CHESTERFIELD, Mo. (KSDK) - An offhand remark from the new St. Louis County Police Chief is the only reason I had the chance to walk inside a local doomsday shelter from the Cold War era.
"You live in Chesterfield? You should go in the old atomic fallout shelter, it's pretty cool," said Chief Jon Belmar.
Atomic fallout shelter?
The county does not offer public tours of the shelter, but since the space will be reassigned for other uses, the new chief was willing to allow NewsChannel 5 cameras inside to document the Cold War relic one final time.
My mind immediately raced. I'm not old enough to have gone through the "duck and cover" drills at school. I am just barely old enough to have gone to schools that still had those scary black and yellow Fallout Zone signs in the basement.
And I very much remember living in fear of nuclear war on a regular basis until about my senior year in high school. And I will never forget the awe and terror of watching "The Day After" with my family.
We live with a different kind of constant fear from enemies of America in 2014. But anyone who still remembers any part of the Cold War will never forget that odd kind of dread and fascination we all lived with.
"What would I do if it hit right now?"
"Would I see it or hear it first?"
"Where would I go?"
"Would our area even be a target for a nuclear missile?"
So-called "Atomic Tourism" is big business in other parts of the country right now. People of a certain age, men mostly, pay lots of money to walk through decommissioned missile silos in the southwest and the Dakotas.
So I said "yes" very quickly; I would like to go into an underground doomsday shelter that just so happens to be near my house.
The Civil Defense Shelter is off Olive Boulevard near Faust Park in Chesterfield. These days, it's where you'd find the St. Louis County Police Department's Emergency Operations Center.
From the outside, it's a nondescript building that could easily double for a public works garage.
Inside, it's a different story.
A massive set of stairs descends two stories into the earth. When you reach the bottom, there's mistaking you've found the fallout shelter.
Two bulky, black doors, the oval shaped ones you'd see on a submarine, are you how get inside the shelter.
Inside, a glass case contains some mementos from the building phase of the shelter.
In recent years, these conference rooms were used for emergency management coordination for disasters on a smaller scale. Flooding, severe weather, and widespread blackouts.
But looking around, you can't help but realize this space was designed so that the Mayor of St. Louis and the County Executive, and about 75 other select officials, could still lead local government if a mushroom cloud ever obliterated downtown St. Louis.
"Now, exactly what they would be doing or how they would be operating after a nuclear attack, I have no idea, but that was at least the thought, at the time," said Mark Diedrich, an Emergency Management Specialist who has used the fallout shelter as his office for the last several years.
"It's tough because there's no sunlight," Diedrich smiles.
But there are signs all around reminding a visitor of what this place was meant to do.
The emergency shelter even has its own emergency exit. It's a ladder, hidden in a closet, with a trap door above. The idea was to pull the trap door and three feet of sand, a buffer from the radioactive air above ground, would fall from above and trickle through an open grate on the floor. A person could then climb the ladder two stories up and reach ground level through a small hut with a roof (that still opens) on the ground.
"It's kind of like a Hogan's Heroes deal," Diedrich jokes. A demonstration of the emergency escape ladder can be seen in the video attached to this story.
Diedrich isn't sure if city and county officials ever did a drill, with the mayor and county executive, using the shelter.
Beginning in the President Carter administration, the shelter shifted its focus from nuclear attack preparedness to smaller, more localized disaster response.
In the coming weeks, the space will be repurposed for other uses with the St. Louis County Police Dept.
"This really, I think, kind of closes the Cold War era in the St. Louis area," Diedrich says. "This is probably the last remnant of that way of life and thinking."
It's seems almost amusing to us in 2014 to look at these underground bunkers from not so long ago. The Civil Defense Films that instructed school children to "duck and cover" seem almost funny, in a strange way.
We no longer live with the constant fear that "the big one" could be dropped on us at anytime. Instead, we walk around with a smaller, yet likely more realistic sense, that a smaller blast could still rock us right where we live.
Since 9/11, we all fly, go to crowded stadiums, concerts, road races, even public school buildings with just that tiny sense of unease.
It makes the idea of being able to hide from it all in an underground bunker somehow comforting.