As we anticipate our long-awaited sesquicentennial blowout on July 31, what most worries us? Let’s see; the Delta variant of COVID-19 might overcome vaccine protections and launch us into another year’s masked isolation, state and national politics might get even more fractious and bizarre, Russian hackers will swipe all the money out of our bank accounts, Lauren Boebert will run for president (actually, that’d be fun!) or the recovering economy might run out of steam.
That’s fine, but these are all small-scale worries. Back in the imagined tranquility of the 1960s, city leaders were focused on a massive existential threat. The city might appear to be a prosperous, growing and peaceful little place, a haven from the noisy, polluted cities of the East Coast and Midwest, but that was just an illusion. Thanks to the North American Air Defense Command and its impregnable fortress carved into the granite flanks of Cheyenne Mountain, we were about to be at Ground Zero, the probable No. 1 target of a Soviet nuclear strike.
City and county elected officials teamed up with the Army Corps of Engineers in 1967 to protect their constituents by creating the Colorado Springs and El Paso County Community Shelter Plan. It didn’t have anything to do with housing the homeless — we’re talking post-nuclear attack fallout shelters. It was a sizeable publication that included a full-size color map of city/county fallout shelters. It was apparently mailed to every home and business in the city and county. Hundreds of buildings in the city and county were designated as public shelters, but homeowners were advised to shelter in their basements.
“During the summer of 1967,” the booklet noted, “all one, two and three-family residences were surveyed by the Bureau of Census. Householders who participated in the survey received a green book, Fallout protection for Homes with Basements.
Homeowners should pick out the corner of your basement “where the ground level is highest” and stack heavy furniture there, like “a sturdy table or workbench.” The idea, I guess, was that Mom and Dad and Buddy and Sis would cower under the workbench for a few days, moving only to access emergency supplies. Not to worry — the shelter plan includes a list of things they’d need, including water, food, blankets, clothing, medicine, toilet paper, a garbage can, an emergency toilet, a flashlight, extra batteries, a transistor radio and (of all things!) newspapers. Did The Gazette-Telegraph and the Free Press guarantee daily delivery to their subscribers, nuclear attack be damned?
Anyway, this was serious stuff to Springs Mayor Eugene McCleary and County Commission Chairman Keith McBurney, who both signed off on the booklet.
Meanwhile, our ever-watchful guardians deep under the mountain scanned air and space for intruding missiles or aircraft. Experts monitored scores of screens that tracked every object in the sky in an ultra-sophisticated surveillance system … at least, that’s what films and TV showed us. The reality in the early days was somewhat different, as a retired software engineer who worked in the mountain once told me.
“We were trying to run World War III on 250K of RAM,” he said with a chuckle. “The system would crash all the time. It got better slowly, but it was never up to Hollywood standards. I enjoyed the movies, though!”
The city’s fascination with fallout shelters and nuclear attack soon ebbed, although signs designating public shelters were still scattered around Downtown decades later. Many of the 1967 locales are long gone, and the city’s 71-page Emergency Preparedness and Safety Guide allocates less space to preparing for nuclear attack than it does to skateboard and rollerblading safety.
And it’s not as if we haven’t had more than our share of more mundane disasters in the last decade. It’s good to be prepared, as Julia Wright emphasizes in her recent book, “Lessons from Colorado Fires & Floods.” It’s a much better read than a government pamphlet.
Yet Cold War nostalgia has its place, particularly to those of us who grew up in the ’50s. It helps you make strange connections between the fears of the past and the anxieties of the present.
Wonder whether there’s a basement shelter at Mar-a-Lago… Don, make sure there’s a sturdy workbench there to protect you! Put those burly Secret Service agents to work stacking furniture.