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First Person

I passed out in a Cold War fallout shelter

As a child of the ’80s, I had come to face my fear. Fear won.

By Glenn McDonald

It was the nuclear decontamination showers that finally caused me to faint.

Hmm, better back up. At the time, I was visiting one of America’s premier five-star luxury destinations: the Greenbrier Resort in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia. The Greenbrier is several dozen clicks above my pay grade — I was there for a work thing — but I knew a little bit about the place. For several generations, the sprawling resort has been an old-money retreat for East Coast aristocracy and Beltway bigwigs. It’s where aging Virginia matriarchs visit discreet cosmetic surgery spas; where Washington’s white shoe lawyers go to play golf.

What I didn’t know was that, for more than 30 years, the Greenbrier held an astonishing secret. From 1961 though 1992, the resort served as the designated emergency nuclear fallout shelter for members of the United States Congress. The hotel hid an underground bunker, built and maintained in total secrecy, known to only a handful of government officials and Greenbrier brass.

Top photo: Associated Press; above: The Greenbrier
Top: Linda Walls, manager of The Greenbrier’s bunker tours, opens one of the giant doors leading into the fallout shelter. Above: The luxurious exterior of The Greenbrier belies its history of hiding a nuclear shelter for members of Congress.

The plan went something like this: In the event of a nuclear attack on Washington, all available members of Congress would have been evacuated to the Greenbrier — about 250 miles outside Washington — either by air, train, or automobile. These were the days before ICBMs, when approaching Russian bombers would have taken a few hours to arrive. Once the lawmakers had gathered, the surviving portion of the federal government’s legislative branch would have been sheltered in a sprawling underground complex beneath the main hotel’s western wing.

The secret bunker was never used, but it was kept fully stocked and maintained until the government decommissioned the site in 1992. Now it’s a modest tourist destination for the resort, which offers daily tours. For locals and guests, it amounts to historical curiosity; a nice little story.

Not so much for me. See, I have a thing about nuclear fallout shelters, and by “thing,” I mean “occasionally debilitating obsession.” Like many of my generation — those who came of age in the Cold War weirdness of the 1980s — I grew up with an apprehension, bordering on expectation, that the world would end in a mushroom cloud. (I blame the 1983 TV movie “The Day After,” which traumatized a whole generation.)

As a kid, I used to dream about being trapped in a fallout shelter. A lot. Child psychologists got involved. And my fear of nuclear holocaust never stopped percolating. All my life, I’ve been obsessed with post-apocalyptic books, movies, and video games. In fact, I was at the Greenbrier to attend a press junket for the latest installment of the video game franchise Fallout, which imagines an alternate history where the Cold War never ended and the bombs finally fell.The Greenbrier shelter is depicted in the new version of the game. It’s all very meta.Taking the tour was no small decision.

Each resident would have had a single small drawer for keeping personal effects. All of their personal effects. Forever.

Hidden beneath the main hotel’s West Virginia wing, behind a 25-ton blast door, lies the 112,544-square-foot bunker and fallout shelter. The first part of the tour leads visitors down a subway-sized tunnel lined with water, fuel, and ventilation pipes. By the time you reach the facility proper, you’re basically under a mountain and, yes indeed, it feels that way. My forehead was both ice-cold and sweating. Uh-oh.

Our tour guide led us through a series of narrowing corridors. (Did I mention my claustrophobia issues?) She informed us that the Greenbrier bunker contained 18 separate dormitories, designed to accommodate around 1,100 people — all 535 members of Congress, each of whom could bring one assistant.

One of those dorms has been left preserved as it was 30 years ago. We walked through that. Rows of metal bunk beds. Low ceilings. Dim lighting. Each resident would have had a single small drawer for keeping personal effects. All of their personal effects. Forever.

The air felt thick. That’s probably because it was. Our guide explained that the bunker’s atmospheric filtration system, state-of-the-art at the time, contained a complex series of screens and scrubbers meant to filter out radiation.

Next up was a communications center, where members of Congress would have been tasked with governing their constituencies, whatever was left of them, via an arcane system of radio and TV transmitters. One adjacent chamber appeared to be a deployment room, with gas masks and guns hanging from the walls.

We learned about the bunker’s other amenities — several laboratories, an intensive care unit, a pharmacy, the cafeteria, a 12-bed hospital clinic. Everything presented at about three-quarters size. Space was clearly at a premium. I imagined 1,100 survivors packed into the complex. Gosh, it’s hot. Doesn’t it feel hot?

We circled back toward the main subway tunnel, and that’s when I encountered the room that would briefly cost me consciousness. It was the decontamination chamber, a series of cubed-off closets with industrial tiling and some very serious overhead shower fixtures. This would be the new guy’s first stop, stumbling in from the end of the world.

Our guide was saying something interesting about radioactive isotopes when the lights went out. Well, my lights went out, anyway. Luckily, I was at the back of the group and managed to stumble toward a nearby bench. I came to with my head between my knees, as the last of the tour group was filing out into the subway tunnel. I scooted up and took my place in line. When I blinked into the light again, I took a minute to stand in the crisp October air and breathe deeply, three times.

I wish I could say my obsession with nuclear Armageddon waned after that, but it hasn’t. I still read the books, watch the movies, and play the video games. Our current political situation doesn’t help.

Still, it’s oddly rewarding to confront one’s lifelong existential anxiety on a whim. I count myself lucky. Beneath a bizarre antebellum One Percenter hive in rural West Virginia, I faced down some old fears — and all it cost me was $39, a brief lapse in consciousness, and an ominous bruise on my backside, thanks to that bench. The world went on that day, and the day after, too.

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Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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