gimme shelter

gimme shelter

They seemed to be in a hurry to get life going because in 1955 my parents built their contemporary dream house on Watson Drive just three years after they married and two years after their first child was born. Mid-century modern was never a term they used when describing their home, it was always a contemporary home when they proudly described it to others. The term mid century modern, so prevalent today, was not used back then, at least in their world but they loved that house from the first day they moved in it until the day they sold it 53 years later.

My introduction to the house was in June of 1957 but it wouldn't have made much of an impression on eight pounds of five day old, bald, crying, baby while in the arms of my mother as she walked into the front door of her modern creation. As she stepped into the foyer holding her second born son, the trendy brass Sputnik chandelier hanging overhead, with lights shooting into every direction, may have caught my barely open, googly eyes. The waiting baby nurse would have taken me to the nursery as soon as I was handed over by my mother and then she would have walked to her large bedroom to shower, put on fresh makeup and lipstick and get a half of a cup of black coffee before phoning her friends to catch up on what had been going on in Wilson while she was giving birth and recovering at Woodard Herring Hospital. Her routine was the same then and it remains the same now with a few adjustments for age and stage of life.

I learned how to crawl and walk going up and down the crab orchard stone steps into and out of the sunken living room in that house, which were cold and hard and I cracked my head on them more than once but was never hurt seriously. Hackney heads are generally made extra large, hard and hardy. The sloped ceiling that was high over head sported 1950's light blue beams and while that wouldn't have caught my eye, the ceiling height made the space seem cavernous to a small child. On cold winter days, our family dog preferred sleeping on the warm living room floor because of the radiant heat underneath the cork flooring. My brother, sister and I would lie beside the sleeping animal to also soak up the heat underneath the soft floors as well as enjoy the sunlight that flooded through the huge floor to ceiling windows that helped keep the large room toasty in cool weather. When leaving the house from the driveway and heading to school, I would look back as it receded through the rear window of the car as we drove away, but the flat roof didn't look odd. It looked like what it was, the roof that covered our house. Wasn't everyone's home like this one? Here was the place where our family ate meals, where we slept and did everything every other family did----it's where we lived----it was home. My immature eyes didn't have the experience to recognize the glaring difference between our house and the other houses that surrounded it but I soon learned everyone else noticed what I was missing.

Mom and Dad choose the lot to build their house on a street which is well known in town because it's anchored on the north end by the beautiful Watson house atop one of the few hills around. While the house may look like it was built for a famous movie star in Beverly Hills, it was built for the Rom Watson family in the heart of town. In spite of its size, it establishes a discreet and luxurious architectural tone for that end of the street which continues down the hill with several other large, handsome homes with similar traditional designs. The opposite end of Watson Drive is dotted with lovely homes that are just as handsome but not as large as their neighbors on the opposite end of the street. It was, and still remains today, a very attractive street from one end to the other.

But smack dab in the middle of all of this classical architectural harmony is the shocking exclamation point of the go-to-hell I'm contemporary Hackney house. Built to maximize light and to bring the outside in, it was also built to grab an onlookers attention with sharp lines that intersected sloping rooflines and clearstory windows. It was my parent's house - home sweet home to our family - but hardly one that would be found on a needlepoint sampler. Fitting in defined the 1950s but our house did not fit in. It was even more attention grabbing in buttoned up, conformist Wilson by its juxtaposition among the hyper-traditional designs up and down Watson Drive. A native Wilsonian driving by would be surprised to see something that was so different from the rest of the town where no other modern home could be found since Wilson, and most of Eastern North Carolina, was dominated by Colonial, bungalow, Williamsburg, and Victorian architecture.

While it was being built, many people would stop to ask my parents if they might being building a train station on their lot. They loved the questions and would answer thoughtfully about contemporary design but when my traditional Hackney grandparents were asked the same questions by their friends, they were embarrassed by the odd design and didn't know what to say. My Bridgers grandparents were accustomed to their daughter's artistic, determined and unconventional ways and didn't say much more than, “Well, you know Anne....” and left it at that. Wilsonians, as well as my grandparents, were getting a much needed lesson in modern architectural design, compliments of my parents, whether they wanted it or not. The quote "if houses reflect the times they were designed, midcentury modern is the architecture of ideas, created by those who believed the forward-looking style could be a vehicle for social change to create a better society" summed up my parent's vision of the 1950s.

Even thought it was obvious, the fact that our house was different from all the others in town wasn't a big deal until I was a first grader at Woodard School and our class had an assignment to draw a picture of our home. Each of my classmates drew pictures of their houses which were simple yet featured traditional styles. Mine showed a wall and chimney, which was actually a decent rendition of what you see in the picture above. My teacher made a big deal about my drawing saying sternly, "Tom, your picture is not a house!" Ahhhh, Mrs. Bailey, but it was. It was our house – go take a look. Obviously my teacher didn't get out and drive around town much. Others did and through the years I heard many comments about the house that have spanned the gamut-----some thoughtful: "I love modern design and adore the courtyard of the modern house on Watson Drive" to which I replied, "That's where I grew up!". And others hysterically funny, if somewhat ignorant, like this one: "Do you know who the hell lives in the butt ugly house on Watson?" "Yep, my parents." Red faces. Embarrassed couple slinking off.

As much commentary as the house and wall in front of it received from adults, my friends didn't care about the architecture of the house, it’s simple lines, its large windows or its high ceilings. What they were interested in was looming large in the backyard. "It" wasn't all that large in structure but it was large in form---- a solid concrete block building, covered in brick and with a concrete roof. It was windowless, foreboding and always seemed to have a little black cloud overhead, but that may have been just an (always overactive) youthful imagination. My parents called it "The Fallout Shelter" but many folks called these things a "bomb shelter". Fallout shelter seemed so much more polite and less scary than a title with bomb in it which may be why the term fallout shelter stuck. Fallout shelter does seem to have a more southern ring to it as if nuclear warheads could have manners and the terminology for being saved could be polite or impolite. Only in the south....

We were the 60's version of today’s survivalists which is embarrassing now but still rings true. At the time it felt normal to have a fallout shelter in the backyard because a few relatives and one or two neighbors had fallout shelters as well, but other people in town must have thought it was odd and I remember people teasing Dad about it but he didn’t care. Bomb shelters became popular in the 1950s and 60s because of the arms race between the Soviet Union and the US and people like my father were afraid a nuclear bomb could be deployed at any time. Dad had been in the Philippines when President Truman made the decision to drop a nuclear bomb on Japan to end World War II so he understood the horrific damage a nuclear event could unleash here. Schools still practiced "drop, duck and cover" because as everyone knows getting under a school desk is adequate protection from nuclear radiation.

Dad was not foolish enough to believe that drop, duck and cover or anything the government could do to protect the population (specifically his family) was adequate protection from an Atom Bomb so he built his own protection---a private fallout shelter in his backyard. Had he asked, his children might have suggested he spend the money on a pool but he didn't ask and would have thought such a suggestion was wildly extravagant. My mother had wanderlust all her life and would have wanted to spend the money on a trip abroad and while he usually gave in to her whims, this time he didn’t. He was a man who was hyper-interested in safety and security (too many years in the insurance business) and he was going to do what he had to do. There was no need for anyone else to offer ideas, he was building his fallout shelter. He reminded me that if the bomb did hit, our family would immediately be the most popular family in the neighborhood as people would be clamoring to get in with us. Wouldn't it be just my pre-pubescent luck to end up being popular because of a bomb hitting Wilson?

In spite of what was built in the backyard, catastrophes nor nuclear war or anything else were on the mind of any normal kid in the 1960s. We were all living in the moment, going to school in the winter, going to the recreation pool in the summer, riding our bikes behind the mosquito fogging trucks (a different kind of fallout that was cause for concern we'd later learn), and for some of the "lucky few", playing in not ready for prime time (thankfully) fallout shelters. There were other unintended uses for fallout shelters. When my parents were going out for one of their many evenings out, and Mother didn't have our dinner prepared, the fallout shelter and its contents came in very handy. Mother would smile and ask, "Would you rather have the yucky old Little Mint again or would you like to go out to the fallout shelter and pick out anything you want to eat and have it right now for dinner?!" She didn't want to take the time to drive to The Little Mint, our go-to fast food restaurant pre-McDonald's to pick up hamburgers or fried chicken. She might throw in a dollar or two to sweeten the pot o' bribery if we were vacillating and before long we'd be jumping up and down yelling with great excitement, "Fallout shelter! Fallout shelter!". Dad would shake his head in disbelief at her power of persuasion but he'd go with us to the fallout shelter to pick out what we wanted. As soon as the Dinty Moore Beef Stew was dumped from the can and heated on the stove and the canned bread was out of the can, sliced and beside it, I longed for the absent juicy Little Mint burger or the missing crispy piece of fried chicken. We were duped again by our clever Huckleberry mother and one day of stored fallout shelter rationing would have to be replenished later by our father.

For any kid, and especially a young boy, entering the fallout shelter was like entering a nuclear age spook house. It was both thrilling and spooky and friends loved to go in there to explore and discover what a real atomic hideout would be like. The key could be found on the kitchen wall on Dad's well organized, giant wooden key holder with many keys heavily packed on it. The fallout shelter key was clearly marked with a label made by the old fashioned point-and-click label maker that he loved to (over) use. Once found, we'd grab it, run outside, open the heavy, creaky, thick metal door to the shelter and walk down the long, dark hallway, pushing and shoving each other to see who would go first into the dark larger room. A sharp 90 degree to the left lead into that main room that held all the good stuff that was needed in the event of the dreaded nuclear event. Dad had explained the reason for the long hall and the 90 degree turn was that gamma rays couldn't make turns at right angles. If a bomb ever detonated, quickly getting into the fallout shelter and making the 90 degree turn into that room would mean the wicked gamma rays couldn't follow and that was nuclear aversion nirvana.

Once in the room, there would always be spider webs hanging down from the ceiling that would tickle across our faces and there was one bare overhead light bulb that would somehow cast eerie shadows everywhere. With a loud click, I'd flip the light off to scare the bejesus out anyone ahead of me and no matter how brave they pretended to be before the light went out, afterwards they would turn and run towards the sunlight of the open doorway around the corner, screaming loudly and only stopping to laugh as light became nearer and clearer. Once the light bulb was flipped back on, and young heartbeats were slowing to a normal rate would the room be appealing again.

A combination of smells consisting of concrete, canvas scout tents, old war blankets, cans, rope and stale air permeated the room. Eagle Scouts and War Vets must take an oath to never give away or discard any scout or war stuff - and dad kept all of those things in there. There was an air machine that looked like a large chambered nautilus with a hand crank and could crank out re-circulated air to freshen up the place although it just mixed together the smells that were already in there. It could get a bit of a breeze going but it wasn’t a breeze you’d want to luxuriate in. Eau de fallout shelter. The hand crank air machine was beside the toilet and the toilet was open to the room. Lack of design is the understatement in describing this configuration. Odd looking crickets hopped around and they may have been blind which added to the cave-like, another world atmosphere, not particularly inviting to some but wildly appealing to others. While it was the most unappealing man cave imaginable, to a kid, it had a lot of appeal in its un-appealingness. It was attractive and repelling at the same time. This place was young boy perfection all in less than 300 square feet. Who cared about the Contemporary architecture in front of this masterpiece?

The fallout shelter was the opposite of the house in front of it ----- windowless and dark with low ceilings so it was cool, dark and eerie. Shelves lined one wall from the ceiling down about 3 feet and it was stocked with canned food. There was a large sink although where would safe water come from? It wouldn't be from a bombed out City of Wilson reservoir. There may have been a radioactive free well zone under the shelter that wasn't ever discussed----but knowing my Eagle Scout father it was there. Also, knowing him, the shelves were stocked with all the right supplies -------- canned foods, a transistor radio with plenty of replacement batteries because he loved WPTF news in the morning and couldn't have lived-----even facing death from radiation----without their daily newscasts. There would have been first aid kits, flashlights, candles, canteens (Dad was an Eagle Scout) and ropes for tying all kinds of knots (it bears repeating-Dad was a good Eagle Scout) and there was probably iodine. He knew that iodine would keep the thyroid from absorbing radiation (Scout’s Honor). And knowing we'd all come running into the fallout shelter with skinned knees, cuts and bruises he would have had plenty of his favorite miracle drug, Merthiolate. I hated that stuff.

He always pronounced Merthiolate as Ma-thigh-O-late and he loved it only behind my mother and his nightly Bourbon and water. To him, it was a magic elixir capable of solving any skin problem, wound, cut, scrape or skin disorder and he kept it handy everywhere. It came in old timey looking brown bottle and the medicine itself was a garish bright pinkish red that was applied with a wicked looking glass stick. It looked evil before anything started. He would pull it out any time he saw a cut or skinned knee and he would generously apply it to the cut and it would sting like hell. I'd run when the brown bottle come out of the medicine cabinet and at first he would run after me, then capture and apply what was certainly red poison. Later he would yell with his deepest, most baritone, booming I-Am-Your-Father scary voice but I kept running usually trying to find Mother, who was always talking on the phone to her friends, and she wouldn't miss a word of her conversation but would look up at her husband, my father, who was chasing me and shake her head sharply left to right. Defeated, he would back off and the Merthiolate would be retired to the medicine cabinet and my wound could heal itself. Not allowing any medicine on cuts and scrapes is still my preferred recovery thanks to the old days of it stings-like-hell Merthiolate. Some things are hard to forget but back then I learned to cover up and hide any cuts, bruises, skin issues or skinned knees so Dad wouldn't catch a glimpse of them and head to his medicine cabinet. Eventually, Merthiolate was removed from the market because it was full of mercury and was poisonous if swallowed or used in large amounts. I was a smarter kid than Dad realized in so many ways-even in the Ma-thigh-O-late way. Until he died, my father bemoaned the death of Merthiolate.

Dad didn't have a kid-man-cave in mind when he spent his hard earned money building the fallout shelter to protect his family from the atom bomb. And before you start laughing and thinking what a fool John Hackney was to spent any amount of money to build a fallout shelter in 1960, Google "1961 Goldsboro B-52 Plane Crash" for details about a B-52 that came apart in mid-air and dropped two Mark 39 nuclear bombs in Wayne County. Two men died and one of the nuclear bombs came close to detonating. When reading the details, it becomes apparent that an atom bomb almost detonated within 30 miles of Wilson that year. Had it gone off, we would have been in serious trouble and the Hackney fallout shelter would have been more beautiful that year than the swanky Watson House just up the street.

As a teen, I would go into the fallout shelter to look for something and I would stand there and look around and it was starting to look less like a fun spook house and more like a sad, run down amusement park that's been closed for a few years. Friends were no longer interested in going into it and goofing off----they were interested in going to Teen Club, The Pizza Inn or on dates with girls. One day I walked in and looked around and started thinking critically about the open toilet in the middle of the room and seeing the dead crickets; thinking about being in there for weeks or months with our family eating old, canned food; having to listen to World War II stories and watching Dad tie Boy Scout knots endlessly; knowing Mom would complain bitterly about missing her beloved Book Club and Bridge Club meetings. It didn't take long to decide it would be much better for me to die with everyone else in the nuclear fallout than to have to live in the Fallout Shelter with my family for months. The open toilet alone was enough to make me feel perfectly OK with being vaporized by the bomb. Just take me Jesus with everyone else and let some other fool take my spot in the safety of Fallout Shelter to help Johnny and Lou repopulate the world ------ or at least Wilson County.

My father often wondered what might have happened had he invested the fallout shelter money in the best performing stock of the same year but some questions are better left unanswered. When the Watson Drive house was sold in 2009, even though he was 86 years old, Dad wanted to clean out the Fallout Shelter by himself. Maybe he had a hidden stash of old love letters stored in there he didn't want his children to stumble upon and read. Slowly old items appeared in the garage that had been stuffed in the fallout shelter for years. Old doll babies and their collapsed carriages came out as well as forgotten furniture, trendy 60s games and a few long ago forgotten TVs and stereos. His World War II uniforms, in tatters, scout tents and canteens with rotten canvas also showed up. Our old family slides, which we had searched high and low for in the house, had been stored in the fallout shelter and were long ago forgotten. Mold and mildew had taken their toll and most were lost but the picture you see above was one of the survivors and the others that were found are very precious keepsakes. He may have found some Merthiolate and quietly taken it with him to his new, smaller house and in fact now that I think about it, maybe I later saw some of that bright pink medicine on a burn on his hand. But in the middle of a lot of junk was an old toy chest, a survivor from just after the Watson Drive house was built.

It's a 1950s toy chest, bought for Johnny and me to use as children before Lou was born. It looks like the toy chest first cousin of the 1955 Chevy Bel Air that was my father's favorite car when he built the house. It could have been designed by the guy who designed the backseat of the old Chevy. The toy chest is restored and is now at my house as a reminder of the modern house on Watson Drive where I grew up. My granddaughter loves to play in it and it's piece of furniture that is a tie from my parents to me and on to her, something besides the genetics we all share. As she was playing with it recently, memories of the good old days were coming back to me ----- the simple, wonderful days when I was playing with that toy chest on Watson Drive as a young boy. But what I fantasize about as the simple era of the 1960s really wasn't simple at all and in reality, it was a very complex, difficult and complicated era. Just as my granddaughter is unaware of the violent world that swirls around her today, so was I unaware of the violent era I was growing up in and the fallout shelter is a stark reminder of that fact.

Still, I knew that I was being protected, as best my father could, from whatever was out there. It's the same way today as my grandchildren, are being protected as best their parents and grandparents can protect them, while they enjoy a childhood just as we did. But we don't have a fallout shelter or a swell Contemporary house as a backdrop for their childhoods. In fact, we chose to live in a Colonial as I wanted something more traditional that the house I had grown up in. While I admired my parents rebel style, I wasn’t as much of an architectural rebel myself. Our house is attractive, if boring, the kind found in many neighborhoods that were built in the 1950s – but the opposite of my parent’s house. It’s a very traditional, two story with columns and a two story front porch. It's nice enough but doesn’t possess any great architectural significance. A friend, who is an admirer of fine architecture once asked, "Do you live in that white, tacky pseudo-colonial with the bad roof pitch on Clyde Avenue?"

"Yep" I replied, "That's the one," and we both laughed. I long ago learned to brush off comments about the house I live in but it doesn’t seem to matter if my house is traditional or contemporary, the interesting comments keep coming.

I’ve enjoyed living in our house for the past 30 years where we raised our family just as my parents loved living in their contemporary house. Their house was never my style but it certainly was their style----in spades. Today contemporary architecture is accepted for what it is rather than what it isn't and in major metropolitan areas these homes often sell faster than their more common traditional neighbors as people appreciate the organic and still interesting approach that modern architectural design offers. It is not considered shocking or anything other than another choice in an approach to design so people can live their lives exactly as they choose. We've come a long way, baby.

Gimme shelter. As best we all can. Any way we want.


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