Lighthouses, census data, concrete hideouts, the Christian Reformed Church, gestalt, shark-eyed toilet seats, Q-tips, conditional war, Lady Gaga, dynamos, big lakes, palm reading, mutants & Not Detroit.
Lighthouses, census data, concrete hideouts, the Christian Reformed Church, gestalt, shark-eyed toilet seats, Q-tips, conditional war, Lady Gaga, dynamos, big lakes, palm reading, mutants & Not Detroit.
I come from nowhere. Specifically, the middle of nowhere. The sort of place where, if you met me on the street and asked, “Where’s home?” I’d lift my hand—as many Michiganders do—and point to the meaty edge of my palm. Here. There. The part of Michigan that is best recognized as Not Detroit. I wouldn’t even bother with the name of the town. Telling would only prove my point: you’ve never heard of it unless you’re from it. You can think of my hometown as relative to two separate elsewheres: Chicago and Detroit. Wherever you are in Michigan, you’re X hours from the one and Y from the other. That is often how we tell each other most easily where we are going, or where we’ve been, even when dealing with other Michiganders. Certainly when dealing with outsiders. Picture the hand. Picture me pointing to it. That’s the best I can do.
In West Michigan, we have this thing. It’s a compulsion, really, a need to define ourselves as good enough, as equal to or better than the other places around us. We combine four or five smallish cities, tens of miles between them, into a gestalt and beg travelers on highway billboards to consider the hodgepodge in passing: “Visit Michigan’s West Coast!”
It’s hard on the ego to sit where we do, between titans—Chicago on the left, with its magnificent miles, ours being fairly pedestrian; Chicago with its Willis (née Sears) Tower. In West Michigan, we have only Sears (née Roebuck), where we buy good, cheap refrigerators. And on our right, there’s Detroit, fallen a bit lately, but still the womb of All-American, snazzy, candy-apple red Mustangs and such. We just drive those things in West MI. If we make enough, that is.
Picture the hand. Picture me pointing to it. That’s the best I can do.
If we drive north from Kalamazoo, a city that sits about an hour inland from Lake Michigan, an hour up from the Indiana border, we pass through Grand Rapids, a city that can claim to have once lost an imaginary honor: David Letterman’s home office. To the east from there, there’s Detroit in the distance; to the west, the lake, but only after an hour.
Pass through Grand Rapids bearing north, and five or six hours down US 131, we’ll hit the forestlands of the Upper Peninsula. That’s something, at least—miles of old pine and the Great North opening out. Or we could head south, move through Indianapolis on our way to St. Louis—big places, famous places. Everybody knows the Arch.
Stuck in between so many good targets, West Michigan is just here, just us, just wanting. What, we don’t really know. Why, we don’t know either, but we want. And with want comes apprehension, comes fear. And so, as the Cold War of the fifties slouched forward, people in Kalamazoo built bomb shelters.
I walk through the long basement of my ex-professor’s home, and I find what I might expect: rows of bookshelves line an entire wall, at least fifteen feet of them, every foot crammed with good literature. I note one title as I pass, the coming irony so obvious as to hurt: Fallout. Two professors own this house, in fact: Nic and Meg. He’s an Americanist, specializing in Old West narrative; she studies the Early Modern. Someone fresh out of Dodge, a Mad Dog, a Wild Bill, might especially appreciate the end of this basement; there’s an awfully nice place to hole up.
We walk toward the hideout, come up against a large steel door tucked against the farthest wall and painted institution white, like the walls around it. The door swings on heavy metal hinges.
“I’d just like to point this out,” Meg says as she opens the door. “The door has a lock, but it’s here.” She points to the inner face. I watch as she slides the thick steel bar, about the size of a finger, back and forth in its plate. The clanks echo into the room beyond. “The lock’s on the inside.”
“To keep out the mutants,” says a member of my group, sotto voce.
We all laugh, more with him than at him, because we know that he is, of course, correct. That’s why the lock exists, to bar access to the shelter below to anyone who might be above and isn’t already in when the proper time comes. Anyone who might have happened into the house, who might want to happen in farther, come on downstairs. If you’re down there, you want to keep that anyone out, because if you’ve gone into this place and locked the door behind you, nothing outside is a something you’ll want to see. No one is a someone.
On Kalamazoo’s South Westnedge Avenue, you’ll find a road sign just past the edge of the city limits as you cross over into Portage. This sign reads, “Chicago” set over “Detroit,” a thin white line separating them. Arrows direct you to merge here for the one or go up a ways for the other—the essence of West Michigan.
We talk of Chicago as if we live there: “It’s in Chicago, that new show. We could go this weekend.” About a two-hour drive from Kalamazoo, the Chicago jaunt represents practically nothing to motivated buyers, and that we are. A different two hours away, there’s Detroit. I have known three people who commuted there for school or work from Michigan’s west coast, though for limited times. We’re close enough to do these things. Also, our cities are big enough by the Census Bureau’s 2000 count—Grand Rapids at about 200,000 people, Kalamazoo, 77,000—that we don’t feel rural here. We want to be cosmopolitan; that’s one thing we sort of know. We want to be involved, to be important, and we live close enough to the real thing to smell it. Chicago sends us pollution all the time.
Perhaps religion makes us into deathmongers, keeps our eyes on a hereafter that eventually becomes so real, it transforms into a herenow.
Surely, as big as we are, we’d be a target in case of nuclear war. We have factories (though they make mainly office furniture) and industries (Pfizer—home of Viagra and Celebrex), and these things are of interest to bombs, aren’t they? We have the softest of targets, though no less inviting—miles of lakeshore to foul, acres of farmland to spoil. Western Michigan U. works with nanotech and trains pilots (admittedly for largely civilian planes).
Along the coast, we have an awfully dense concentration of lighthouses, many of them pretty, a few that make best-of books, prizewinners.
M eg leads us down the steps into the bowels of her shelter. Upstairs, the graduate-student appreciation night festivities ring on. Nic and Meg are kind enough to host us, to show off this room to the straggling curious. I have been to two of these end-of-academic-year parties, and I’ve toured this shelter on several occasions.
The walls rise up white and cold around us, concrete and unadorned. The temperature drops noticeably as we step down beneath basement level—two, three, four big steps, then a sloping path. A turn, more steps. I pass a utilitarian toilet in a staircase corner, at the base of the last set of steps. The toilet’s sides are rusty, the seat dull black, colored like the eyes of a shark.
“How far down?” a student asks once inside.
“About six feet, we figure,” Meg says.
We all look to the ceiling, white-painted concrete too. Six feet under, so we are.
The space measures about twelve feet by fifteen, no larger than a comfortable bedroom. It feels close to fifty degrees, cold. As Meg tells us the history of the house, built in 1954, the shelter added not under the basement, but beside it, her voice echoes against the hardness of the walls.
Number 345. Ogden, Utah, would have already gone down, just one bomb before. No shows in Chicago for a good long while.
“I can’t stand it here for long,” she says. “Gives me headaches.”
On the wall at the shelter’s rear, an electric generator with a hand crank waits. Meg points. She says that on the other side there’s a septic tank. The house has city plumbing now, but at the time of construction, no. If a bomb had hit, even somewhere close above…and we understand. Two layers of regular, crackable concrete would separate people and their wastes. Or, depending on perspective, one layer of concrete, six feet of dirt, a few hundred miles and top-secret clearance at a silo in Iowa—these things, too, sit between people and some of their bigger wastes, the warheaded ones. They wait also, for the codes to arm up.
After 9/11, the federal government sent Americans to the store for window plastic and duct tape. Around here, a lot of us listened. My family didn’t buy in, but a friend’s did. Her mother said, “We have to be prepared.”
“Grand Rapids isn’t exactly New York City,” we argued.
“Terrorism could happen anywhere. We could be a target.”
I suppose. But it seems to me that if places like Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo make any list of hate and destruction, we might want to worry more about the After that would follow our initial, bomb-sheltered survival. That 2000 census lists Kalamazoo as the 345th-largest city in the U.S., and thus it would presumably hold about the same rank on an enemy target sheet, one that keeps the places to devastate, should erasing America’s population be the primary goal. If it’s not a sheer numbers game, well, unless They hate lighthouses, West Michigan probably drops a bit farther so that strategic places in Colorado, Iowa and Nevada can climb a little higher.
In 1954, when the Kalamazoo shelter was built, we were a bigger deal, but not much. The censuses tell us that Grand Rapids dropped from fifty-fifth population-wise, in 1950, to ninety-third in 2000. Kalamazoo, circa early Elvis, didn’t make the top 100. So, by the time those past owners, who’d paid good money for the room—Pat Zacharias, writing for one of our “local” papers, The Detroit News, reported that shelters in the fifties sold for anywhere between $100 and $5,000—got to use it, at least a hundred cities would have been gone.
If you’re down there, you want to keep that anyone out, because if you’ve gone into this place and locked the door behind you, nothing outside is a something you’ll want to see. No one is a someone.
By the 2000s, when I last saw that shelter, things had slid worse all around. On cost, a solid fallout shelter built ten feet by sixteen, seven feet high, ran $14,470 at American Safe Rooms of Lynchburg, Tennessee, where they operate under the slogan, “The key to surviving any emergency is preparation. You can’t wait until something happens to prepare.” Granted, twenty-first-century disaster protection has advanced beyond concrete; American Safe Rooms shelters boasted construction of “10 gauge high grade steel” and “Quality Heli-Arc Welds.” As an added plus, they were carpeted, and if you wanted, they’d even include “luxury furnishings.” Apparently, not every contemporary huddler has to settle for a defense based on plastic wrap; however, just like cost, relevance had skewed against the owner of a 2000s Kalamazoo bomb shelter: by the time he got to put his planning to use, those bigger, better 344 of America’s cities would have been introduced to a few of Russia’s bigger, warheaded wastes. Or someone else’s.
Would he even want to come out, that much of us already gone?
Another guest turns the generator’s crank, and it begins to circle under its own power after a few pulls. We debate, then, whether it might be a dynamo, creating and storing mechanical force for conversion to electricity. We decide that it is.
In the opposite corner, a large metal barrel, ghostly in its lockstep white, perches on a shelf. A spigot offers access on the front side. This shelter has it all: toilet, power, water. Probably a few weeks of canned goods could be stored in here. Two or three people, maybe as many as a family of four, could share the space for those weeks before stir-crazy came on.
“We had a nuclear chemist down here once,” Meg says. “She said that it’s actually a fairly poorly designed shelter. The concrete emits more radiation than fallout would, most likely.”
So, around these parts, we know hard things: that death comes always, that it comes open-mouthed and hungry.
“We joke,” she says, “that it’s very overblown for tornadoes, but very substandard for bombs.”
So the construction betrays twice around us, first the proximity of the septic tank, and second in its very makeup. This bomb shelter is already radioactive, before the war has even begun. My. We can’t even get misplaced protectionism right, here in the ’Zoo.
Meg lifts the seat of the toilet. She says there’s a Q-tip inside. A hygiene product could be one of the few Kalamazoo civilization artifacts to survive attack, unless other people nearby have kept their own shelters well stocked with da Vincis. I hope we’ll be lucky, that we’ll leave behind more than an ear cleaner.
W hat is it about living here that makes us so afraid? Why the need for shelters in the bosom of the Midwest? Maybe it’s living with a Big Lake next door, no matter which shore is home. Many Michiganders know someone who has drowned; I have a relative who did, a distant cousin, and I, myself, once almost drowned. We have a lot of winter accidents—falling under thin ice, snowmobiling too fast, driving too wild. Hypothermia can kill a man unexpectedly, even if he gets trapped in a broken-down car. So, around these parts, we know hard things: that death comes always, that it comes open-mouthed and hungry.
We aren’t, though, exactly surrounded by nature’s hostility or the atrocities of men. We have first-rate hospitals, fine heart centers. We don’t have many tornadoes, not a lot of earthquakes. Hurricanes might get up here, this far inland, but by the time one reaches Michigan, she’s barely a thunderstorm. We’ll never live in fear of tsunamis, as they do in Indonesia and Hawaii.
Perhaps it’s religion. The Christian Reformed Church in America harbors a strong base here, in Grand Rapids and Holland. Perhaps religion makes us into deathmongers, keeps our eyes on a hereafter that eventually becomes so real, it transforms into a herenow. But I doubt that, too.
This bomb shelter is already radioactive, before the war has even begun. My. We can’t even get misplaced protectionism right, here in the ’Zoo.
Me, I think it’s Being Almost that makes us what we are: self-focused up to the lips of Narcissus. We’re the sort of people who want to be big—big cities, big times, big cheeses—but we know deep down that even Detroit’s slipped out of the top ten in population count, that several people I’ve met from the East think Michigan lives under Central Time, maybe Mountain, something out there. We even have to face that it’s Wisconsin where they make all the cheese. We want gravitas, and we’ll be damned before admitting that we don’t have a lot of it, at least not within the parabola of a few hours.
But we people from Michigan aren’t easily contented. We won’t just fade into the background and lead quiet, isolated lives, like they might in Laramie or Des Moines. We bathe in our centrism, between polar opposites. We put tape on our windows, even when they don’t in New York or LA. Why? Because we value Us, and that’s something. We fear that Us is a something almost always at risk, because we Aren’t, not really, not Yet. It’s proximity to big things that reminds us that we’re in there too, in between, and we suspect that we might just have an equal, niched value. We think we need shelters not because we’re targets, but because we think we’re worth saving. And that does make us special, the thinking that we are. Reality isn’t always the most real of things.
Everybody roots for Jimmy Stewart’s chronically humble George Bailey, but we love Lady Gaga’s meat dress, Madonna’s self-promoting, cannonaded brassiere. We buy her records, her books; we make her rich. Madonna was born here, Christian name Ciccone. Well, not really here, but about two hours to the northeast in Bay City, right off Saginaw Bay. Think crux of the thumb.
M eg and Nic don’t use the shelter for anything anymore. At times, they toss in wine racks, store rows of decent vintages. The cool basement climate is perfect. Nic must roll at the irony of the pun, being also something of an expert on American Modernism: wine, in his bomb shelter, The Grapes of Wrath right downstairs, not only on his bookshelves, but down here, too, in this deeper place.
I’d say wine makes a better survival aid than the Q-tip, especially if those bombs ever do come. Number 345. Ogden, Utah, would have already gone down, just one bomb before. No shows in Chicago for a good long while.
We leave, and she shuts the unlocked door behind us. She’s left the Q-tip.
We will live on.
One last thing: The redemptive quality of fear—sometimes it’s justified. Turns out whoever made this Kalamazoo bomb shelter was not entirely a fanatic, but had as well a pragmatic, well-informed streak. Turns out there’s actually something to worry over nu-cu-larly in these parts.
The Zacharias feature in The Detroit News included a lonely graphic, one that inked out in the clearest picture possible that in the event of attack, our very proximity to major places, to industrial centers, to the populated metropolises that we often rebuke but secretly admire, our location, puts us in fallout hell, smack in the center of the heaviest concentration of likely radiation exposure in the entire country, of anywhere not directly obliterated. If we start the Big One, Nic and Meg’s shelter could indeed be a popular place, far more so than during our little parties.
We’ve been right all along. Our confidence has made us strong, yet also weak. It is about us, about here, and we do need shelters. We need protection and vigilance if we’re going to make it, living as we do, here in the center of everything, in the center of faith, and of water, waiting here, come the bombs, to hide, deep within fires our own.
Curtis VanDonkelaar is the winner of the 2016 Literal Latte Short Short Contest and The Gateway Review’s 2016 Flash Fiction Contest. His work has appeared with journals such as Aquifer: The Florida Review online, Passages North, Vestal Review, Western Humanities Review, MAKE, Hobart and DIAGRAM. He teaches writing and editing at Michigan State University, where he is the editor/faculty advisor of The Offbeat literary journal and a consulting editor with Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. See curtisvandonkelaar.com for more.
Lead image: Paul Hanaoka
Being an ex W-Michigander now in Colorado, I so related to this story. Thank you for the meaty part of the hand brilliance and your well constructed short story.
Nice story. Pity it seemed to delight in poking fun at a perfectly functional private fallout shelter. Any shelter that is dry and habitable after 50 years of benign neglect was pretty well designed and made initially. And I’m not sure how accurately the second-hand comment by the ‘nuclear chemist’ had been transmitted to the short-story writer by the ‘early modern’ academic (obviously NOT a physicist): yes, concrete is mildy radioactive (but a lot less than the granite bench-top many people choose for their kitchen renovation), but the ‘background radiation’ level in that shelter would still only be a few percent above natural background levels outdoors (of more concern to me would be the potential for radon gas to accumulate in the basement). But in any case, in a radiological emergency (eg. a terrorist IND detonated nearby, or a nuclear strike on a major city upwind) the shelter with six feet of earth cover and a few inches of concrete would offer a protective factor of around 1,000 or more I.e. the radiation from the fallout would be 0.1% inside the shelter compared with standing outside (or in the living room of the house). Also, radiation from fallout decreases over time according to the ‘rule of seven’: to 1/10th the initial peak after seven hours, 1/100th after 49 hours (2 days), and to ‘only’ 1/1000th after 14 days — so you would only plan on ever having to spend a maximum of two weeks in the shelter before radiation levels outside had dropped to that experienced inside the shelter during the first hour. And usually you’d only need to stay sheltered for 1-2 days before being able to exit the shelter for short periods.
Again, a nicely written story, but a bit skimpy on background research. But, as the old adage goes, never let the facts get in the way of a good story 😉