Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible, I’m Roman Mars.
John F. Kennedy: To recognize the possibilities of nuclear war in the missile age without our citizens knowing what they should do and where they should go if bombs begin to fall, would be a failure of responsibility.
Roman: And that, of course, is President John F. Kennedy, speaking on July 25th, 1961 during the Berlin Crisis, one of the various moments in the Cold War where we came very, very close to engaging in actual war with the Soviets.
John: Tomorrow, I’m requesting of the Congress new funds for the following immediate objectives: To identify and mark space and existing structures public and private that could be used for fallout shelters in case of attack. To stock those shelters with food, water, first aid kit, and other minimum essentials for our survival.
Katie Mingle: Basically, what Kennedy is saying here is, it’s a real possibility that bombs are going to start falling and we need to figure out where you can all go to take shelter if they do.
Roman: That’s producer, Katie Mingle.
Katie: And, after Kennedy made this horrifying speech, as you can imagine the phones started ringing.
Kenneth Rose: Immediately, the Kennedy administration was besieged by people wanting more information on fallout shelters. I’m Kenneth D. Rose, I wrote One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture. You know, businesses that had previously been making swimming pools, now declare themselves to be experts at building shelters.
Roman: They were door to door bomb shelter salesman, shelter displays at malls and County fairs. But by the time Kennedy made that 1961 speech, there was one place that had already broken ground on a unique shelter.
Katie: Artesian, New Mexico. Population 11,000. it’s about 40 miles South of Roswell in the southern part of the state, near Texas. And in 1962, they opened a brand new elementary school, completely underground, equipped with a morgue, decontamination showers and a stockpile of food and medicine. Because this school? It was built to double half the town’s nuclear fallout shelter.
Kenneth: This was a pilot program with the idea of protecting school children and also members of the local community in case there was a nuclear attack. During an attack, the school was supposedly would shelter its own students and those from other schools or the first 2100 people to show up. And those who arrive late at the school would find their entry blocked by 1800-pound steel doors.
Male Voice Clip 1: To mega inventory online at tategrants.com.
Male Speaker 1: And it is 8:21 and joining us in this studio this morning is Katie Mingle. She’s up from Oakland California and, good morning. How are you?
Katie: Good, thanks. Thanks for having me.
Male Speaker 1: Well okay, first off I guess [crosstalk]
Roman: Wait, what is going on?
Katie: All right, let me explain. I went to Artesian and because small towns are amazing, they invited to come on their local radio station, KSVP and put a call out for people who had gone Abo Elementary as kids.
Male Speaker 1: Good. So if anybody has information or stories you want to share about Abo Elementary, be it a student there or administrator or maybe you worked on whatever, give Katie a call. Once again, her phone number is…
Roman: So did people actually call you?
Katie: Yes, they did. And, we’ll meet one of them later but first, let’s go look at the school. Abo always tucked away in a quiet little neighborhood, not too far away from the center of town. You could easily miss it driving by since it’s mostly underground but there is a sign out front and you have to squint to make it out but it says–
Scott Simer: Abo Elementary School and Fallout Shelter, and that’s, of course, original on there.
Katie: That’s Scoot Simer.
Scott Simer: My name is Scott Simer and I’m currently the Director of Maintenance for the public schools, for Artesia public schools.
Katie: I met Scott and Thad Phipps, the current Assistant Superintendent of Artesia schools on the roof of Abo.
Roman: The school is closed now but kids still went to school there until 1995.
Katie: The roof of Abo School is a concrete blacktop at ground level with basketball hoops and three covered stairways that go down underground and into the school.
Scott: Like if you’re in first grade, you went down these set of doors. If you’re in second and third, you would come over here and then fourth and fifth graders would line up at this one and you kind of–
Roman: One mother described the scene of kids entering the building and looking like ants lining up to go into their anthill.
Katie: Scott and Thad actually both went to school at Abo in the late ’70s, early ’80s and they said that even though the sign out front says, “Fallout shelter,” and even though their school was entirely underground, they never really knew what that meant.
Scott: I never knew growing up that it was a — built as a bomb shelter. It was just a school to me as a kid, you know? And then once you get older and you hear stories and all these… “Oh they used to have a morgue down here” and you know?
Katie: Abo Elementary was designed by an architect and civil defense enthusiast named Frank Standhart. After he built Abo School, he went on to design an underground shopping mall/bomb shelter that was never actually built.
Scott: Look over here, there’s a — this is our shower, gets the contaminants off of you before you come in to rest of the people underground.
Katie: The decontamination showers at each entrance were easy to miss, as were the blast doors which was swung up against the wall and not used during normal school days.
Scott: Solid steel door, you can close it. It has a three or four different latches to latch it so nobody can get in or out. I never knew that this door existed till I started workin’ here. And so–
Katie: We go down a couple flights of stairs into the main hallway of the school and basically it just looks like a school. I mean, it’s windowless and kind of drabs since it hasn’t been used in almost 20 years. But otherwise, it looks a bit like other schools I’ve been in.
Scott: Yes, this is the kitchen area. Whenever you came to lunch from the classes, you always came to this door. You see back there, they had a big stage back there where we put on our productions for– I was in a few plays during grade school so that’s where it all happened.
Roman: The kids at Abo actually got the vote on what the school mascot would be, and appropriately and adorably they chose to be the Abo Gophers.
Scott: Yes, we’re underground just like the gophers are and so, right through here is our generator room to keep it up and running for the people that are coming in, inhabitants or whatever, townspeople that are coming here for the fallout. And also it has right over here in the corner, its own water well underground. And as you can tell right here, you’ve got doors. You’ve got to close that for survival. Open this one for survival and you’re shutting ventilation shafts and open ventilation shafts in trying to keep the bad air out of here.
Katie: Scott and Thad weren’t sure which room doubled as the morgue.
Thad Phipps: And I think it’s back by the elevator.
Scott: That’s what I [inaudible].
Thad: There’s a little room but I didn’t ever see where it could fit a tremendous number of bodies. It is, this is a typical classroom. Certainly there’s not any windows, there’s not any sunlight but we went upstairs two, three times a day for recreation.
Kenneth: The teachers reported that they generally liked their school because the students weren’t distracted by starting out the windows and I think the students themselves were generally proud of their school. But once again, this creates a huge debate with many people saying that the needs of schools and the need to shelter people during a nuclear attack were not compatible.
Katie: That’s Kenneth Rose again, author of One Nation Underground, and he says in fact, there was a lot of debate going on at that time about fallout shelters.
Kenneth: The subject was virtually inescapable in the 1960s. Every newspaper was running articles on shelters and a potential for survival. Time magazine published an article called, “Gun thy Neighbor,” in which they interviewed a guy who said that if he knew his neighbors tried to get into his fallout shelter during a nuclear attack, he would kill them.
Male Voice Clip 2: All across America, people are preparing, going to staggering lengths, to protect their families from their greatest fears.
Roman: Today you can watch shows like Doomsday Preppers on Cable TV and think about what it would be like to prepare for the apocalypse. But in the 1950s and ’60s, it was a brand new idea.
Katie: Also back then, it wasn’t a fringe idea. I mean, the President of the United States was telling people to build these things and the whole country was involved in the debate.
Roman: On one side of the debate, you had people against shelters.
Kenneth: Those against shelters said that your — people who burled into the ground to save their own skins were no better than moles–
Roman: Or Gophers.
Kenneth: Shelters would militarize America and turn the United States into a Garrison State and after the nuclear war had ended, shelters would sort of be America’s pyramids, all that remained of a wasted, defunct civilization.
Katie: And on the other side, people for shelters said, “Wait a minute. This is just a precaution like any other.” They compared fallout shelters to lifeboats. Here’s a sarcastic letter that a proponent of shelters wrote to the Harvard Crimson in 1961.
Scott: It’s been brought to our attention that certain elements among the passengers and crew favor the installation of lifeboats on this ship. Although we share their concern, we remain inalterably opposed to any consideration other course of action for the following reasons.
Roman: The letter gets increasingly sarcastic.
Scott: It demonstrates a lack of faith in our captain. The apparent security which lifeboats offer will make our navigators reckless. These proposals will distract our attention from more important things i.e. building unsinkable ships. You will only be safe for a worse fate, inevitable death on the open seas, so forth and so on.
Kenneth: I think in this little letter, you can see some of the issues that are being debated.
Roman: Like what kind of world will you emerge to if you survive a nuclear war, and whether these shelter systems could somehow make our leaders more likely to engage in war?
Kenneth: It’s a very complicated calculus on this, this whole issue of whether to build a shelter or not to build a shelter.
Katie: For the town of Artesia in the early 1960s, the calculations seemed easy enough. They needed a new school anyway and the Office of Civil Defense agreed to pay the difference between building a regular school and a fallout shelter school.
Roman: Artesia was near Walker Air Force Base. It’s closed now but that the time, it was the largest strategic air command base of the US Air Force. It was also close to the White Sands Missile Range. These and other factors made Artesia feel practically vulnerable to attack.
Jana Williams: New Mexico has always had nuclear programs going on.
Katie: That’s Jana Williams. Her friend’s mom is one of the people that heard me on the radio and got in touch. Jana went to Abo Elementary in the 1960s, when Cold War tensions were still really high.
Jana: I do remember I’m going through White Sands Missile Range. Every once in a while, you see a missile going up and you’re thinking, “Wow! How? Do we have 30 minutes to live or what?” You know, it’s kind of a creepy feeling.
Katie: Like Thad and Scott that gave me the tour of Abo, Jana didn’t know at first why her school was underground. The teachers never mentioned it and her parents didn’t tell her either.
Jana: They didn’t tell us anything and don’t ask real questions. We’ll lie to you. [laughs]
Katie: But, you know how most kids have that one friend in elementary school that knows about sex? Well, Jana had Fedelia Brennan and she knew about nuclear war.
Jana: Fedelia Brennan, I’ll never forget. [laughs] She’s the one who opened my eyes to that kind of — and I guess reality or unreality. She was very intelligent. Of course, they had a fallout shelter in their backyard so I’m sure they had already gone through the whole survivalist thing growing up and you know, knowing the kids and her family, it seems like they were taught things like how you could survive nuclear Holocaust. And, I know I had kind of a freaky feeling about that after that like, “Oh my gosh, we’re all going to die.” Oh, there you go.
Katie: As Jana and I are talking, an alarm starts going off. It’s an emergency test alarm that the oil refinery plays every Monday at 6:30 PM. Artesia’s large oil refinery was another thing that made them feel vulnerable to attack in the ’60s.
Roman: Refineries are often targets during wars especially the ones that make jet fuel like the one in Artesia did.
Jana: It’s almost like a nuclear raid sound, isn’t it? It’s how you knew that I love Lucy was coming on when I was a kid.
Katie: When Abo was built, it got a fair amount of media attention. Dan Rather did a story on the CBS Evening News in 1962 and more than 60,000 people toured the school in its first few years.
Roman: The Soviets found out about it and were critical. One Moscow newspaper criticized Artesians’ for “indoctrinating peoples to the inevitability of war.”
Katie: But actually, while the rest of the country students were doing duck and cover drills which was probably strange and scary for some kids, Jana doesn’t ever remember having to do one at Abo.
Jana: But we never did any, you know, like nuclear raid test where we had to drop, duck and roll and all that kind of stuff. We’re already down there, we were safe, so.
Male Voice Clip 3: Be sure to remember what Bert the Turtle does friends because every one of us must remember to do the same thing. That’s what this film is all about, duck and cover. This is an official Civil Defense produced–
Kenneth: Officials in the Soviet Union were putting down the US for their pre-occupation with the whole shelter issue. But in fact, the Soviet’s built a very elaborate secret shelter underneath Moscow.
Roman: And of course, our fearless leaders had their own hiding places. The most elaborate one being the bunker hidden below the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, built to house all 535 members of Congress and their staff but not their families. It was decommissioned in 1995 and is now open for tours.
Katie: Remember the speech that we heard at the beginning of this story, in which Kennedy vowed to allocate millions of dollars to find places where Americans could take shelter from nuclear bombs? Well, it took place in July of 1961.
John: To identify a modern space existing structure, public and private. That could be used for fallout shelters in case of attack.
Roman: In the fall of 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy asked for a status report and found that his shelter program was far behind its schedule. The government hadn’t been able to find all that many places where people could take shelter and the ones they had found weren’t fully stocked with supplies.
Katie: By 1962, the private shelter business was also failing.
Roman: But it wasn’t in decline because American stopped being afraid of nuclear war. The Cuban Missile Crisis was arguably the most frightening moment of the Cold War.
Katie: Kenneth Rose thinks American rejected shelters for a lot of reasons. For one, they couldn’t afford them. The cost of a decent shelter, it was about $2,500 and that was about half of the median family income in the 1960s, and Dr. Rose also believes….
Kenneth: Americans simply did not like the image of themselves cowering underground. I think it dug at American pride. We think roughly something like 200,000 shelters were built from the beginning of the Cold War to about 1965 and, you could say that, “Well 200,000 that’s a lot of shelters. It’s about one for every 900 people.” But, in an era when a majority of Americans actually believed that there was going to be a nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union, I would say that 200,000 is actually a small number.
[music track plays]
Roman: As far as Abo Elementary, it thankfully never had to serve as a fallout shelter and they got rid of their supplies back in 1989. They get rid of all the bedding and the food, the medicine, even a few body bags but the school stayed open until 1995.
Katie: When they stopped using it as a school, it wasn’t because they were tired of being underground. Here’s Assistant Superintendent Thad Phipps.
Thad: It is a little sad after growing up in this school to see it not being used or to see it in this type of shape but, we understand as a district that the cost to renovate this type of building was more than what the community was willing to put into it. And so we built a brand new school, right on — almost on top of it, just slightly to the west.
Roman: The new school was called Yeso Elementary. Yeso and Abo are both after geological layers of earth. Yeso being the layered just about Abo. Clever.
Katie. Yeso is above ground but in the spirit of Abo Elementary, it has very few windows. Now, Abo Elementary is used for district storage. Oh, and one other thing–
Scott: It’s being used as an active shooter training facility for the federal law enforcement training center. They go through all of their scenarios and use it to practice for situations that none of us want to think would happen but–
Katie: Wait, wait, wait. What do you mean? What active shooting elementary–
Scott: Like school shootings that you know, been around the nation.
Thad: This had been a really good facility to use because it’s all downstairs. There are no windows and they can do everything that they need to do and nobody sees.
Katie: So twice a month, the federal law enforcement training center goes into Abo and practices for school shootings, running drills, firing at fake targets.
Scott: If something ever happens, you want to be prepared. I don’t think you can never be prepared enough but, you know, in case something does happen.
Katie: Because if there’s one thing Artesia has always been good at, it’s being prepared and protecting its kids from whatever dangers they might confront.
Roman: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Katie Mingle, with Sam Greenspan, Avery Trufelman and me, Roman Mars. We are a project of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco and produced at the Offices of Arcsine Architecture in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.