Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Bomb Shelter

Our house was built in 1888, as were the two houses that flank it. Ours is basically a large square with a mansard roof and some other fancies of the age that we can only guess at under the vinyl siding. In 1950 a garage was added to one side, and a mother-in-law apartment on the other side at the back. In the basement of this apartment was a bomb shelter.

We knew it was there when we bought the house. It was part of the tour when we first looked at the place. The basement at first seemed to be a very small space made of cinder block, just enough room for a 250 gallon oil tank and furnace. In the back wall was a metal door. If you opened the door, a narrow corridor led straight back about six feet and then turned sharply to the right. It continued across the width of the basement and then made another sharp turn to the left before entering a dingy little room, long since emptied of most of what we imagined one would want in a bomb shelter.

The outer doorway (door removed)
Looking in through the outer doorway.
Looking down the corridor to the inner doorway.
At first, we thought nothing of it – there was plenty to occupy us in the rest of the house – and it was kind of fun to show our friends or to use it as a conversation starter when we met new people, but gradually we realized that there were other things we could do with the space and so we decided to take it out.

When I was a kid I remember having at least one air raid drill at school. We had moved past the “duck and cover” stuff that seems so amazing in hindsight, but the school still had signs indicating that there was a fallout shelter in the basement. The fear, as they say, seemed to be the biggest problem.  I think they mean it as a joke, but the most common reaction to our decision was “Better not – you might need it!”  There are still people who tell me they are sad that we took it out, but I think it's different when it is your own basement. I don't know much about nor much believe in feng shui, but I can assure you that it is very bad feng shui to have a bomb shelter in your basement!

One completely unanticipated result of the removal was that we were able to see how poorly constructed and maintained the the addition was. The foundation walls were cracked, the support beam was being eaten away and the plumbing and electric were lucky to be functioning at all. We discovered that the heating ducts were not directly connected to the registers in the apartment above, but hung in space several inches away, as if it would be unsporting to too easily deliver warm air directly into the room. I had also never thought about the design of a bomb shelter. It was pretty intense. The outer walls were cinder block with rebar and concrete in them. Then there was a yard of earth, then another course of cinder block. The floor is a concrete slab and there was another slab for a ceiling, topped by another yard of earth. The more we saw how much like a bunker it was, the more I wanted it out.

I felt that all the anxiety and anger that had been in the air when the bomb shelter was constructed was let loose when we opened it up, and I was told I was being fanciful. But it is true that we argued more that winter, maybe because we had to make so many decisions - I won't insist.

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