House, with bomb shelter -- and lots of questions

Most of the time I can forget what lurks beneath my house. But then, without warning, the subject of war or bombs creeps into the conversation, as it did at a recent dinner party, and there I am again, unable to ignore that I live on top of a bomb shelter.

I don't know much about the man who built our house other than that he was an anesthesiologist. But his worldview is on display in the home he built. Did he put in air conditioning? No. A swimming pool? Nope. He opted instead for a sprawling steel and concrete catacomb of a bomb shelter.

I wonder what his friends thought. Did they sidle up to him with bribes for a reserved space? Or did they think he was a crackpot?

If you Google "bomb shelters" expecting quaint black-and-white photographs and Cold War nostalgia, as I recently did, you'll discover that "deep earth survival pods" are still very much in vogue in some circles.

"Be prepared for 2012! WMDs! Extreme Weather Change! Mitigate Terrorist Attacks!" one website ad screams.

Years ago, a friend of my dad's told me that all good salesmen sell fear. "Your job is to make your clients afraid to use your competitor. And afraid not to buy your product," he said. "If they don't buy X, they won't get the girls, their cars won't go and their bosses will pass them over for promotion. Their kids will be ridiculed and ashamed of them. They'll smell bad, and their deadbolts won't lock out the bad guys."

That philosophy is clearly alive in the "fortified underground bunkers and homes" business. And I guess I'm glad, because we've always worried about whether we'd ever be able to unload this place unless we called the bomb shelter a "dungeon" and sold it to some kinky porn producer.

To reach our bomb shelter, you go down a wooden staircase to a 1950s-style rec room. It smells distinctly basement-like and has only a few squinty windows near the ceiling.

Then you notice a door handle camouflaged in the fake wood paneling. You open a heavy lead door and walk down a few steps to a room with a bookcase, off of which is a bathroom (including a shower) on a separate water system from the rest of the house. But even this isn't the heart of the shelter. Give the bookcase a shove and it whooshes aside to reveal a windowless corridor. It's many degrees cooler in there — but not at all refreshing. The only sounds are those you bring with you.

Back in 1957 when the shelter was built, experts believed that radiation, like light, couldn't turn corners, so after a few yards the hallway veers right. Once you turn the corner, you can no longer see a way out, and when the light is off, the darkness is absolute.

My only excuse for buying this house 15 years ago is that I was on the rebound from the one that got away, a little gem designed by a disciple of Neutra. We were mid-quibble over a few thousand bucks when some woman with a design shop on Melrose swooped in and offered the asking price. Blinded by grief, we bought the next house we saw, bomb shelter and all.

We had tiny kids at the time and assumed they'd use it for forts and secret clubhouses, and that eventually they'd get drunk and lose their virginity down there. But it was too creepy for them too.

Now, the only time any of us venture down is to give tours to guests. It gives most people serious heebie-jeebies, but a few have offered enthusiastic suggestions: "You should have your office down there! "If that was mine I'd grow weed!" "It would make a great wine cellar."

I remember my real estate agent, Diana, trying to keep her voice chipper as we crept down the tunnel for the first time.

"Lots of great storage space," she said.

She and I weren't good enough friends to clutch each other as we tiptoed along, although I don't know how we managed not to. At the far end of that long hall we discovered a room with a bed in it. The bed was neatly made with a flowered bedspread.

"I guess this is the mother-in-law's room," Diana whispered. "If you really, really hate your mother in law."

There was a ladder bolted to the wall, leading up to an escape hatch in the ceiling. If you were so inclined, you could climb up that ladder, shove the metal lid aside and pop up amid the flower pots in the back yard.

We had family friends in the early '60s who packed up and moved to New Zealand because they believed it was the least likely English-speaking place to be bombed. I remember the frosting cartoon bomb on the cake at their goodbye party.

We didn't know anyone then who had a bomb shelter, but I remember my parents and their friends discussing what they'd put in one: canned food, water, first-aid kit, toilet paper. Then there were the harder questions: What about pets? Should we bring our valuables in case the house is looted? Photo albums and important papers?

Someone at the table inevitably insisted we bring a gun, in case. But I wondered: In case of what? Commies? Neighbors coveting our limited supplies?

Whenever the subject of our bomb shelter comes up, I insist that the anesthesiologist was deeply paranoid and pessimistic. But my husband disagrees. He thinks our shelter is a symbol of optimism, because it suggests the anesthesiologist believed he could protect himself and his family, and live to see another day.

Given a choice between facing radioactive fallout and being safely ensconced in the bomb shelter, though, I think I'd choose fallout.

Amy Goldman Koss' most recent book for teenagers is "The Not-So-Great Depression."

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