This is the final installment of our series on Mount Dora's secret Catacombs. "GIMME SHELTER" was written by Bill Sievert and originally published in 2006. In this segment, the writer takes readers inside his home's personal fall-out shelter and others in Mount Dora.
Maybe more of our residents and visitors will someday be able to experience America’s largest private shelter. Until then, some of us can reflect on the ones we have in our own basements, backyards and garages.
One reason I became interested in the subject of local bomb shelters is that the house my partner John and I bought in Mount Dora came with a fairly intricate example in the backyard. It has two levels, the first several steps below ground. A narrow hallway leads from a steel door and then makes a right-angle turn at the back wall into a room approximately 20-feet by 20-feet. Many shelters were built with such right-angle turns because the radiation from a direct bomb-hit moves in a “line-of-sight” manner and cannot turn corners, according to Mount Dora-based science buff Steve Guch. Unfortunately, Guch says, fallout drifting from a detonation in a city farther away would have no such limitation, dispersing in all directions “like an aerosol spray.”
So, our shelter’s right-hand turn wouldn’t save us from drifting fallout, but we could find protection in a completely subterranean room a flight of stairs down from the first level. Not that we’d be able to reach that room if a blast occurred today. A previous owner, perhaps concerned about a safety hazard to children, filled the entire lower level with sand. Last year, a group of friends helped us begin a feeble attempt to dig the sand out with shovels, but we only made it deep enough to discover that the old wooden steps had rotted away. We did unearth a few apothecary jars and pieces of glass bottles, but not the buried treasure (or someone’s mother-in-law) we expected to find.
An elderly neighbor says she has no idea why the lower level of our shelter was filled in. However, she does recall being invited there for cocktails parties in the 1970s. “Personally,” she says, “I would have rather sat in the garden.”
We have been dreaming of turning the upper level of our shelter into a potting shed and/or an artist’s studio for John’s mosaic work – but first we have to get rid of the pile of sand we retrieved from the lower level last year.
A few blocks away, Rachel and Steve also have a fallout shelter in their downtown Mount Dora home, and their eventual goal is to convert it to a wine cellar – though that would mean the loss of considerable space for the Halloween costumes and decorations they store there. It is amusing to step into their one-room shelter, which is accessible from a basement recreation room, and see skeletons draped across the original military-surplus bunk beds. (Editor's note: this home is no longer owned by Rachel & Steve, however the shelter was used to the stagee the cover photograph included on this page)
Rachel acknowledges that the bomb shelter “gave me the creeps at first,” but she says she felt better once her husband cleared away some of the remaining artifacts of the atomic era. Steve left in place some of the original fixtures, including a vintage mildew-powder bag that dangles from a bedpost, a fuel-oil gauge, a water pump and the air-circulation system.
Steve and Rachel have decorated the doorway to their shelter with a copy of a classic Gary Larson “Far Side” cartoon. In it, a couple climbs out of a manhole to behold scorched, barren earth, blackened skies and fires blazing in every direction. Throwing up his hands, the man exclaims to his wife, “Thank God, Sylvia! We’re alive!”
Rachel regards the illustration as indicative of what shelter-dwellers most likely would have discovered had they survived a real attack. However, she doesn’t think she would have lasted long inside their concrete room. The only bathroom was placed just outside the protective steel door. “Whoever built this shelter,” she says, “must have figured that, when you really have to pee, it’s worth a little radiation exposure.”
Across town, Jeff, a local artist, has a bomb shelter in his two-car garage. He was told that an owner in the late 1950s decided to convert one of the bays by putting up two-foot thick concrete walls. “At first I thought of removing them,” he says, “but the demolition process was simply too daunting.” Like Steve and Rachel, Jeff may convert the room into a wine cellar, though he also considers it a safe haven in the event of severe hurricane winds.
“Having the shelter may add to the historical value of the home,” Jeff notes. “It even has its original hand-crank air-circulation device. So I’ll probably just leave everything the way it is.”
That seems to be how most folks feel about their shelters. Although at this point in time no one seems worried that they may have to be returned to their intended purpose, our personal bomb shelters – like the giant Catacombs – have some real historical value.
If you missed Part 1 or Part 2 of “Gimme Shelter”, the article on Mount Dora’s Catacombs, click here.
"Gimme Shelter" was written in 2006 by Bill Sievert, owner of The Wow Factory in downtown Mount Dora, and Richard Stayton was the photographer and published in PULSE Magazine.