WASHINGTON -- The big yellow house on Clarksville Pike came with an added feature. It was set back from the highway with a vegetable garden on the western side and a tangle of underbrush behind the four-car garage that crept toward cropland and pastures. The real estate listing promised:
Wonderful 1906 Farmhouse approx 1 acre. Tastefully updated yet all the charm you seek. 5 BR, 3BA, 3 half BA, 9' Ceilings, Ground Floor Master/Guest Suite, Spectacular Grt Room with 14' Ceilings, Workshop, Studio, Office, Fin attic with loft, Beautiful HdWd floors throughout, 2 zone HVAC. Plus a bomb shelter!
Last month, a nursing supervisor from Baltimore named Tina Nowakowski bought the big yellow house on Clarksville Pike for $773,500. She was standing on the side porch with her college-age son Matt Roach, holding a pineapple, when I drove up to ask about the bomb shelter, and to talk about fear and the future.
It was the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, an October when a 12-year-old child of the Cold War shuddered with the certainty of nuclear incineration. Vividly, I can recall watching U.S. President John Kennedy issue an ultimatum to the Soviet Union on our little black-and-white television: "I call upon Chairman Khrushchev further to abandon this course of world domination... He has an opportunity now to move the world back from the abyss of destruction."
Half a century later, I remain extant and non-radioactive and married to a Russian beauty, but the thought of having a bunker in the backyard -- just in case -- still rings a mystic chord. So that's why the listing for the big yellow house that we drive past every day had caught my eye.
"It didn't just say bomb shelter,"Matt noted. "It said bomb shelter, exclamation point!"
Mother and son and I slogged through the jungle in a gathering rainstorm to inspect the cinder-block fortress. The previous owners, the listing agent had told me, had lived in the house for more than 20 years but had never gone down the rusted ladder into the cavern below. Now, young Matt lifted the thick iron lid and we stared down into a cement-walled pit with ankle-deep black water on the floor.
This was how whoever lived on Clarksville Pike in 1962 -- and hundreds of millions of the rest of us, in cities and suburbs and the backwoods -- were going to ride out World War Three, drinking bottled apple juice and eating cold canned beans, awaiting the all-clear, at which time we would begin again the work of civilization on a charred and chastened globe.
"I'd climb down there to see if any survival supplies are still intact," I announced, "but I'm wearing my good shoes."
"We're trying to figure out what to do with that thing," Tina said.
"Are you afraid that you'll ever need it?" I asked her.
"We're in a spot in this country right now," she replied. "We've slipped. It started prior to this administration, but this administration hasn't helped -- it's almost as if there was some desire to put us in this position."
Tina Nowakowski, who was born in the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, said she had gone to Alaska to study survival skills, and she was going to start canning her own food. She had noticed the mighty Patuxent River was just a short walk downhill from the big yellow house. "I wanted to be near a watercourse.
"I had one uncle at Pearl Harbor and another uncle at Normandy," she said. "My father made us put a flag up every day and take it down at night and fold it. He explained that there was no way that America would ever allow a world war to happen again."
So far, the promise had been kept. Downtown, the anniversary was being observed with exhibitions and symposia and testaments to the steely courage of John F. Kennedy, who blockaded Cuba, stared down annihilation, and spat in the Soviets' eye. At the National Archives, you could hear the secret White House recordings that Kennedy made as senators and cabinet secretaries and bemedalled warhawks met to discuss America's options in the face of a fleet of Russian intermediate-range rockets newly discovered amid the canefields of "Commie Castro Cuba," within easy range of D.C.
"You're screwed, screwed, screwed. Either do this son of a bitch and do it right, or quit friggin' around," I heard Commandant David Shoup of the U.S. marines saying, arguing for immediate invasion and all-out war.
"You're in a pretty bad fix," offered Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay.
"You're in there with me," Kennedy replied.
Fifty years later, Nikita Khrushchev had been replaced as the world's plutonium bugbear by Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a man seen -- just as the Soviet commissar had been -- as an unstable clown in troth to dark, invisible forces. In 2012, the Russkies retained thousands of Armageddon warheads, but Vladimir Putin was unlikely to unleash them before the Winter Olympics in Sochi, and Ahmadinejad had no missiles -- or at least none that we knew about -- capable of striking the big yellow house on Clarksville Pike.
Now, we were standing on the porch and watching the rain and Tina Nowakowski was talking about a coming deluge of America's own creation.
"There's no trust anymore," she said. "We need to go back to Lincoln. We need to go back to our roots.
"Something's going to happen. We're going to deal with tragedy."
Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washinton, D.C.