Helter Shelter

Our trivia expert solves local mysteries of what, when, where, why, and why not.



Dear Vance: They recently tore down the old Colonial Junior High School in East Memphis, built in the 1950s, and I was wondering if they found any relics from the civil defense bomb shelter in the basement.

— A.N., Memphis

Dear A.N.: I can tell you with certainty that they never found anything from a bomb shelter there, for the simple reason that Colonial — unlike many other schools and public buildings here — didn't have a bomb shelter. The Lauderdale Library contains a copy of the Community Shelter Plan, published in 1968 by the Memphis and Shelby County Civil Defense Agency, which shows the precise location of every shelter in Memphis, and the closest one to Colonial was actually miles away.

This document is a fascinating relic from one of the strangest periods in our nation's history. You have to remember that America was a nervous place in the 1950s. After Russia and other countries developed nuclear bombs, we became fretful that Memphis would become the next Nagasaki. It wasn't a completely unreasonable fear; then as now, Memphis was a transportation hub, and years ago we had important industries — Firestone and International Harvester, among them — that could be considered strategic targets.

But the bomb shelters — technically, "fallout" shelters since they shielded occupants from radiation, not explosives — came later. First came a much more disturbing plan. In the 1950s, the government printed millions of bright yellow pamphlets called "Be Safe from the H-Bomb" — an ironic title since there is, of course, no way to be "safe" from a hydrogen bomb. Instead, the government's proposal was best summarized by that Monty Python movie, whenever the knights are confronted with danger: "Run away!!" And that was the general plan here. Just not as funny.

The little booklet, inserted in copies of The Commercial Appeal and Memphis Press-Scimitar (if you weren't a subscriber, tough luck!), basically advised Memphians to get out of the city — fast. "We can be fairly sure of a two-hour warning before the enemy can get here," said the booklet. In case of an impending attack, the air-raid sirens that had been mounted on rooftops around the city would sound a "five-minute steady blast." So — if the bombing was conveniently timed to take place when your family was together at home — you hopped in your car and followed one of the emergency evacuation routes printed in the booklet.

Where were you going, exactly? Well, that was another problem. You were instructed to drive out of the "Danger Zone," a circle that extended 15 miles from downtown Memphis (authorities apparently felt that a nuclear bomb would be dropped precisely on Mud Island). So you drove and drove until you reached the towns and communities beyond the "Safety Line." There, you were expected to stay a while with friends or relatives. Hmmm, didn't know anybody in, say, Rossville or Grand Junction? In that case, the booklet reassured you, "arrangements will be made to feed, clothe, and shelter the thousands who will need help." Oh, sure . . .

The dog-eared "Be Safe from the H-Bomb" booklet in my possession has some pencil scribblings, indicating where a local family, apparently living on Given Road in East Memphis, highlighted the route they were supposed to follow — south on Graham, then eastward out Summer past the Safety Line. I could just imagine some grim-faced father back in 1958, gathered around the dinner table with his family, showing them the disaster plan, and trying to convince them it was a good idea.

It was a terrible idea — trying to move the entire population of Memphis out of town in two hours? Authorities seemed to regard a nuclear attack as a minor inconvenience, and the "H-Bomb" manual — like most Civil Defense materials, always upbeat in the face of doom — never suggested that there might be no home — or city, for that matter — to return to. Anyone who has seen photos of Nagasaki or Hiroshima surely realized that a nuclear bomb caused one heckuva mess, and then there would be that pesky problem of invading armies. I mean, I am no military genius, but it seems unlikely that our enemy — whoever it might be — would just drop a couple of bombs and then give up.

Officials grudgingly admitted there would be certain aggravations: "Moving over 400,000 people is a tremendous task," said the booklet. "With everyone evacuating the city at the same time, roads will be clogged and traffic will be slower than normal. Be patient."

Patient? With an H-bomb about to drop on our heads? We're talking about people who freak out when they wait in line at the inspection station!

So the civil defense experts finally came up with an entirely different plan. Instead of running away, take shelter. In 1961, Congress created the National Shelter Program. This incredibly ambitious, outrageously expensive program built hundreds of fallout shelters in every city in America, their locations marked on buildings with the familiar cluster of yellow triangles in a black circle (below). In Memphis, we set up 279 shelters, with 251 of them fully stocked with food and medical supplies. Property owners were persuaded to donate space for these places, usually in basements or other secure areas. Water was stored in 17-gallon drums. Packets of food (if you can call it that) came in the form of "survival crackers and biscuits" — which by all accounts tasted gosh-awful. Special sanitation kits, housed in heavy cardboard drums, contained toilet paper, drinking cups, and other necessities. Not included were things like beds, chairs, or even cots. Shelter users were supposed to bring their own.

So this was the new plan: In case of an attack, you were instructed to walk — not drive — to your nearest fallout shelter, bed down there for a week or so with all your neighbors, and then, when radiation levels had subsided and the "All Clear" message was sounded, come out into the sunshine and life would just be peachy again.

The locations of all these shelters were clearly marked on a 16-page Community Shelter Plan, published in November 1968. Once again, immediate problems are apparent. First of all, there weren't enough shelters to hold even half of our city's population. Second, they weren't scattered very evenly over the area. With nuclear missiles providing the worst threat, forget about that two-hour warning in the 1950s; the best you could hope for now was 45 minutes. I don't know how well you can see this detail from Map 8, but it includes a good portion of East Memphis, and almost all the shelters (indicated by numbered circles) are clustered up and down Poplar Avenue. If you happened to live miles away on, say, Willow, in southeast Memphis, there was simply no way your family was going to gather their belongings — don't forget the chairs! — and trudge to a shelter on Poplar in 45 minutes.

And even if you did, you can imagine the chaos if the shelters were already full, and they tried to turn you away.

The lucky ones who made it to the shelters didn't exactly enjoy a holiday. The woman shown here is perched happily on one of the supply drums, pretending to munch on one of those tooth-breaking crackers. Well, she looks pretty spiffy now, but give her a few days. Because after you emptied that drum, you slapped a plastic seat on the top, and that single container became the public toilet for the entire shelter. Do I really need to go into the details? Tucked away in unventilated basements, with no bathtubs or even sinks, it wouldn't take long for conditions inside the shelters to become unbearable.

The "community shelter program" just faded away. Most of the shelters were closed down and eventually emptied, but people still stumble on them from time to time. Years ago, Tommy Bronson Sporting Goods moved from Union Avenue to a new location in Poplar Plaza. When employees ventured into the basement, they discovered a still-unopened cache of civil defense supplies. In case you were wondering, they were quickly retrieved by the current Emergency Management Agency.

Many people, seeing the flaws in these disaster plans, just decided to stay home during a crisis, and magazines like

Popular Mechanics

showed readers how to build their own bomb shelters. In case of a disaster, I plan to retreat to the fortified basement of the Lauderdale Mansion. Because of the constant threat from kidnappers and assassins, it's pretty much where I live these days anyway.

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