In the '50s and early '60s it also had a flourishing "nuclear products group" that used the company's expertise to build massive doors for government relocation centers and bunkers. The company believed its doors could survive the impact of an atomic bomb blast, or at least a near miss. A Mosler vault door withstood a nuclear blast some two-fifths of a mile away at the government's Nevada Test Site in 1957.

Chuck Oder, still an engineer with Mosler, helped build the blast-proof doors for the Greenbrier. His project records note that he received an order for four specially built doors in February 1960. The entry simply read "Greenbrier Hotel." But in the project jacket and archives of the company there is a wealth of information about Mosler's contribution to the project. Beside the specifications on one set of blueprints is written: "Greenbrier Hotel: White Sulphur Springs Additional Facilities."

Two of the four doors ordered were gigantic, built to shield vehicular entrances. One was designated "GH 1," the other, "GH 3." With its frame and assembly, GH 1 weighed more than 28 tons and measured 12 feet 3 inches wide and 15 feet high. The other vehicular door, GH 3, weighed more than 20 tons. The doors were 19 1/2 inches thick. Each was hung with two hinges. Those hinges alone weighed 1 1/2 tons, according to Mosler's records. Yet the doors were so delicately balanced that they could be opened and closed with the application of a mere 50 pounds of force against their bulk. Two other doors were also built: a hatch-like door measuring 3 feet by 3 1/2 feet, and a "personnel door" 7 feet wide by 8 feet high.

Ordinarily, the larger doors would have been constructed with two panels, or "leafs," but the Greenbrier doors were "single leaf." Single-leaf construction maximized the doors' strength, eliminating the vulnerability caused by a seam. Engineering instructions from the time note: "The locking devices shall be operable from the inside only and shall be protected against any possible damage by blast action against the outside surface of the doors." In keeping with those instructions, large wheel handles were fitted on the inside of the two larger doors.

Placing the handle on the inside served two functions. First, it enabled those inside the facility to lock themselves in against those who might otherwise try to enter. Most importantly, as the instructions note, it protected the locking mechanism from a blast. Turning the handle one way slid giant pins or rollers into fittings behind the frame. Turning the wheel the other way released the pins. Not surprisingly, the whole apparatus resembled the workings of a safe -- but instead of deterring robbers, it was meant to withstand an atomic explosion. A bomb's initial impact would theoretically be absorbed by the door, then spread to the frame, then finally to the wall of concrete poured around the frame. The door would bend inward under the strain, distorted and bowed. Then would come the reactionary pressure after the blast. The door would recoil -- or, as the experts say, "rebound" -- shooting outward. Without the huge pins to secure it, the door might fly off its hinges on the rebound.

From Mosler's Hamilton, Ohio, plant, the doors were moved to West Virginia by train. They were too wide to be laid flat on an ordinary freight car, so they had to be transported standing or tilted at an angle, requiring a special flatbed car that was low enough so the doors would clear tunnels and trestles on the way. Notations on Mosler's blueprints indicate that upon arrival at the Greenbrier, the steel doors were to be filled with concrete. Mosler personnel at the job site installed the doors and their frames.

Not having been inside the hidden portions of the Greenbrier facility, I cannot paint an exact, up-to-date picture of what lies beyond those Mosler doors. But a former government official whose familiarity with the facility dates back to its origins offers a fairly complete description, many details of which are confirmed by sources stationed there in more recent years.

The relocation center's largest room is not hidden, but has been incorporated into the design of the resort's West Virginia Wing and is known as "The Exhibit Hall." Measuring 89 by 186 feet beneath a ceiling nearly 20 feet high and lined with 18 massive support columns, it is one of the hotel's major conference facilities. Through a vehicular entrance, exhibitors can drive truckloads of equipment and displays into the hall. General Motors' top executives have met here amid displays of the company's newest model cars. A Greenbrier brochure dating from the early 1960s notes, "The floor is finished with a beautiful plastic terrazzo designed to support unlimited weight."

Both the vehicular entrance and a second, pedestrian entrance can be sealed off by blast doors on very short notice. Yet hotel guests see nothing but a spacious room. On a recent afternoon, guests were practicing their golf drives there, hitting balls into large cages made of nets, while off-duty resort employees jogged around the perimeter. Children played shuffleboard along the north wall.

At the rear of the Exhibit Hall are two smaller auditoriums also available for guest use. The larger of these seats about 470 -- enough to accommodate the 435-member House of Representatives. Green corduroy-covered chairs with armrests that raise up to become desks are locked into rows. A red carpet leads to the stage. The smaller of the auditoriums has a seating capacity of about 130, enough to serve as a temporary Senate chamber. The Exhibit Hall itself could be used for joint sessions of Congress.

All of this has been open and available to hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting guests who have passed through for more than three decades. But the rest of the installation is out of public view.

Not far from the auditoriums is a large white door with four metal bolts; two lock into the floor and two into the ceiling. It leads to a corridor, perhaps 20 yards long, that ends at a locked door where a sign with red letters against a white background cautions: "Danger: High Voltage Keep Out." Overhead are a large emergency lighting system, vents and what appear to be sensors. Few people have been beyond this door, which can be opened only with a special key card.

When the former government official first entered the facility, he was amazed by what he saw. Along the left side of the wide corridor leading further into the hillside was an infirmary complete with an operating table, then a dormitory with hundreds of metal bunk beds. The mattresses were covered, but the beds were not made. Beside the dormitory was a shower room, complete with wrapped bars of soap in the dishes. "I remember the first time I saw it, especially the dormitory," the former official says. "I had bad dreams that night. It's one of those experiences you don't lightly forget. It scared the hell out of me."

Beyond that room was a television studio from which the legislators would be able to address what was left of the nation. Still further into the compound was a radio and communications room, then a room with phone booths that had been specially soundproofed and fitted with cryptographic machines. To the right of the corridor as one entered the door was a dining room where a number of place settings had been neatly laid out. The walls of the dining room featured false windows complete with wooden frames and country scenes painted on them. The idea, apparently, was that the illusion of being above ground might counter the sense of entombment that could come from a prolonged stay in the facility.

There was also a kitchen and storage area. In the very rear of the compound was a power room, with two diesel generators, standing two stories high, ready to supply all electrical needs. In the same room was a device identified as a "pathological waste incinerator" (translation: an oven for cremations). Once the blast doors were sealed, no one could enter or leave until the crisis had passed. Burial or other disposal of bodies would be impossible, the former official was told.

Beyond the installation, a vehicular tunnel led through the hill and out to the rear of the Greenbrier property, invisible from the road, but convenient to both Route 60 and a railroad line. Supplies for the facility came in through this tunnel, usually at night.

Ted Kleisner, president and managing director of the Greenbrier, is a gracious host. Photos in the hotel's brochures show him beaming with his celebrity guests. But he can hardly be expected to welcome questions about a government installation concealed within his resort.

"How could that possibly go on without my total involvement?" he says as he prepares to fly to Vancouver to pick up an American Automobile Association Five Diamond Award, the resort's umpteenth honor for excellence. "It can't. I run everything that's here at the Greenbrier. . . . Our only role here is to serve guests."

Kleisner consents to accompany me to the West Virginia Wing to prove once and for all that there is no secret site on the property. From his office it is a 10-minute walk through one lavish salon after another, and finally down a long, stark connecting corridor reminiscent of a Pentagon hallway. On the way he dismisses the story I'm reporting as "bizarre," "fantastic" and utterly untrue.

As we approach the Exhibit Hall I point out a false wall behind which one of the blast doors is concealed. Five large steel hinges protrude from the wall. He laughs and says I'm looking at "an expansion joint" connecting the two buildings.

We make our way to the rear of the 470-seat auditorium. Imagining the House of Representatives in session here, the outside doors to the Exhibit Hall sealed behind tons of steel and concrete, I try to conjure up the agenda: Retaliation? Rebuilding the nation? Kleisner interrupts my eerie reverie to note that this is where the children of employees watch cartoons at Christmastime.

Finally we stand a few feet from the door that leads directly to the hidden part of the relocation facility. It is the only closed door I have asked to go through. Kleisner refuses to open it. "Actually that goes to an equipment area and we just don't need to go back there," he explains. Later I ask him again why I could not enter the door. "Because I said 'no,' " he says firmly.

As he prepares to leave for Vancouver, his tone softens. The nation "ought to have a facility like what you say we have here," he says. "We ought to have lots of facilities to protect us in case Moammar Gadhafi decides to throw a few over our bow." Well, I ask, why not at the Greenbrier? "It clearly would not be compatible with a destination resort," he says.

Then, in case his repeated denials have missed their mark, he invokes the absurd. "Do you honestly think that if there was imminent global nuclear war that Congress would be sipping tea and listening to concerts at the Greenbrier?"

When it comes to the usefulness of the Greenbrier facility, Kleisner's question may be uncomfortably close to the mark.

Just how Congress was expected to reach the Greenbrier is unclear. It is at least a five-hour drive from the Capitol. In the spring of 1962, just as the facility became operational, the C&O and the Greenbrier paid some $90,000 to have the runway at the nearby Greenbrier Valley Airport extended, according to a promotional brochure of the time. Today that airport has a 7,000-foot runway capable of handling a commercial jetliner. But it is still an hour's flight from Washington. And because very few members of Congress have been aware that the facility exists, it would take far longer than that to round them up.

The installation only made sense if the planners anticipated evacuating Congress many hours, if not days, before a crisis turned from rhetoric to attack. Yet mobilizing 535 members of Congress and evacuating them to a resort area 250 miles away in the middle of such a crisis would almost certainly draw unwanted attention to the site.

Another problem is that members of Congress would be barred from bringing their spouses or children. Tip O'Neill recalls that, as speaker, he received an annual briefing on the facility, but says he didn't pay much attention to it. "I kind of lost interest in it when they told me my wife would not be going with me," O'Neill says. "I said, 'Jesus, you don't think I'm going to run away and leave my wife? That's the craziest thing I ever heard of.' " O'Neill's concerns have been repeatedly echoed by Cabinet secretaries and other top officials during mock exercises at other relocation centers. Only a few have expressed a willingness to leave Washington -- ground zero in almost every attack scenario -- without their families.

All these factors made the utility of the Greenbrier facility questionable from the beginning. In the decades since it was conceived and built, the number of nuclear weapons has vastly multiplied and their accuracy has been greatly enhanced. And the time elapsed from launch to impact could be less than 15 minutes. "I never put much credence in it, to tell you the truth," O'Neill says. "I just didn't think it would work."

No exodus from Congress has ever been attempted, so the practicality of the relocation plan has never been put to the test. On at least one occasion, however -- during the Cuban missile crisis -- the Greenbrier facility was put on high alert. One former official recalls being told of a series of crates arriving at the Greenbrier during that period, sent from Washington by the architect of the Capitol. Inside, the official was told, were original manuscripts dating back to the 18th century, part of an apparent effort to disperse critical government documents so that they would not all be incinerated in a nuclear conflagration.

Absurdity in doomsday scenarios is relative, however, and the Greenbrier plan looks good in comparison with the government's relocation plans for ordinary citizens. As recently as June 1990, for example, the nation's civil defense planners still designated Greenbrier County as the place to which some 45,500 residents of Fairfax County would be evacuated in the event of a nuclear war, under a master plan to relocate civilian populations living in key East Coast target areas. It is a ludicrous plan, as some of those charged with overseeing it freely acknowledge. "They would be running from nowhere to nowhere -- to me, it would be absolute panic," says C. Kim Hallam Jr., a "population protection planning officer" with the West Virginia Office of Emergency Services. "To be honest, I usually have a pretty good imagination, but if I lived in Fairfax County, I can't see myself driving five hours to some place where there's not going to be anything to help me once I got there."

The sudden influx of people would more than double the county's population. Not only is there no vast and well-stocked underground bunker waiting to take them in, there is no food or shelter set aside for them at all. Instead they would be expected to show up with recreational vehicles or tents and to bring their own food, medicine and supplies.

"They would be located in hills and valleys and pasture lands," says Rudy Holbrook, the civil defense coordinator for Greenbrier County. "It would be tent city."

I was 11 at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. I remember believing that I would not grow up to be a man. I remember crouching under my desk at school and being told to face away from the window when the blast hit. I remember too the jet-black newspaper headlines that each day suggested we were moving closer to the precipice, the grainy photos with arrows pointing to long objects on the decks of Soviet ships. I wondered why I'd been born into the first generation that had to grow up in the shadow of the Bomb. Even as a child, perhaps especially as a child, it seemed unfair.

More than 30 years after the complex was dug beside the Greenbrier, I walk the hill that hides it and search for evidence of the facility. The pine and oak trees that have taken root since then are now mature. The ground is cushioned with decaying pine needles, and deer droppings are scattered everywhere. I find some comfort in this, the passage of time. I draw an easier breath thinking that over the course of three decades, all that lies beneath my feet in the forbidden bunker -- all the horrific plans and preparations -- has remained unneeded. Walking this ground as a man of 41 helps me to come to terms with those childhood nightmares.

At the summit of the hill, a green and ghostly T-shaped smokestack rises out of the ground. Behind a fence, a large satellite dish points toward a cloudless sky. I wend my way over the hill, through entangling thickets. Thorns and briers snag my pants legs. A hare darts out from behind a tree. Eventually I come to a clearing and a road that leads to the rear entrance of the installation. I know that behind the bright metal facade, flanked by concrete walls, is one of the blast doors built by Mosler.

And it strikes me that here, before my eyes, is the very architecture of fear. The Greenbrier's secret lesson is the same one my generation learned so well: how to compartmentalize our lives. How to contain our fear just below the surface, secure and controlled -- daily denying its existence -- while above ground we manicured our lawns, concentrated on recreation and consumption, and turned up the music as loud as it would go. So too it has been with the Greenbrier. For 30 years, its guests have come to play golf, to be massaged, to bathe in the restorative waters of the mineral baths, while some of the men who repaired their televisions and brought them movies made all things ready for a darker world after this world.

Ted Gup is a Washington correspondent for Time. His last article for the Magazine was on fugitive financier Tom Billman.

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