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9.17.2012

Meet Virginia - Day Four

Unfortunately, I knew from the moment I woke up this morning that my luck at the Greenbrier was not about to take a turn for the better. I woke up feeling unnaturally exhausted given the amount of sleep I'd gotten, and my throat was ominously sore. Initially, I hoped that it was just dry and that a glass of water would remedy it, but alas, it was not to be. I was rapidly coming down with a cold. 

With my ability to taste food in peril, we treated ourselves to the luxurious breakfast buffet in the resort's main dining room, which almost made up for our lousy dinner the night before. Well fed, we were ready to embark on our scheduled tour of the Greenbrier's bomb shelter. Sadly, they don't allow visitors to take any electronic equipment into the bunker, whether it be cell phones or cameras (after it was decommissioned, it was largely converted into a data storage facility for the private sector, and the equipment is sensitive to the presence of other electronics), so I wasn't able to get any images from the tour, but my memories will stick with me nonetheless.

The exterior of the Greenbrier.
 Oddly, the tour began by going up, instead of going down into the ground. As it turns out, the Greenbrier was located next to a large hill, so engineers excavated into the hillside to construct the bunker, instead of building it deep in the ground. Since it was designed to be a fallout shelter, not a bomb shelter, it was not meant to sustain a direct hit, rather to provide shelter from radioactive fallout after a bomb had been detonated somewhere like Washington D.C. As a result, one actually has to take an elevator up to get into the bunker, since the main building of the hotel rests at the bottom of the hill.

Construction on the Greenbrier's bunker began in 1959, under Eisenhower. At that time, nuclear bombs were delivered by planes, not rockets, so it was believed that Washington would have enough advance warning of an attack to evacuate the Senate and Congress to the Greenbrier. From there, they would be furnished with survival supplies, medical facilities, and sleeping quarters, which were reassigned following every election, when the lineup of legislators changed. The bunker also included a media room, where senators and congressmen could make television addresses against the backdrop of the Capitol, complete with filters that could make the leaves in the background appear green (for spring and summer) or orange (for fall). This was designed to foster a sense of normalcy, though I'm not sure who would have even been alive to watch these broadcasts, much less had a functioning television.

To keep the construction of the bunker a secret, the Greenbrier camouflaged the activity by building a new wing on top of the site, which would contain not only guestrooms, but an exhibition hall and a hospital. Many car shows and other events were held in that exhibition space, and numerous meetings and conferences were held in two adjoining meeting halls, all open to the public. Little did anyone know that the exhibition hall itself was part of the bunker; huge steel doors were hidden behind false wallpaper panels that could be closed in the event of nuclear attack to keep out radioactivity. Similarly, nobody questioned the fact that the maximum capacity for the two meeting spaces were slightly over 100 people for the smaller space, and just over 435 for the larger room. These would become the meeting chambers for the Senate and House, respectively, should the time come. The exhibition space would be subdivided with temporary walls to create office space for the legislators and their staff.

Since, as I mentioned, most of the space in the fallout shelter has been converted to house sensitive data for Fortune 500 companies, most of the original bunker is no longer visible. We got to see the exhibition hall, the meeting rooms, and then we were taken down a couple levels, to see the self-contained power plant that would supply the bunker. Massive drums of diesel would fuel the place, while huge tanks of water would keep the inhabitants from dying of thirst. A huge incinerator was also included, since there was no way for people to dispose of their garbage in the bunker. Smoke would be funneled out to a fake cabin, built deep into the surrounding woods, where it would ostensibly draw less attention.

We also saw an enormous supply tunnel, where trucks would periodically bring fresh supplies, keeping the shelter fully stocked with a current supply of rations, peanut butter, and medical supplies. The living quarters are now gone, but we did get to see a small recreation of the bunk bed set up they were expected to inhabit. Naturally, the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority leader got their own private rooms with real beds, as they were expected to be in charge of their peers.

Our last stop was the dining hall, which is now used for cooking classes and culinary demonstrations. It features an intentionally unpleasant decor, designed to inspire people to eat their meals and move along rather than linger, since the room was only large enough to accommodate residents eating in many shifts.

Interestingly, the closest the bunker ever came to being used was the same year it was completed -- 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest the U.S. ever came to full-blown nuclear war against the Soviet Union, and after that, the bunker was really essentially obsolete. Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) meant that USSR could attack at any time, with only minutes of warning. Still, the bunker at the Greenbrier was kept in a constant state of readiness until 1992, when news of its existence was broken by The Washington Post. With the Cold War at an end, the bunker was decommissioned.

The Greenbrier was left to figure out what to do with the structure, as it had never belonged to the government in the first place. Though the government paid for its construction, they did not want to own it, because it would create a paper trail. Instead, they paid rent to the Greenbrier, which they rolled into federal payments to the nearby C&O Railroad, whose executives owned the hotel. The relationship between the hotel and the railroad, along with its proximity to Washington had been the primary reasons behind selecting the Greenbrier as a location for the bunker in the first place.

The Greenbrier started out life as a hot springs spa, and this structure marks the original location of the spring house.
After our tour, we trekked across the property through a light drizzle to take lunch at the clubhouse overlooking the golf course. The Greenbrier has a notable golf course, designed by Alexander Findlay, which is apparently a big deal. It is also home to the PGA's Greenbrier Classic, which is evidently a big golf tournament. Given that Dad enjoys a game of golf from time to time, as do most of his friends, we felt like we should at least see the course.

The view out over the first hole.
Though the meal wasn't memorable, the view out over the golf course and the surrounding mountains was breathtaking. The increasingly rainy weather obscured much of the view with mist, but it was easy to see that the Alleghenies are indeed quite beautiful. I would imagine there is probably great hiking around there, and some striking nature walks, but with the rain, my ever-worsening cold, and Dad's broken foot, we were in no position to go exploring the countryside.

By the time we were done with lunch, I was pretty much wiped out. We sat briefly by the indoor pool, which looked awfully tempting, but I lacked the energy for a swim. I ended up spending most of the afternoon napping, while Dad conducted business. If it hadn't been for a looming dinner reservation at the main dining room, I would have been content to sleep the entire night away.

Our dinner was truly elegant (so much so that Dad had to purchase a tie at the golf pro shop in order to satisfy their dress requirement.) Luckily for me, there was a clear broth on the menu in the form of tomato consomm√©, which I actually rather enjoyed, despite the fact that I don't care much for tomatoes. My entree was a riff on vension, with the meat appearing in several different, equally delicious guises. Considering it's probably the last meal I'll be tasting for the next few days, I'm glad it was the best one of the trip so far. 

Even if I felt miserable most of the day, I'll definitely always remember the bunker tour and the opportunity to experience a little piece of the Cold War first hand. It was unfortunate that the rest of the day was somewhat of a waste, but I hear that some people actually go on vacation to relax and catch up on their rest...

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