21 Aug 2014
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Fallout from the Cold War

Artifact from the recently-demolished Rimback building stirs memories of near-terror in grade school.

Fallout from the Cold War Fallout from the Cold War

In the mid-1950s, when my husband was in the third grade, he saw a repaired patch of asphalt in the playground at his school. An older boy told him that the circle was a target where the Russians were going to drop the atom bomb--and he told him that it was going to happen at a specific time that day. My husband ran to his grandmother's yard nearby and stood there, watching and waiting for that bomb to drop.

The threat of nuclear attack from Russia, during the Cold War, brought back memories of many similar moments, for me in my elementary school and my husband in his school. We both had regular air raid drills in school. I was instructed to dive under my desk and his school had the class line up in the hallway, to get away from potential breaking glass and falling debris. I was terrified that I would never see my mother (at home) and my father (at work) again, and I wondered how I could get home before the bombs fell on the neighborhood, but worried even more about my father getting from work to our house if it was unsafe to go outside.

In the late 1950s, our next-door neighbor used to work for a state or government agency that instructed people on the fine points of building fallout shelters, and I desperately wished my parents would build one. On the other hand, I was astute enough to note that my neighbor didn't have one.

Wikipedia's information on fallout shelters notes that: "A fallout shelter is an enclosed space specially designed to protect occupants from radioactive debris or fallout resulting from a nuclear explosion. Many such shelters were constructed as civil defense measures during the Cold War. During a nuclear explosion, matter vaporized in the resulting fireball is exposed to neutrons from the explosion, absorbs them, and becomes radioactive. When this material condenses in the rain, it forms dust and light sandy materials that resembles ground pumice. The fallout emits alpha and beta particles, as well as gamma rays. Much of this highly radioactive material then falls to earth, subjecting anything within the line of sight to radiation, a significant hazard. A fallout shelter is designed to allow its occupants to minimize exposure to harmful fallout until radioactivity has decayed to a safer level. Although many shelters still exist, many even being used as museums, virtually all fallout shelters have been decommissioned since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991."

The Wiki page provides a 1950s photo of what a fallout shelter should look like, courtesy of this link, and a copy of which is attached to this article. 

In 1954, Millburn barber Michael Savia was a member of the local civil defense volunteers and recalled that in that year Romback's Moving and Storage prepared for nuclear fallout by installing a walk-in refrigerator and freezer in the basement of their building. He added that they lined the walls with lead and fitted the basement shelter with K-rations and water. Historical society board member John Murray recalled that town hall had a similar setup in the basement of that building.

As Michael Savia's barber shop is immediately next door to the former Rimback's site, Michael watched the recent demolition of the building with interest. With an eye to salvaging a bit of Millburn history, he rescued and donated to the historical society, the fallout shelter sign seen here, and which was attached to the building.

If you are aware of or have photos of any other Millburn-Short Hills fallout shelters, either private or public, please let the historical society know. The historical society is considering mounting an exhibition on the Cold War and the shelters in the area and would like to hear from you.

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