Live & Learn

Bomb shelter blew holes in neighborhood friendship


Memory is a funny thing. An experience, words uttered, the features of someone's face can all be buried under layers of time. Then an aroma, a song or a faded photo can pop it into sharp focus.

That happened to me when I saw the movie, "Thirteen Days." I hadn't expected the movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the war of nerves that President Kennedy and those around him fought with the Soviets to bring back those fateful days so vividly.

I was 30 years old in October 1962 when the nuclear war we'd dreaded for years brushed so close we felt its fiery breath. My husband and I had two small children. We were scared and panicky. Watching the movie, I found myself gripping the arms of the seat so tightly my fingers ached. Tears came as I remembered our helplessness and anger.

Afterward, as memories of that time continued to wash over me, I thought of our next-door neighbors, who I'll call Bill and Mary. During those times, lots of people considered buying bomb shelters. We went to bomb shelter exhibits, compared prices and debated the pros and cons. My husband and I didn't buy. We settled uneasily for a stash of bottled water, canned foods, a first-aid kit and a battery-powered radio.

Bill and Mary were our age, with two kids, and we'd become friends. But soon after the Cuban crisis, we felt a chill coming from their side of the fence. Bill was shifty-eyed when we met. Mary would disappear into the house when I encountered her outside.

There were strange noises and lights at night in their back yard. We wondered about it, but didn't dare ask. One day, I took a stool out and peeked over the high wooden fence separating our yards. It looked like a construction site. Were they putting in a pool? I told my husband about my snooping at dinner that night.

He almost choked on his chicken.

"Bill must be putting in a bomb shelter!" he said.

But why all the secrecy? Obviously, Bill didn't want his neighbors to seek shelter with them when the bombs hit. My husband and I talked long into the night about it. Was it because the shelter was too small for anyone but them? After all, we chose not to buy one. Why should they be responsible for those who didn't prepare?

It was the grasshopper and ant fable. Still, how could they shut out their friends and leave them to perish in the radiation-poisoned air? And the most nagging question what would we do in such circumstances?

Eventually, Mary told me about Bill's shelter. The nuclear scare had subsided, and people had moved on with their lives. Our friendship gradually warmed again. But for the next four years that we were neighbors, Bill's bomb shelter was his personal albatross. It leaked dreadfully. Still, he was determined to keep his investment at the ready. So after every rain or snow, Bill spent hours pumping water and mud out of his shelter. It became the neighborhood joke.

Today I look around my friendly neighborhood, where we chat as we walk our dogs, water each other's yards during vacations, offer condolences to the sick. I wonder what my neighbors would do to help each other if bombs fell or nature turned savage? What would I do? Of course, we'd share our food and water, and offer shelter. Wouldn't we?

Or would we tell ourselves that we're really strangers and owe nothing to each other.

Neighborhoods have changed over time. Few stay put long enough to really connect and feel committed to a place, let alone to the people in that place. Neighborhoods where couples start families, raise their children together and grow old together, hardly exist anymore. How would that affect us if our world suddenly collapsed?

I tend to be an optimist about such things. But remembering Bill's bomb shelter gives me pause.

Contact Vivian Taylor at 474-1386 or online at mailto:viv@

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