With effort, Craig Denham heaves open the heavy metal door.
He heads down the steep, thick concrete steps that are set in solid limestone. He takes a sharp left into the darkness, then another, before revealing an astounding time capsule preserved from the height of the Atomic Age.
In the backyard of the creative director’s mid-century modern home in West Lake Hills is a 1961 fallout shelter in near-mint condition.
Two retractable cots hang from one wall in a cramped room that is illuminated by a single light bulb. Nearby is a crank for the air shaft; across the way are spigots for water stored in tanks.
In one corner is a low, odd-looking toilet sheltered behind a plastic shower curtain.
“Probably leads right into the aquifer,” Denham, 44, jokes before pointing out a disabled periscope near the stairwell. “Perfect for the zombie apocalypse if it comes.”
Lined on shelves of the shelter — built by a retired Air Force colonel who was also something of an inventor — are supplies and equipment for surviving a week or two underground. That was the length of time civil defense officials estimated — at least for public consumption — necessary for radioactive fallout from a nuclear bomb to clear away.
Among the most chilling artifacts: a Texas highway map posted on the wall. The shelter owner had carefully drawn cross hairs over San Antonio — where U.S. military forces were concentrated — along with what appear to be trajectories for fallout drift. (Oddly, the lines fan out to the southeast, defying the prevailing Texas winds.)
“He was privy to information the public wasn’t,” Denham says of Col. E.V. Robnett Jr., who died in 1984. “And even he built one in his backyard. There must have been real concern with people’s safety.”
Younger readers might find it hard to imagine the nearly constant anxiety that agitated Americans, especially in urban areas, during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Schoolchildren were instructed to “duck and cover” under their desks in case of a blinding nuclear blast. Adults plotted escape routes from cities or, alternately, outfitted shelters in order to survive the worst of the fallout.
The concern reached almost hysterical proportions during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a 13-day confrontation in October 1962 between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R over weapons placements in Cuba. “Only 90 miles off the coast of Florida” went the oft-repeated phrase. Texans in Houston, San Antonio and Fort Worth felt particularly vulnerable because of nearby military or oil industry facilities. (Some children took twisted pride in the target rank of their home cities.)
Yet much of the civil defense advice shared with the public, in retrospect, appears overly optimistic to Denham.
“After you look at it all, and realize what we know today, you have to ask: ‘Would you really survive?’” he says. “I think it takes more than five days for radiation to cool off, for instance. It wasn’t going to be as safe as they said it would be.”
To someone familiar in his work with the rhetoric of film and advertising, Denham suspects that shelter movement was in part a public relations ploy.
“In my mind, they knew that,” he says. “It was a way to cool people off: ‘Here, do this and you will be safe.’”
As evidence, Denham points to “Target Austin,” a surviving public service film short made by late TV pioneers Gordon Wilkison and Cactus Pryor. Its well-produced fiction argues that a family fallout shelter stocked with the help of handy checklists was a simple and safe solution to a blast that could, in reality, level a city and leave the ruins caked in radiation for months if not years. (See “Target Austin” box.)
For Denham, the fully outfitted shelter behind the house that he and his former wife purchased from friends in 2008 was an outrageously lucky find.
“We had agreed to buy it, negotiated the price, then they added: ‘Oh yes, there’s a basement in the back, a shelter,” he says. “Now, I’m really big into mid-century modern. Buying this particular house was partly about finding a place for my furniture collection. So I was very intrigued.”
The couple who sold Denham the house — designed in 1959 by a prominent architectural firm — had purchased it two years earlier from the family that originally owned it. (Col. Robnett’s wife died in 2005.)
At that time, the old metal door to the fallout shelter was still sealed, and presumably had been for more than 50 years.
“So they took the hinges off,” Denham says. “There was no electricity down there at the time, so they peeked in with flashlights and didn’t remove anything.”
When Denham took over the property in 2008, the habitual tinkerer figured out how to work the lights, took everything out, cleaned it up and put everything back where he found it. To finish the look, however, he replaced some soup cans.
“It was cool to me,” he says. “Then I realized it had historical value.”
During a Preservation Austin tour of mid-century Austin homes, Denham opened up the musty underground room to guests. On Halloween, his two daughters have played “zombie apocalypse” there.
“I’ve never shut the door behind me,” Denham says quite seriously.
Among the vintage gear neatly laid out in the shelter: A Geiger counter to test ambient radiation levels, a short-wave radio to monitor war news and a pen-like dosimeter to test radiation on one’s person. Stacked nearby are crisp civil defense manuals, gas masks, heavy tools and first aid supplies.
The air crank next to the cots comes with an automatic alarm so shelterers didn’t sleep through the periodic oxygen refreshment process.
Whimsical products — such as paper plates decorated with images of the cartoon character Dennis the Menace and a can of Florient Spice Hair Deodorant — contrast with the pitiless cans of MPF Multi-Purpose Food and a tin of 434 Survival Crackers.
Decaffinated Sanka, Coffeemate, Lipton Instant Tea and Instant Maxwell House Coffee sit side by side with Sterno, matches, candles and batteries.
Some of the products, such as Metrecal diet food, Bondware wax paper dishes and Lifebuoy Coral bar soap, are blasts from the retail past for anyone over a certain age.
To keep the family’s mind off the nuclear waste above them, the owners also stashed a set of large, red dominoes.
There’s nothing campy or fun, however, about the guns that Col. Robnett also had kept down there, or the bullets that the current owner removed.
Denham: “The neighbors told me he said: ‘Don’t bother knocking, because we won’t be opening the door.’”
According to well-organized receipts that came with the house, Robnett purchased much of the survival material at Bergstrom Air Force Base, now Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
Denham thinks that Robnett might have patterned the shelter after a demonstration model that was built and outfitted in Zilker Park. (It’s still there.) Historians believe that public project was used in the fictional “Target Austin” film.
Although he meticulously maintains the shelter, Denham hasn’t yet completed the paperwork that might designate it historic and therefore help to preserve it for the future.
“I’m really into the Atomic Age,” he says. “I hate to think what will happen to it when I sell the house.”
At the height of the Cold War, when Texans worried obsessively about atomic-tipped Russian missiles heading their way, local TV pioneers Gordon Wilkison and Cactus Pryor made a short, fictional public service film. “Target Austin” starts with eerie music reminiscent of “The Twilight Zone” and shows a sleepy city on a sunny day. Ominously, leaders receive a 20-minute warning that a nuclear bomb was headed Austin’s way. They put out emergency warnings. One woman shrugs off the order to evacuate, only to give prayerful thanks when allowed out of the Brown Building basement two weeks later. A man tries to flee the bomb, first in his car, then on foot. He does not survive. A family does everything “right,” calmly checking off checklists before taking a stylish dinner in their fallout shelter. Historians suggest that the scenes in the shelter were filmed in a demonstration model built in Zilker Park. “Target Austin” is campy and funny at times but also a glorious and well-produced bit of visual history about long-ago Austin and Atomic Age anxiety. See it at the Texas Archive of the Moving Picture website: http://www.texasarchive.org/library/index.php/Target_Austin.
Michael Barnes writes about Austin’s people, places, culture and history.