Nuclear pressure off all around the area SO LONG, DR. STRANGELOVE Civil Defense breathes a sigh after Bush, Gorbachev actions.

October 09, 1991|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Evening Sun Staff

In his underground office deep beneath the Towson courthouse, Col. John Thompson flips through his doomsday file, a grim plan detailing Baltimore County's response to nuclear Armageddon.

Thompson suspects that it is the file, not mankind, whose days are numbered.

"I always felt the Soviet Union would fall by the year 2000," says Thompson, the county's deputy director of Civil Defense.

"There's no reason for us to keep our nuclear weapons if [the Soviets] get rid of theirs."

Both superpowers seem eager to put the nuclear nightmare to rest, and local Civil Defense officials welcome the prospect of silencing air raid sirens and converting 30-year-old survival crackers into animal feed.

From his subterranean headquarters on Cold Spring Lane, Col. William Codd lauds America's decision to scuttle some of its nuclear arms. "I'll sleep better now," says Codd, director of the Office of Disaster Control and Civil Defense for Baltimore City.

"I'm in favor of getting rid of every nuclear weapon in theworld."

The recent nuclear reductions have also impressed Ned Murray, though he continues to maintain the bomb shelter he built three decades ago on the family farm in Glyndon in Baltimore County.

"Nuclear weapons are like taxes; it never hurts to reduce them," says Murray, director of Maryland Civil Defense during 1984-89. "Disarmament is a momentous step, but eventually we're going to have nuclear war. There have been wars in 11 of every 12 years of recorded history, and it's hard to believe it will stop now."

So Murray, 70, retains his shelter as a hedge against nuclear holocaust. "It won't happen in my lifetime, but I have children and grandchildren to think about."

At the height of the Cold War, Baltimore and the nation took the risk of thermonuclear war quite seriously. The nightmare was kept alive by brinksmanship on both sides, the Cuban Missile Crisis and a barrage of books and movies about The Bomb.

War by accident was a common theme, as in the 1964 film "Dr. Strangelove," in which the nation's hair-trigger system of deterrence goes go haywire, allowing a runaway B-52 bomber to nuke the Soviet Union.

But now, in a historic finish to the Cold War policy of instant readiness to retaliate, President Bush and the Pentagon have put a safety on America's nuclear trigger, and the Soviets have promised to reciprocate.

Bombers and missiles no longer will be on standby alert. Some intercontinental ballistic missiles will be dismantled or discontinued. Several categories of short-range nuclear weapons, both land- and sea-based, will be stored or scrapped. And both sides are proposing further reductions in nuclear arsenals.

As the superpowers step away from the brink, the remnants of Baltimore's nuclear nightmare, such as back yard bomb shelters and foodstuffs stored underground, seem like relics of a bygone era.

For instance, Baltimore County's doomsday file has been downgraded to a subsection in a notebook containing other emergency plans.

"We still have a plan for nuclear attack," says Thompson. "But it also covers hurricanes and chemical problems. It's an all-hazards preparedness."

The letters CD still stand for Civil Defense. But in recent years they also have meant Cleanup Detail, as officials quietly removed from public fallout shelters the supplies that were stockpiled during the 1960s.

One by one, survival kits of crackers, hard candy and water, stored in metal cans, were removed from the basements of schools and office buildings. Gone also are supplies of crayons and coloring books which were to occupy children in the dismal aftermath of a nuclear war.

Like an archaeologist, Thompson continues to unearth pieces of America's anxious past. Three years ago, he found a 1960s hospital kit tucked away in a county schoolroom. The kit %J contained bandages, folding cots and enough medical equipment to set a broken leg.

"People got used to looking at the stuff and forgot it was there," says Thompson, who cleaned out one shelter as recently as last year. Summoned by the manager of a bank in Woodlawn, who needed the room for storage space, Thompson discovered numerous canisters of stale biscuits and several dozen cans of water, each containing 40 gallons.

The 3-foot-high metal cans, rusted and leaking, were "in the worst condition I've ever seen," says Thompson, who got his suit soaked removing the containers from the building.

The crackers were sold to area pig farmers, who fed them to their livestock. Thompson says a Harford County farmer still calls him regularly "to see if I have any more crackers for his pigs."

Samples of the high-energy candy that was to sustain life in a post-Apocalyptic world still exist, says Thompson. "You can go into CD emergency operations centers around the state and find them in candy jars. We used to have some cherry and lemon drops here dating back to the 1950s, but I never ate them."

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