New homeowner opens shelter sealed since 1961
WEST LAKE HILLS — 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.
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."
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.
Black Blade: That's a selling point for me - I would be more likely to buy the house that has a bomb shelter.