After recently exploring the large, federally funded fallout shelters located within various downtown Spokane basements (and writing about them in the May 20, 2004, issue of The Inlander), my curiosity shifted to a more intimate brand of nuclear fallout protection: the backyard bomb shelter. These home-based bunkers of concrete and steel represented a growth industry during the really dicey years of the Cold War, when world events -- along with a fair amount of paranoia -- had many Americans believing that a fiery nuclear death for themselves and their loved ones was a real and imminent possibility.
What horrors real or imagined would compel a homeowner to sink considerable time, effort and cash into something that might never be used? And assuming that nifty bomb shelter performed perfectly, protecting yourself and your family from blast, fires, fallout and pleading neighbors, what would be waiting for you on top after it was all over? Why, the smoldering wreckage of your previous life, that's what, with little more than a painful, lingering death in your future. But hey, you survived.
Yet people did build them. And many still exist, buried deep in backyards all over the country. One such shelter is located in northwest Spokane, in the backyard of the Borneman residence -- a house located just a few blocks from where I grew up. As a kid, I was oblivious to its existence. Back in 1989, so were the Bornemans.
"Nobody told us about it when we bought the house," explains Carol Borneman. "It was winter at the time, with snow on the ground. I saw these two vent pipes and I assumed they were some kind of lights out here. Then our realtor said, I bet that's a bomb shelter. I was like, 'No way.'"
The house was built in 1960. Borneman believes that the bomb shelter was installed a couple of years later. She says while her husband and son have both checked it out, she has never ventured down for a look.
"You're welcome to go exploring," she laughed. "Just don't expect me to go with you."
And so I went exploring. How could I refuse? Yet, as you might expect, the typical backyard bomb shelter is a less than inviting place.
Spider webs covered the steel ladder rungs of the descending tube and the musty smells of a 40-year-old crypt rose from the darkness. I went down. When I got to the bottom, the passage made a 90-degree break into the shelter. Facing an utterly black void, I fired up a propane lantern and crawled in. Once inside, I stood up and realigned my spine. (The journey through the narrow entryway was kind of a backbreaker.) The shelter itself was shaped like a giant tuna can, roughly 9 feet in diameter and 7 feet high. While it was surprisingly roomy for just one person, I had a hard time imagining how a typical family of four -- along with all the supplies required for the standard two-week stay -- would manage in such tight quarters without completely losing their minds.
There was a hand-cranked pump for drawing air down into the shelter but precious little else save for a few candle stumps, some broken beer bottles and assorted fast food wrappers.
"The people before us weren't the original owners, but they had to know about it," said Borneman. "Somebody had been down there, obviously partying."
Now isn't that the ultimate value added feature of any home -- a bomb shelter that doubles as a subterranean lounge?
"Some people have pools," Borneman laughed. "We have a bomb shelter."