Nuclear Fallout

While the one divides into two: the heart and its shadow,
The world and its threat, the crow back of the sparrow.

-“Of Ancient Origins and War” Brigit Pegeen Kelly

 

“Doesn’t look like much,” Mom said, as we pulled into the parking lot of the Titan Missile Museum.

The main building was low to the ground. A few small buildings, which looked like garages or tool sheds, and large equipment were scattered throughout the fenced property.

If I hadn’t known where we were, I would have thought it looked like a work site with a few trucks and what seemed to be oil tanks, not a nuclear missile site. Looking over the denuded ground and its desert setting, I could almost sense the danger, the power, of the place. But nothing visible attested to it.

As my husband pulled into the parking space, Dad opened his door prematurely, and Marshal braked quickly. “Whoa, sorry,” Dad mumbled. After the car stopped, he rolled his body out the door, wincing as his feet hit the pavement.

We all got out, stretching ourselves as if we had been driving far more than fifteen minutes from Mom and Dad’s condo to the museum.

Only a little earlier, we’d been back at Mom and Dad’s condo, debating what to do with the last day of our visit.

“We’ve already been to Tubac a hundred times,” I said. I hated sounding like the surly teen of decades before, but the last thing I wanted to do was walk into the shops with Mexican crafts made for Americans and watch Marshal buy a wind chime while Dad fumed in the corner. Dad saw a purchase like that as impractical, a waste of money. He preferred to buy run-down real estate and several-times-a-week golf and to peel a Franklin from his money clip to pay for our dinner. Dad kept the smaller bills nestled inside a hundred dollar bill which faced outward in the clip. When I was younger the big denomination was just for show, but as I got older he began to spend it.

“The cathedral?” Mom’s voice sounded bright, like artificial lights. The four of us sat in their condo living room. I could hear a ballgame on the TV my adult son Marc watched from the couch in the tiny den. Breakfast dishes were done, and we couldn’t leave for home until at least 4PM. Not much to do in Green Valley, Arizona. I felt suffocated in their winter home, with the mismatched remnants of their travels and the fruits of Dad’s puttering.

Dad had stamped every surface with his imprint. His gourd masks and roughly crafted wreaths lined the walls. A little table next to the armchair sloped to one side as the metal sculpture he had made for the base of the tile table top was higher on one side than the other two.

“We did that before. Remember?”

Dad’s face tipped downward in a pout. “I still think you need to see the observatory.”

“Marshal just can’t handle the altitude.” My father’s face told me he resented that I couldn’t go because of my husband’s auto-immune troubles.

“What about the Titan Missile Museum then?” Dad’s voice hit a defensive note. He explained it was nearby, in Sahuarita.

“Sounds good.”

I had shepherded Dad into the passenger seat up front in our SUV, across the console from Marshal. Marc sat between his grandmother and me in the rear seat. Slouching back, he hid his face under the brim of his Yankees cap. I glanced at Mom, worried that every day she had to ride in their car with Dad driving. The summer before, distracted, he’d driven right into the closed garage door of their Michigan house.

I figured Mom had prepared for more togetherness with a finger of Scotch or what she called nerve pills. At some point she’d changed from the sensitive child-woman of my childhood to a brittle stoic.

Marc whispered to me, “Why didn’t you tell them no? This sucks.”

Mom either didn’t hear Marc or she ignored him. Looking trim in her sweater and matching vest, she stared straight ahead with a neutral expression. Once she cleared her throat and pursed her lips. Her short gray hair was immaculately cut, as usual. With the car windows closed, I could just make out her light, flowery fragrance.

Glancing at Dad, I wondered if he was still irritated about the observatory. Or how I had made sure he rode shotgun. “I was driving way before you were born! Thanks for treating me like an old man.” People were always telling me that my parents were the cutest old couple, and sometimes they looked that way to me, too. This was not one of those times.

So that I could catch him just in case he were to fall, I stood by Dad as he slowly climbed out of the vehicle, then walked with him up the walkway, matching his very slow and determined steps. “My hip still gets me a bit,” he said. I nodded that I knew.

We milled around the low-ceilinged lobby until we were directed to a small theatre to watch a short film. Afterward, the tour guide insisted that anyone over 5’6 wear a hard hat. Both Dad and I had been measured as 5’6 when we were younger. But he’d grown smaller, shrunken with age. He insisted on wearing a hard hat.

Of the group of twenty adults, Marc, at twenty-five, was the youngest. The guide led us down 55 stairs which meandered around a central hub. Finally we arrived at a small window. Motioning for us to peer inside, the guide pointed out that we had been winding around the missile, tensed in its silo.

The Titan Missile Museum, as Mom had said, didn’t look like much when we drove up, but the sense that its energy hides just under the surface had begun to take root from my initial impression.

Our guide took us down into the underground launch control chamber, where we positioned ourselves in a rough circle to listen to his speech.

I stood across from Dad—the empty chair in front of the controls in the center between us—and when I looked over at him concentrating on the guide, I saw how taut his body was, as if he were a little kid trying hard to keep himself under control.

Is Dad working himself up at not being the center of attention…or is it something else?

The guide droned on. “The launch control center is a reinforced concrete structure 37 feet in diameter. It contains three levels and is shaped like a dome.” The word dome resonated. It sounded religious. I wanted to watch the guide, look at the controls, but my gaze kept moving back to Dad, as he stood stiffly there at the edge of the group.

“These three floors within the launch center are suspended from the ceiling. This is to minimize blast shock, permit a static floor load of 100 psi. The launch control and communications equipment were housed in the center. So was a mess and sleeping quarters for the four person crew.”

The guide pointed out we were now at an angle to see an actual Titan II missile in the launch duct.

Dad still looks pissed off.

Was he mad at me?

Or Marshal, his son-in-law? That hostility traveled as if through an electrical conduit.

Or Marc, who looked gloomy, bored by the ancient history?

Maybe my mother had irritated him and he was fueling his anger like the driver of a car stuck in mud gunning the motor?

Is he mad at me?

People were always telling me that my parents were the cutest old couple, and sometimes they looked that way to me, too. This was not one of those times.

I never knew when something would set him off, but times with Dad weren’t always bad. When I was a kid, I preferred spending time with Dad and his engagement with the task at hand over spending time behind the darkened draperies of my mother’s silence. When I was little, Dad’s workshop, with its noises and warmth, was the center of our home.

All my memories of my father working in the workshop have collapsed into one. From the kitchen, I heard the teeth-jarring screech of the chainsaw in the basement. I almost choked on the last rushed bite of mashed potatoes, so I could run downstairs to watch.

At the bottom of the wooden steps to our basement, the workshop bustled with activity. Vibrations from the fluorescent light which hung suspended on chains felt like a beehive’s humming.

Almost every night he worked bent over the workbench, its thick wooden surface scarred by slick hammer blows and nail holes. It reminded me of the cobbler’s bench from “The Shoemaker and the Elves,” where the elves finish the shoes while the shoemaker sleeps.

As I approached the workshop doorway, I heard the creak of a nail my father salvaged with the claw of his hammer. I walked past a pile of rotting lumber on the floor of my playroom just as Dad tossed another board out of the workshop. It flew a scant inch over my head. “Watch it, Hon,” he warned.

I ducked out of reflex. “Whatcha doing?”

“Ah, this old crate will make some good firewood. Just saving some of these perfectly good nails.”

“Whatcha need firewood for? We don’t have a fireplace.” I reached out and touched the wood in Dad’s hands and drew back. “OUCH!” I examined my finger; a large wood fragment stuck out from my skin like a miniature sword. I held it up to Dad’s face. “Look!”

Dad plucked it out, dumping it in the trash under the bench. “Lots of splinters. It’ll come in handy some day.” Dad yanked the last nail and hurled the board out the door. He turned and looked at me. “How about I look at that truck of yours?” He picked up one of many toys stacked at the end of the workbench and examined it.

While he worked, Dad played a paint-spattered radio to keep him company. He turned down the volume so he could hear me.

“Whatcha doing?”

“I’m fastening the lug nuts on your truck.”

“What’s lug nuts?”

“Bolts to put wheels onto trucks.” My father scowled at the truck as if to see better.

“What’s bolts?”

“Fasteners.”

“What’s that?” I pointed to the tool in Dad’s hand.

“It’s a wrench.” He paused. “If it was a real truck, I’d be using a lug wrench, but for a toy, I can just use this.”

“Why?”

Dad was concentrating hard on fixing my truck so, when he didn’t answer, I didn’t ask three whole questions that came to mind. I watched his hands over the surface of the bench, which he had constructed with a board thick as butcher block—pitted and pocked and flecked with paint. He’d found it in an old mill which was collapsing into the ground just outside of town. From this headquarters underneath our kitchen he planned and executed his dreams for his house, using whatever materials he could scavenge or finagle.

He handed me my own small wooden workbench, the sort with the wooden pegs to be pounded all the way down and then pounded back again when the “workbench” is flipped upside-down.

“Get to work,” he said. I pounded the pegs hard.

The wooden studs and plywood of the subfloor above were exposed, and the floor I sat on was cold concrete, but I didn’t mind. Every square inch of wall and ceiling space was accounted for by some cherished tool or belonging. My favorite treasure in the workshop hung from the ceiling—a pair of snowshoes. His army green sleeping bag was stuffed onto a shelf right below.

“Tell me again about the sleeping bag and snow shoes,” I said, peering up at my father.

Dad lay down the tool he held. He picked me up at the waist, setting me down on the workbench. “You remember that old story?” I nodded. “I was issued those snowshoes and sleeping bag during the Korean War. I was in Alaska and Korea, and it was fiercely cold all the time. I had to sleep in that very sleeping bag on the ground, in the snow, that’s how cold it was! You know how cold that is?”

I knew what came next, but it was my job to ask, “How cold, Daddy?”

“It was so cold that my nose froze into a Popsicle one night.”

“What flavor, Daddy? Orange, Daddy? Or cherry?”

“Must have been red like cherry, Hon. In the morning, when they blew the horn and woke us up, I had to put on my snowshoes and walk a long way in the snow. Do you remember how I walked in those snow shoes?” I shook my head, and he tried to pantomime how he walked on snow with the big woven pads, but I could not understand because winter seemed far off on that summer night.

*     *     *

When I was six, Dad moved all his tools out of his workshop and up to the garage.

I first noticed as he made his umpteenth trip up the stairs with his arms loaded.

“What are you doing?” I said.

“Moving everything from my workshop to the garage.”

“Why?”

“Hon, you’re getting in the way,” he said. “Watch out!”

“But why are you moving the workshop?” I felt as if the fire was going out in the hearth. Although we didn’t actually have a fireplace, the workshop felt like one to me.

Somehow he had gotten that thick and heavy workbench out into the garage himself. He’d set it up on its sturdy legs without me even seeing what was happening. Now he screwed a pegboard to the wall above. “Mmm,” he said, two screws sticking out of his mouth.

“Daddy, why?” I wiggled around from side to side behind him.

Dad roared at me to get out of his way. Not sure if he was angry or just busy, I ran back into the house and pulled out my fairy tale book, pretending I was far away from the ruined workshop.

I was still reading the book when Mom called me to supper. While my parents discussed how Dad was arranging the workshop in the garage, I kept quiet.

After helping Mom clear the table, I went back into the garage, hoping to see the workshop had been magically transported out there. Dad was concentrating very hard on hanging up his treasures. “Daddy?” I said very quietly.

He didn’t seem to hear me. “Daddy?” I raised my voice a little. Still no answer. “Daddy!” I shouted.

“Hell’s bells. What do you want?”

“Do I have to move my playroom?” My playroom was downstairs, just outside Dad’s workshop. Most of my dolls, my doll high chair, and a toy box full of blocks and baby toys were stored there. So was Grandma’s neckpiece, which fit me as a stolewhite rabbit fur with its one spot of black meant to hint at ermine. Dad didn’t answer me, so I left.

When I snuck back to the garage later to watch without talking, I saw that he had put his snowshoes and fighting helmets and army green sleeping bags up in the rafters of the garage. A few days later, Dad set up a little space heater, but it was dangerous, and I was no longer allowed to play in the garage.

One night after dark, the workshop room now emptied, Dad brought home a load of cement blocks in the back of his truck and dumped them behind the house. He carried each brick down the basement stairs by himself.

Dad was grumpy and busy, so I knew enough to stay out of his way.

My mother came down with a basket of laundry. Her Keds made a squeak on the wooden steps. “Mommy, what’s Daddy doing?” I said.

“Can you keep a secret?” She searched my face, her blue eyes mirroring mine.

“I’m good at secrets.”

“Yes, you are,” Mom said. “Daddy is building a nuclear fallout shelter.” As Mom walked to the laundry room, I followed behind. She set down the basket and began to sort into piles. “Do you want me to try to wash that skirt?” She nodded toward the Hopalong Cassidy skirt I wore over my pants. “I might have to hand wash it because of the fringe.” The vest had disappeared at some point in the previous three years, and the skirt was too short to wear without the pants.

I pulled out the plastic handled pistol from my gun belt and tried to twirl it like I’d seen on TV. It slipped from my hand and fell to the concrete floor.

I shook my head vigorously and changed the subject back. I had to be on my toes with my mother because she excelled at subject changing. “Why isn’t somebody helping him? It’s too heavy,” I said.

“Because it’s a secret,” Mom said. “You can’t tell anybody about it.” She ran a slender hand through her short brown perm and then smoothed it down.

“A secret!! What’s a nucular fallen shelter?”

“A bomb shelter.” She pulled her lips into a straight line.

“Jiminy cricket!” I felt like throwing myself to the floor in disbelief, but I was a watchful kid.

The rest of the week Dad worked downstairs, the Rosemary Clooney and Nat King Cole from his radio trying to smooth the edges of the sounds of slamming concrete. He stacked the blocks alternately by row, in a quadrant-shaped domino pattern, creating a shelter two blocks deep. The bricks were stacked without mortar like my wooden blocks, the roof plywood topped by a double thickness of bricks.

My mother sat in front of a Leonard Bernstein concert on TV on the last evening, one of our rickety aluminum tray tables in front of her, her light blue scuff slippers poking out in front. The table wobbled under the pressure of her pen on the list evolving under her hands. “We’ll hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” she said without looking up.

Next day I went down to check out Dad’s work. Mom came downstairs with two full grocery bags and saw me looking at a brochure.

“Those are the plans for the shelter,” Mom said. “Daddy followed their specifications, and now I’m going to stock the shelter with the items they suggest.”

The brochure said U.S. Federal Civil Defense Administration. These words were difficult, and I didn’t understand them. I studied Mom’s spiky handwriting on the list:

2 foldable army canvas cots

2 army style double sleeping bags

4 blankets and sheets

1 8″x 32″x 72″ shelf unit for canned goods

meat, tuna, fruit, beans, bread, crackers and candy

2 sixteen gallon GI water cans plus 6 or 8 two gallon water containers

2 galvanized garbage cans for waste

Coleman two burner stove

2 Coleman gas lights with two gallon gas supply

reading materials

box games, generic Raggedy Ann type doll, puzzles

Porta Pottie, toilet paper

camera

tools, crowbar, hammer, ax, pick, ice pick, and hand tools

portable radio

medicines

2 flashlights

4-6 extra 2x4s for emergency bracing

one change of clothes each

several changes of underwear each

sweaters and coats

toiletries

1 22 cal single-shot rifle with ammo

one baseball bat

double compartment wood orange crates and apple boxes (for storage)

The next weekend, after Dad finished building the bomb shelter, I played hide-and-seek with some neighbor kids. I got the idea of hiding in the shelter since nobody could find me there. Alone, in the dark, the walls of the small room loomed right over me in a teepee effect, as if the walls were coming down at me, closer and closer.

I sat on a cot, in the shadows; it was cold and damp, like the root cellar at my mother’s parents’ house, and I shivered.

The bomb came straight at Kalamazoo, as clearly in my mind as if it were on television. Dad would scoop me up in his arms, and he and Mom would run for the shelter. Now they close the door behind them. My friends and neighbors are left behind. We hear the bomb hit and explode. It reverberates, and the block walls shake. Across town, my mother’s family—Grandmom and Grandpa and Aunt Alice—have been blown up into teeny pieces. We sit on the two cots, Mom and me on one and Dad on the other. We look at each other, then put together all the jigsaw puzzles Mom has stacked inside the maroon-painted apple crates. They were my parents’ first furniture when they were married, and now they are with us for the end of the world.

We stare at our laps until Mom decides we’ll eat the baked beans and mandarin oranges. I don’t want the Spam, but Dad insists I swallow. I choke as it goes down my throat. Mom and Dad and I are still looking at each other, and the food is almost gone. Dad yells at Mom. “Jesus Christ! Stop your complaining. What do you want me to do about it?” Mom cries.

I didn’t like where the fantasy was heading. I realized I couldn’t live forever in this tiny cement tent with just my parents.

The baseball bat and the rifle propped up in the corner of the bunker gave me another scenario. I imagined Dad closing the door behind us and before the bomb exploded, the neighbors discovered our bomb shelter. They pounded on the door, trying to break it down. Dad gave Mom the rifle and showed her how to shoot it. He held the baseball bat as if he was ready to beat the first person to get through the door.

My hands and legs trembled. As my chest tightened, I wondered if I’d stop breathing.

Eventually, I slinked out of the shelter, up the stairs, and into sweater weather, the air crisp, but still leaf-scented. I breathed deeply.

I still wanted to go back inside the bomb shelter. It called to me like a scream in the distance. But I readily admitted to myself that I wasn’t going in there alone again.

When I could stand the fear no longer, I awoke in my bed, crying and shaking.

That night I had my first nightmare. What happened after I fell asleep was a sudden hurtling downward into a black and unknown space. I sensed walls, boundaries of some kind, not too far from my touch, but fell unimpeded through this openness. With no sense of a bottom to this and no end to my falling, I felt no control over my fate. The terror rose from my stomach and ballooned to my arms which had parachuted perpendicular from my body. When I could stand the fear no longer, I awoke in my bed, crying and shaking.

Not long after the bomb shelter was finished, the weather changed; the temperature dropped ten degrees. Wearing fall jackets, Mark from next door and I played in his sandbox with my yellow cement mixer and his orange dump truck. Mark usually reminded me of Humpty Dumpty, but as he directed all his intensity on ramming his truck into mine, he looked like a tough guy on TV, his expression hard and focused, his buzzed blond head giving the impression of a Marine sergeant.

“Want to see something neat?” I said.

“What?”

“Can’t tell you. But I can show you.”

“Okay. This better be good.”

I led him into my basement.

He looked around as if he was marching into Disneyland, with his mouth open and his head rotating.

“Ka-boom!” Mark made loud noises like bombs exploding. “This is the best thing anybody in this whole neighborhood has! You’re so lucky!”

Mark noticed the rifle and grabbed it. “Your Dad can get the Commies with this gun!” He examined it and pointed it at me. “Pow, pow, pow!” Mark made noises like a semi-automatic. “This is so neat!” he said.

Goose bumps pimpled my arms. “Mark, better put it down.” Dad would have a cow if he found out. I wasn’t allowed to touch his gun. I knew a gun could kill people.

“It’s pretty nifty!” Mark set the gun down and shivered. “It’s cold in here! Come on, let’s get our bikes and go up to Gull Road.” He’d already lost interest in our bomb shelter.

That night Mom told Dad I had brought Mark into the bomb shelter.

“Did you forget it’s a secret?” she said.

“I didn’t know it was a secret from Mark,” I said. Uh oh! I’ve done something wrong! I felt shame, but I wasn’t sure why.

“That’s a load of bullshit!” Dad said, getting a red face. “I’ll teach you to open your mouth when you shouldn’t!”

Dad spanked me right there in the living room. As he struck me, he said, “You will NEVER bring friends to the shelter again! Do you hear me?!”

As soon as he let me up on my feet, I rushed to my room and shut the door. I didn’t want to make the same mistake again. I recited to myself, the bomb shelter is just for the three of us. The bomb shelter is just for the three of us. There is no room for friends, neighbors, or Grandmom and Grandpa. It’s just for the three of us.

That night I read the story of “Bluebeard” in my fairy tale book about a husband who forbids his wife from opening one room in the house. Her curiosity gets the better of her and she enters the room when he is away. She discovers his dead ex-wives hanging from hooks in the blood-spattered room.

The story gave me a nightmare fraught with more intensity than those which preceded it. I cried out, which woke up my mother. She took the fairy tale book from me.

I didn’t say anything when my book turned up missing. I looked in the garbage when Mom was in the back yard hanging some sheets on the clothesline. My book lay in there, underneath some coffee grounds and orange peels.

All these years later, standing among a group of mostly strangers, I felt a deeply rooted longing for that book. The Titan guide was still talking. “The heart of the Titan II operations was the Combat Crew, which was responsible for day to day operations of the missile complex. They also had to respond to the launch order that, thankfully, never came. Each crew consisted of two officers and two enlisted.” Like Mom and Dad and me and Ted. “The crews had to be informed about conditions which affected alert status.” When baby Ted came home that day from the adoption agency, we had been living over the bomb shelter for a year.

Chains tightened around my stomach. Propellant met pressurization in my head.

“Many Americans constructed bomb shelters as a form of reassurance. They mainly had symbolic value.” The guide rambled on and on.

As a child I’d stayed clear of the bunker in the basement and as an adult I’d begun to forget, but now I remembered how I began to imagine it as a meat locker, a freezer, an abandoned igloo on empty frozen tundra. How I had felt the shelter’s merciless icy presence chilling our house.

As the guide finally wrapped up his monologue, we drifted out to the yard. As if he could barely stand, Marc leaned against the chain link fence, pulling his cap down further on his face, while the rest of us shuffled through the gravel to peer at the roof of the missile silo, which barely rose above ground level, as if the entire housing for the missile were a whale with its back just visible above the water line.

Under the sun, Dad’s staccato walk and fidgeting were both more obvious and less intense, as if part of his compressed energy blew away with the wind.

In the car, Mom said, “The Hoovers, remember them? Bob and Sylvia? They were in our golf league. Well, their youngest granddaughter is studying engineering at Northwestern.” I couldn’t remember who the Hoovers were because there were so many and I had never listened very well when Mom gave me her friend updates. “Wasn’t it engineering? Was it Northwestern or Illinois?” My father, staring ahead, seemed transfixed by the road ahead. “Do you remember?”

Dad uncoiled himself and turned to look at her. “Engineering. I don’t know what university. Something that is supposed to sound good.”

By the time we got back to the condo, Dad’s mood shifted toward center. “How about I grill that salmon now?” he said.

Marc made a beeline for the tiny den. Marshal turned on the TV in the living room as Mom and I started rustling in the kitchen and Dad fired up the grill. I heard the sound of a 24 hour news channel. When I brought Marshal a glass of Coke on ice, he spoke so only I could hear. “I’m waiting to see if something happened outside of Green Valley. I sure hope so.”

As Mom pulled together the ingredients for the rest of dinner, I watched to make sure she didn’t confuse the teaspoon and the tablespoon measurements as she had the night before. I purposely didn’t notice that she snuck sips of Scotch from a glass nestled behind the blender. She didn’t gulp as she was a master of moderation.

While Mom stirred her sauce on the stove, I paced between the food preparation counter and the patio where Dad watched over the salmon, his body straight and still except for the rhythmic flexion of his knees.

“Smells good,” I said, filling a gap.

Dad smiled at me. “It’s my specialty.”

Luanne CastleLuanne Castle taught at California State University, San Bernardino before moving to Arizona, where she now lives with a herd of javelina. Her writing has been published in 13th Moon, Airplane Reading, The Antigonish Review, Redheaded Stepchild, Visions, The Black Boot, The MacGuffin, and others. Her writing can also be found at http://www.luannecastle.com