“I’d almost rather be incinerated than have to live down here,” says Suellen Sims, below inspecting her new home’s fallout shelter, built beneath an earthen berm alongside Harris Park. (Click to enlarge)
By JOHN T. WARD
Sometime in the next few weeks, a backhoe is expected to demolish the underground bunker beside a River Road house recently acquired by Suellen and Jamie Sims, who plan an addition to accommodate her mother.
The Cold War was raging in 1959 or 1960 when Dr. James Clark, a Red Bank eye surgeon, decided like many other Americans that he needed a fallout shelter to protect his family from radiation in the event of a nuclear attack.
But when a manufacturer of mail-order shelters told him there was a two-year backlog, Clark decided to build his own on the Harris Park side of the house, said his son, David Clark.
“He drew it up on paper, dug the hole, designed the hand-cranked air-filtration system,” said Clark, of Fair Haven. “He built wooden platform beds, and loaded it with canned goods.”
The result, on the outside, was a handsome berm of soil, grass and pine trees trimmed with a low brick wall. Inside, about a dozen feet below the surface, was a room off about 12 by 12, set off to the right of the stairwell, because, said Clark, “radiation can’t turn corners.”
Clark, who was about 10 or 12 when the bunker was built, said his father gave him the chore of emptying water containers and refilling them each month, adding three drops of chlorine to each. The elder Clark died suddenly in 1962 of a heart attack, and in the ensuing years, the son and his pals used to occasionally hang out in the bunker.
“They’d ask if they could come down here if the Russians attacked,” he said. “I’d say, ‘sure, you and the 5,000 other people who have asked.'”
The new owners, who have never met Clark, referred to the bunker at a recent planning board hearing as a “bomb shelter,” but Clark says it wasn’t built for that kind of shock. “A bomb hits the top, everybody’s dead,” he said.
Suellen Sims said that when a real estate agent first showed her and her husband the house, the bunker wasn’t included in the listing information. “We said, ‘What are all those pipes sticking up out of the ground?'”
Turns out they’re part of the air filtering system, equipped originally with automotive air filters.
Sims, who said she had to duck under her desk and participate in air raid drills as a schoolgirl and recalls having been “terrified” during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, still finds it “weird that you would build this just for yourself and your family.”
And the shelter itself she finds “dystopian. I’d almost rather be incinerated than have to live down here the rest of my life,” she said.
With the bunker’s days now numbered, Sims says her daughter has suggested a sendoff party, complete with t-shirts bearing the message: “I got bombed in the bomb shelter.”