Anniversary of Cuban Missile Crisis has some revisiting fallout shelters

The Fort Worth Star-TelegramOctober 25, 2012 

An aerial photograph shows Medium Range Ballistic Missile Launch Site Two at San Cristobal, Cuba, during the Cuban Missile Crisis on November 1, 1962.


— Jeff and Rosemary Detweiler knew immediately what to do with the fallout shelter in the Fort Worth home they bought in 1992.

"The owners before us, during the missile crisis, had their garage floor jackhammered out, built a bomb shelter under the garage and poured concrete back on top," Jeff Detweiler said.

Deciding that the threat of nuclear war didn't match their fondness for fine wine, the Detweilers turned the 180-square-foot shelter into a wine cellar.

"There was a periscope that went up through the garage," Jeff Detweiler said. "We disassembled that and used the shaft to run the cooling system for the wine cellar."

The shelter was built during a time when fear of a potential nuclear attack by the Soviet Union gripped the United States.

It was the early 1960s and besides the construction of private and public fallout shelters, Civil Defense officials advised residents to store a two-week supply of food and water because "that is the figure at which officials believe the maximum danger from radioactivity will be over."

Officials issued pamphlets titled "Escape From the H-Bomb" saying that "THE DUCK AND COVER SCHEME IS NO LONGER SAFE -- YOU MUST GET AWAY."

It said "an estimate of the situation indicates Seventh and Main Street in downtown Fort Worth as a probable target for a nuclear weapon" and explained what to do in an attack, including a map of evacuation routes.

Memories of those wildly paranoid times were revived this month with the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the two-week standoff with the Soviet Union over the placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba.

The Cold War confrontation ended on Oct. 28, 1962, when President John F. Kennedy brokered a dismantling-of-the-missiles deal with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

The threat of nuclear war subsided.

The fallout shelters, however, remained very real.

'We felt very vulnerable'

One of the public shelters built was at First Baptist Church of White Settlement.

Edwin Marbut, the business manager at the church at the time, remembers that a Civil Defense employee -- who wore an orange jumpsuit and matching hard hat -- made monthly visits to check out a special room at the church.

"I never knew when he was coming, but it was the same man every time," Marbut said.

"I never knew his name. I went with him to the room, but he never invited me in."

Members of the church -- near Carswell Air Force Base and General Dynamics -- gathered gallon jugs to store water and sterilized sheets to make bandages.

Civil Defense helped stock the shelter in ways the congregation never dreamed, especially in that mysterious room, Marbut said.

"They went upstairs at the back of the church where the Sunday school classes met and put in Geiger counters," he said. "They brought in boxes of dried food, stacks of blankets and some things in sealed boxes that they didn't tell me what it was. They put new locks on the door and gave us a key that we put in the safe. No one was to go into that room unless there was an emergency."

Stocks of supplies in what Civil Defense eventually said were 300 public fallout shelters in Fort Worth sometimes gave people mixed feelings.

Working in downtown Fort Worth, Suzanne Henderson remembers seeing stacks of dark-green drums filled with drinking water, food and other supplies each time she entered the Tarrant County Courthouse.

"It was a constant reminder that we lived in an area that was threatened," said Henderson, a former Tarrant County clerk. "We could never forget that downtown might become a disaster area. We felt very vulnerable."

Despite that feeling, walking through a fallout shelter every day to reach the county auditor's office didn't overwhelm Henderson with a sense of doom.

"I felt secure in that building," she said. "... I guess I assumed I would be a survivor, that the shelter would protect us."

About the only things remaining from the public shelters are a few signs, like one on the northeast corner of the downtown post office.

There's a fallout shelter sign over the back door to the White Settlement church, too.

Marbut said people from Civil Defense took back all the equipment and supplies about two years after they were installed.

First Baptist converted the basement into a fellowship hall and classrooms.

Shelters at home

The feeling of vulnerability that Henderson described inspired a lot of people to prepare for the worst without relying on public shelters.

In the Westcliff neighborhood near TCU, Dr. Oscar Morphis organized his neighbors "to construct what is believed to be the largest neighborhood fallout shelter in North Texas," according to a 1961 Star-Telegram article.

They wanted to build a shelter for 300 people. Selling $150-per-person shares in the venture would have raised the estimated $45,000 cost of a 3,600-square-foot space with a 9.5-foot ceiling and reinforced concrete walls four feet underground.

The newspaper story killed the project.

The doctor's son, Mike Morphis, was 2 at the time. He never heard his father talk about the shelter, but his older brother, Phillip, told him about it.

"The shelter never was built," Mike Morphis said. "About half the neighborhood was for it and about half not interested. When the secret was out, nobody was interested because if a crisis came, there would be hordes at the gate."

However, many people installed their own fallout shelters.

Prefabricated metal shelters could be dropped into a hole in the back yard. But if a family had the means, the ultimate shelter was one that didn't require going outside to enter.

Such is the case of the Detweilers' shelter/wine cellar. The door into the room has large bolts on it, Rosemary Detweiler said.

"I think it's designed to keep the neighbors out," she said.

"Whenever I think about what we did with the shelter, I think of turning swords into plowshares. You're taking something that was built in fear and converting it into something that's fun."

Along with a few hundred bottles of wine, the couple keep food and water in the room just in case they have to shelter there for any natural or unnatural disasters, Rosemary Detweiler said.

"We could survive down there for a week," she said.

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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