Bad memories, nuclear fears return with N. Korean threats
AMHERST — The bunker is burrowed into the base of Bare Mountain, and, at first glance, it is a dry-as-dust repository for academic journals, for miles of shelving for books largely fallen from circulation, and for the boxed bones of ancient creatures that once roamed the earth.
But look again.
In a back room, perched high above a windowless cavern, there is a glassed-in command center whose side door is still stenciled in gold leaf with this Cold War admonition: “Senior Battle Staff Members Only.’’
Cue the red lights and sirens. Two generations ago, the place buzzed with urgency.
Top military commanders from nearby Westover Air Force Base, a major Strategic Air Command installation, examined missile trajectories and plotted payloads. They scoured world maps projected onto two-story-tall white concrete walls for targets in anticipation of a nuclear attack from Nikita Khrushchev’s Russia.
During the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, the alert lights here — once a steady green — suddenly signaled DEFCON 2, one notch below thermonuclear war.
Bryn Geffert, library director for Amherst College, which now owns the bunker, lives on a nearby cul-de-sac with a neighbor named Andre, a native of Ukraine who formerly served in the Soviet Air Force.
“I asked him once: ‘Did you know about this place?’ ’’ Geffert said the other day, blinking into a warm summer sun outside the bunker. “He smiled and said: ‘Oh yeah. We knew exactly where this was.’ He’s a nice guy, but there was a note of pleasure when he said that.’’
As North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, a madman with his finger on an atomic button, recalibrates his plan to fire missiles over Japan and into international waters 20 miles off Guam, suddenly the images of bomb shelters, duck-and-cover drills, and decontamination showers are no longer the stuff of grainy newsreels and science fiction novelists.
Kurt Schwartz, director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, said the state no longer owns or maintains a list of shelters. But he had this matter-of-fact advice:
“The public should not be particularly focused on the existence of dedicated fallout shelters or blast shelters. The message to the public for any nuclear incident is that existing buildings, particularly larger buildings that have concrete walls and concrete cellars, provide a significant level of protection from fallout in the aftermath of a nuclear blast.’’
If that advice sends chills down the spine of millennials, for baby boomers it holds echoes of an era when the president of the United States had a bomb shelter of his own, clawed out of a grassy mound on Nantucket.
President Kennedy was taking his own advice. Even before the world braced for nuclear conflict in 1962, Kennedy was urging Americans to prepare for an atomic winter.
“In the event of an attack,’’ Kennedy said in a 1961 nationally televised address, “the lives of those families which are not hit in a nuclear blast and fire can still be saved if they can be warned to take shelter and if that shelter is available. We owe that kind of insurance to our families and to our country. . . . The time to start is now.’’
Backyard bomb shelters were constructed and stocked with canned goods. Leading financial institutions made plans to protect their most important records. Behind giant steel doors and buried near the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., a massive bunker for members of Congress was stocked with supplies so the US government could continue after the apocalypse.
And all around New England, basement bomb shelters began to blossom.
In Tewksbury, six families chipped in $600 apiece to pay for a neighborhood shelter on Claire Street, big enough for 14 adults and 34 children.
In Framingham, two realtors said they were adding fallout shelters in a new community of homes under construction.
There were bomb shelters in Bedford and Cohasset. Yellow-and-black signs directed school kids to basement cafeterias in the event of mushroom clouds on the horizon.
In Pepperell, First National Bank of Boston buried important documents in a fortified vault, dug 14 feet deep into a countryside meadow and secured by a 16,000-pound door and reinforced with 100 tons of steel.
Engineers estimated it could survive a nuclear blast as close as 5 miles away.
“Because there was basically nothing out here in the 1960s, the Soviets would have had to be way off course to drop the big one directly on bank executives,” Gregory Contos, the facility’s manager, once told the Globe.
I was in high school in the early 1970s, when the Vietnam War raged, the Berlin Wall still stood strong, and the memory of the Missiles of October was still fresh. I have strong and fond memories of those days, but none is as vivid as my chemistry teacher’s response to this question: What do we do in case of a nuclear attack?
I can recall his advice nearly verbatim: “Here’s what you do. Go upstairs and put on your bathing suit. Then go into the bathroom and apply a thick layer of sunscreen. Then take your favorite beach chair, set it up on the front lawn and wait for the bright explosion. Because you’re going to die anyway.’’
Well, that got our attention.
But Kurt Schwartz told me that my old chemistry teacher was wrong.
“Most people will not be at ground zero of the blast,’’ he said. “They’ll be some distance away. Most people can survive and survive well if they can get inside and stay inside. I don’t want to be scaring everybody into thinking that there’s nothing I can do so I’m going out onto my lawn with my beach chair.’’
The whole idea of the bunker-turned-library here at Bare Mountain was to make sure things never got to that point.
They weren’t fooling around.
Intruders were to be shot on sight. There were monthly doomsday drills. The place is encased in concrete ceilings and walls 4 feet thick. Exterior blast doors were lined with lead. An enormous IBM mainframe computer hummed in one corner of the war room. There were 175 cots, enough food for 35 days, and charcoal air filters.
There was an interior missile silo designed to blast a hole through the bunker’s ceiling, a smoldering escape hatch in case the bunker was hit by an enemy rocket, essentially entombing military personnel inside.
During academic exchange trips, visiting professors from Russia were politely guided away from here.
“It’s the best conversation piece we have,’’ Geffert, the Amherst College chief librarian, told me on a tour of the place the other morning. “We get so many requests for tours, we have to turn them down.’’
And now, with President Trump threatening North Korea with retaliatory “fire and fury,’’ the curiosity at what used to take place beneath Bare Mountain is likely to intensify.
Memories are all that’s left from the last time America sat on the edge of a nuclear exchange.
Memories and some dusty little-remembered journals, like this one not far from the former military command center.
Its title? “Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets.’’
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.