Waiting in line at the Gambier Post Office, your eyes may glance through the service window, past the shelves of mail, and fall on a placard with a yellow-and-black trefoil announcing: Fallout Shelter. Perhaps it strikes you as a quaint relic, or evokes the memory of a time when building such shelters was part of the national agenda and nuclear war was a daily news topic.
It’s unlikely you’ll think to yourself such a precaution is necessary in this remote Ohio village. But there was a time in the not-so-distant past when residents felt otherwise.
Details about the fallout shelter have been all but lost, fading in the Village’s memory along with the threat of nuclear war. “We just don’t know much about it at all,” said post office employee Julie Frahling — the typical response of those asked about the shelter. All that remains to tell the tale is the sign, and the place itself.
Behind a couple large mail bins, the door to the basement opens to a stairwell, at the bottom of which lies a short gray hallway. The hallway leads to a rectangular room — slightly larger than the post office lobby — that once functioned as the building’s fallout shelter.
The room is lit by a single bare bulb, leaving the corners in shadow. A small window at the top of the north wall barely allows sunlight to filter in. And the walls are painted a sloppy dark green and purple. A graffitied grinning blue face punctuates the back wall.
“It’s kind of creepy,” Frahling said. “I don’t really like to go down there.”
While the exact year is unknown, it is likely the basement of the post office, completed in 1942, was designated a fallout shelter sometime after 1958, when the Office of Civil Defense began promoting the construction of public and private shelters. This came in response to the 1957 Gaither Report, which stated the Soviet Union would soon surpass the U.S. in nuclear weaponry and preparation.
“During the ’50s nuclear war was a very recent memory, as recent as 9/11 now, and people responded accordingly,” said Professor of Humanities Tim Shutt, who remembers his grade-school years, when students were told to sit under their desks during regular nuclear attack drills.
“In October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I remember asking my father if we were going to get hit tomorrow,” Shutt recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t know,’ and he was right.”
Because it is underground and surrounded by concrete walls, the post office basement makes a logical location for blocking gamma rays that would result from a nuclear explosion. However, like many fallout shelters built in the Cold War era, the Gambier shelter does not appear to have been equipped adequately for occupants to survive the minimum two-week stay the Office of Civil Defense recommended in the event of an explosion. No waste disposal system or air ventilation system appears to be in place. Instead of food and water rations, the room is now stocked only with a pile of old Christmas decorations.