Sunday, October 22, 2017

Eve of Destruction

In a previous blog post I recounted my memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962. I was eight years old at the time. I might never have reached age nine had world leaders succumbed to their darker natures. In my blog ( I wrote about events taking place not far from the shores of Florida, a place so far from Park Ridge, Illinois as to be unimaginable when I was a child. The same Park Ridge where 15 year old Hillary Rodham was getting involved in student council at Maine East High School. How strange it seems that I am now living in this warm and wacky formerly distant place.

On Friday, my wife Jeanne and I took a small water taxi to a quaint little island a few minutes from our hotel in West Palm Beach, Florida. Earlier in the week we had learned that the “Kennedy Bunker” was closing permanently on Sunday. I had vague recollections that there was such a place, but had no idea we would be staying in the area or that the chances of visiting were suddenly so slim. When we tried to visit during the week, we were told that the bunker would be open only on the weekend, so we delayed our trip to “Peanut Island” until Saturday. We realized that this meant detouring on our way home after checkout, with crowds a definite possibility and delays getting home a certainty.

Port of Palm Beach
Each morning on our vacation we went for a walk along the beach, around the hotel or on the neighboring streets. For a change, we decided to do a few laps around Peanut Island on its 1.25 mile paved walking path. The entire man-made island is only 80 acres, but it is set in the middle of a bay that has crystal clear snorkeling, great kayaking and a fascinating view of the very busy Port of Palm Beach, where huge cargo ships routinely dock to load and unload their stacks of boxcar-like shipping containers. Cranes and gigantic forklift vehicles busily shunt truck sized metal boxes like a huge game of Tetris.

After our first lap around the island, we decided to stop in at the island boathouse, just in front of the maritime museum, a Coast Guard property. Not much more than an oversized garage with fairly uninteresting posters and memorabilia, I thought there might be a slim chance of getting a look at the door to the JFK Bunker out the back of the building. It turns out that the girl who rode in the water taxi with us was returning for the weekend at the request of the museum manager. He honored her years as a tour guide by paying for her train ticket so she could participate in the final two days. She met us at the door, where I looked down at a poorly painted sign announcing the museum’s closing and said, “We’re missing it by one day!”

Closing Date

“Well, we can probably do something about that,” was her whispered reply.

She cleared it with her boss, and soon we were off on an unofficial and very off-script tour with someone who had lived on Peanut Island for years, conducted countless tours and added color not only to her hair (it was blue) but to almost every element of the soon to be defunct historical site.

"Princess Peanut"
If you’ve ever seen post-apocalyptic movies where people are pounding to be let into a bomb shelter that holds only a certain number of people – and in films this is always the number already in the shelter – you have a pretty good sense of what this structure feels like. It was Spartan, of simple construction set into the side of a dirt hill, composed of steel and concrete, and oh so secret in 1962. As a point of interest, any president since the advent of nuclear weapons who has a residence other than the White House also has a bunker in a secret location where key people can be whisked in a few minutes when all Hell is about to break loose. In this case, 30 people could be protected for 30 days in a hillside in Peanut Island, just west of Palm Beach Shores. The Kennedy compound, or winter White House, was in Palm Beach when JFK was President.

Exit to the Light
Our guide opened the creaking circular door, latched with two sway bars that desperately needed oil. As the hatch swung open, we headed about 100 feet or so through the darkness in what appeared to be a sewer pipe of corrugated steel. The large tube led to a wall where John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s photo, an American Flag and a few other small items were lovingly displayed.

“So he came here to check it out?” I asked, assuming that nothing of this import would be entirely sprung on a President without at least a cursory examination.

“Oh yes. And he didn’t like it. He said it was dark and depressing.”

I imagined JFK saying that, “Dahk and uh duhpresseng” in that Kennedy affect.

The Main Room
“Yeah, after they made some improvements and showed it to him again, he put his foot in the door and said, ok I’ve been here” and left, continued our guide, whom at this point we’d come to know as “Princess Peanut.”

We eventually entered the main chamber of the shelter. It should be pointed out that this was not a bomb shelter intended to withstand a nuclear strike. It was a fallout shelter that would keep its occupants out of harm's way long enough to be safely moved to a more permanent location, assumably the White House. But the shelter was adequately equipped so that the leader of the free world could maintain leadership and keep our government running. Bunk beds, canned water and food, cylindrical waste containers (toilets) and hand-cranked ventilation pumps were stored just past the Geiger counter and drainless shower stall where radiation could be contained.

Drinking Water in Cans

Geiger counter
I literally got goosebumps when I stood at one end of the room, perhaps 50 by 100 feet, looking across the official presidential seal on the concrete floor at my feet to the small wooden desk in the corner. There flags and several telephones accompanied a nearby rocking chair thought to be Kennedy’s favorite. Most of these things were props added for the exhibit. For instance, the bright red telephone was never in this bunker. The idea of a red “hotline” to Russia has become so iconic that the exhibit creators felt it had a place here, and apparently visitors absolutely ate it up. Look, the red phone!!!

Red phone
Bunk Beds
Kennedy's Desk
So, yeah Jack Kennedy, it’s dark and depressing. Hardly Camelot. But if you make the wrong move here in October of 1962, if you stick your head out of the vertical escape hatch at the back of this room to look around, it won’t be to catch an assassin’s bullet a year from now. The world will be a wasteland due to sheer human stupidity. Your stupidity. Please do the right thing. He did.

And yes, Mr. Trump, this is so far from the gold-plated Mar-a-Lago you call home just down the road, that maybe you should spend 30 days in here and wonder about what you’ll find when you emerge, having had your ass saved for a desolate future of your own creation.

I include here the photos I took during our tour. I left wondering where the current bunker is located in the very uncertain year known as 2017. I hope that in 55 years Americans will look back at the toxic domestic, global and interpersonal relations we’re suffering through in the here and now. I hope we come to our senses as Misters Krushchev and Kennedy did not so long ago. In 1962 there was a bunker in Moscow as well. Perhaps the light of day outside a dark and depressing shelter is what great leaders need to shine an inner light on the folly of their egos and anger and arrogance. Perhaps they should visit their bunkers with grandchildren.

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