Here’s a little quiz for you: What’s the less obvious message this fallout shelter sign communicated to early-to-mid-60s Jazz musicians and Beatniks? Psst, it has very little to do with the Cold War…
That’s right, to more bohemian types, these once familiar signs were a loud and clear dog whistle that there were very likely government-issued narcotics, free for the taking, inside that building. I come from a family that includes professional musicians, and so I had heard of this “legend.” Is it true?
Back in the 60s and even into the 70s, we all wondered not if we’d die in a nuclear holocaust, but when. With both Soviet as well as American nuclear arsenals pointed at each other, a loud sneeze by Dr Strangelove could set everything off and then, before you know it, those of us unlucky enough to survive would all be plunged into the middle of nuclear winter a la Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
As a kid in Washington Heights I remember hearing them testing the air raid sirens along Riverside Drive towards the end of summer, and man was that creepy. Our building had one of these signs and our basement was indeed equipped with radiation-proof walls. Under President Kennedy, an idea was hatched to provide radioactive fallout-proof shelter for all Americans, along with at least two solid weeks of food, water and medical supplies. Before this enormously expensive plan got scrapped, perhaps as many as 100,000 “fallout shelters” were built, and in New York city there are still thousands of them left, in the basements and sub-basements of apartment buildings and elsewhere.
In the event of the air-raid sirens going off for real, citizens were supposed to ensconce themselves deep within the fallout shelters. After the bombs had been dropped due to a Soviet counter-assault (which seemed inevitable given the amount of hardware we had deployed in Europe), there’d theoretically be at least a few survivors that would be kinda bummed out and in need of some serious chemically-assisted chillin’ (if not actual pain relief), so certain special types of those civil defense boxes came equipped, legend had it, with powerful narcotics that were of a very high quality. Not a lot of people knew this at the time, particularly as the narcotics-containing boxes were cleverly disguised by Federal masterminds (keep reading).
Operationally, when visiting the home of another druggy friend, if the fallout shelter sign was seen on the outside of the building, an expedition would often be mounted straight to the basement. After the likely door was identified, the arc of a claw hammer might briefly be seen knocking off a lock, or some other means utilized to open that door, accompanied by muffled laughter and a quiet susurrus. If the location of the civil defense barrels and boxes was verified, those boxes labeled NO NARCOTICS INSIDE (no, I’m not shitting you) would be shortly thereafter opened and the government-issued narcotics inside removed and consumed.
Could it really be true that the basements of apartment buildings throughout New York and other cities once housed civil defense boxes stuffed with high-grade government-issued drugs? Well lo and behold, today I discovered that the legends were true.
Trolling the Internet thingy I ran across the website of the Civil Defense Museum and spent several hours pouring over the photos and data pertaining to the good ole’ nuclear civil defense days. As it turns out, “Medical Kit A” (serving 50 to 65 persons) contained a bottle of 500 phenobarbital pills, while Medical Kit C (serving 300 to 325 persons) contained three bottles of 1000 phenobarbitals EACH. 3000 phenobarbitals could keep a musician and his “fallout boys” cool for, like, a solid week or two. At least.
Amusingly, the boxes also contained alcohol, and this would certainly have been considered a nice bonus for someone trying to score. And yes, the boxes did contain actual medical supplies in addition to the drugs, though what happened to those the legends never described.
What I still find amazing is the naivety expressed by those who ran this program, that they believed their diabolically clever NO NARCOTICS INSIDE box-labeling would actually PREVENT hardened druggies from cracking open the boxes, instead of the far more likely result, basically ADVERTISING the presence of powerful narcotics. No doubt there must be all sorts of conspiracy theories to explain this, but it seems easier to me to believe that the folks running the civil defense program just weren’t that bright.