The Curious Case of The Otcasek Family and Their Backyard Secret
It started off like any other home purchase, but when Colleen and Chris Otcasek finally found their perfect home, they had absolutely no idea what they would find in their backyard! It seemed like just a normal yard in Woodland Hills, California, but it turned out to be so much more… It was a little piece of history hidden just within plain sight! Here’s what the family discovered:
The house had an unusual amenity
Usually when you move into a house, you might expect it to have a pool or a laundry room, or maybe even an outdoor shed! This house, however, had something completely different…
When the Otcasek family purchased their newest house, they were told prior to purchasing it that their house had what realtors said was “an unusual feature.” What could this possibly be, you may ask? It was a giant, concrete-lined hole right in the middle of their backyard! Apparently, the house once held a fallout shelter meant for protection during the Cold War. What they discovered would be a real surprise.
What was at the bottom of the ladder?
The Otcasek family decided to make their way down to the bottom of that concrete-lined hole just to see how far it would go. Turns out that distance was 15 feet deep!
Inside the hole was a long ladder that led the way all the way down into the hole. The ladder was a little bit rusted and looked completely out of use – to be fair, it probably hadn’t been used for decades! Still, the family decided to make the rather perilous trek down into the ground. They climbed down and found a thick, metal door at the bottom – it appeared the bunker was still there! Now to see what was inside…
The Cold war was a terrifying time for many
As you may know, the Cold War was a terrible time for many, a time of doubt and full of fear. There was an enormous presence of weapons of mass destruction that threatened to go off at any moment and kill absolutely everyone in sight.
Towards the end of World War II, many countries were fighting with plenty of lives in the balance, history being rewritten with every moment. The Soviet Union and the United States were both desperately trying to gain control of Europe and each were developing an arsenal of nuclear weapons, much like those that were detonated during the war. As such, there had to be a way to assure safety…
A piece of history was in their backyard!
In order to assure that there was some way to remain safe should all of those nuclear weapons go off, people started building concrete shelters that could house everyone in an emergency. These wouldn’t always be completely effective, but it was still worth a shot!
Many countries started building fallout shelters during this time, and some families would build underground bunkers in their backyards that could house both them and high-ranking government officials. As soon as those warning bells went off signaling a nuclear attack, everyone would run inside a shelter and lock themselves in, hoping for the best. It was the best thing you could do!
It had many interesting things…
The family living in the house before the Otcaseks got this same idea to build a bunker for themselves, and they decided to fully stock it with all the necessary amenities. Most of the stuff was still there and untouched!
Whoever created the bunker originally was very thorough when it came to supplying it and making sure that it had everything the family locked up in the bunker could possibly need. There were things like water, canned food, clothing, and medicine among several other things. The shelter had enough room to house a whole family of four!
Why was it all there?
Though the bunker was fully stocked, the Otcasek family estimated that the amount of food and supplies that were there would probably only have lasted the family 2 or 3 weeks at most. Hopefully the nuclear warfare would be done by then!
The Otcasek family decided to research a little bit about who the original builders of the bunker had been, and what they learned was that the house’s previous owner was named Alvin Kaufman. He first built the shelter in 1961 when he was working as a nuclear engineer for U.S. government. He knew how dangerous a nuclear fallout would be so he built the strongest bunker he could possibly make.
The shelter was very thorough
Alvin Kaufman was very thorough when it came to building and stocking the shelter. According to Alvin’s daughter, Debra, her dad had originally tried to build just one giant fallout shelter for the entire neighborhood, but was turned down.
So, what did Kaufman do? He decided to make his family a personal fallout shelter just in case a nuclear attack ever did fall upon all of them. He fully prepped and primed the shelter with several different sleeping areas, a working water tank, and an air filter that could be cranked by hand for pure and fresh breathing air.
The Cold War was a scary time in history characterized by heightened suspicions that another war was imminent.
The name represents the time period perfectly: although there was no actual large-scale warfare involved (thus, a “cold war”), the United States and still feared that the powers-that-be in the Soviet Union had nefarious plans, and vice versa. The war was waged solely through propaganda and frantic rumors.
The Length of the War
Although historians have disputed on exact date, it is generally accepted that the Cold War endured from 1947 to 1991.
Surely that’s a long time even for a war that doesn’t bring fire and death. It’s a long time to experience fear so palpable that you plan your life around the possibility of the end, which is exactly what many people did.
Americans Brace Themselves for War
The shelter that the Otcaseks discovered in their new home only begins to illustrate the lengths Americans went to protect themselves in case matters grew direr.
Beyond this, the United States and its culture evolved in some many unprecedented ways: militarily, socially, creatively, and beyond. At the time, both the Soviet Union and the United States began stockpiling volatile weapons and safeguarding them accordingly. The United States specifically was busy at work developing better technology that would serve it well in case of an attack. Submarine technology, for instance, was growing more and more elaborate by the day.
The Soviet Union on the Big Screen
Even Hollywood was not shy to show its disdain for the Soviet Union.
During the Cold War, propaganda films that painted the US in a favorable light and the USSA poorly were common. Even movies without a definite political bent sneaked in jabs or at least highlighted the weight war carried. Some notable examples were Dr. Strangelove (1963) and Red Dawn (1984).
Even commercials capitalized on Soviet Union fear to sell products.
One notable example included a Wendy’s commercial in which the USSR was lambasted for its drab sense of fashion and lack of individuality.
The Average American Family
Of course, all the light-hearted propaganda Hollywood could generate would not protect Americans should a war actually break out. As a result, many families took it upon themselves to create fallout shelters to which they could retreat in case of a full-blown conflict.
Fallout shelters varied in design and size, but the function was more or less the same: to protect whole families and to maintain a sense of safety of comfort even as the world outside burned.
Many people who live in regions in which tornadoes and other severe weather are regular possibilities come to appreciate the dark safety of their basements. As it turns out, basements made great (albeit basic) shelters during the Cold War.
For just a couple hundred dollars, families could transform a portion of their basements into places of refuges. Of course, such simplicity came at a price. These shelters were often not designed to integrate whole features of the basement. They also might be able to handle only minimal levels of radiation, due to limited air filtering. Moreover, such basement shelters often lacked necessary long-term amenities like sanitation systems.
Other Forms of Shelter: Trenches
Trenches were a popular choice of fallout shelter. They provided many benefits, perhaps most notably being several feet underground and therefore reducing the risk of exposure to smoke and other common threats that come with destructive war.
The idea of these trenches was to keep the people in them safe and to keep everything above ground out. They were also built to withstand heavy rain. Often times, builders would construct a simple plastic roof to keep the structure from caving in on itself.
Some families built their shelters completely separate from their homes but still close enough so that they can take cover at a moment’s notice.
With their low ceilings, these shelters could sometimes be a tight squeeze, especially when both people and ample supplies have to share space. But because they were often constructed from concrete, they were often durable and provided a heightened sense of security.
Protection for the Whole Community
Sometimes whole communities would pitch in to build a shelter that could house many people.
These shelters usually doubled as other structures, such as businesses or even subways. They were spacious and allowed for multiple families to take shelter as needed.
Provisions: Surviving the Harder Days
The Otcaseks stumbled upon a bounty of supplies that would have served any family well in a time of disaster: canned goods and other nonperishable foodstuffs, medicine, toiletries, magazines, books, and board games.
Such a haul was typical for the well-stocked shelter. Community shelters in particular were sure to be stocked up on enough food, water, and first aid supplies to last as long as possible for as many people as possible.
The bunker’s inventory
The very first item that the Otcaseks found when they walked into the bunker was an old Arrow brand Argyle sweater – super important for keeping warm!
Argyle has been used to make everything from socks to robes, so it’s no surprise that there were some sweaters made from it! The landscape around the family’s home would change dramatically should a nuclear fallout happen, which means that the world might get very cold. Better to prepared with lots of warmth!
Anybody needs some Saran wrap?
In addition to finding these Argyle sweaters, the Otcaseks also found lots of products perfect for use in the kitchen! Very important, especially when it comes to preserving everything.
The Kaufmans made sure to fill their bunker with lots of useful products, including those for cooking and preserving products. That’s important! There were stacks and stacks of Saran Wrap, Reynolds Wrap, and lots of plastic baggies. Of course, that wasn’t all…
They were prepared for everything
In addition to all of the plastic wraps and Argyle sweaters, the new owners of the bunker also found a plethora of long-expired medications – they had remedies for every malady you could think of!
The medications covered pretty much every ailment you can name off the top of your head: there were sleeping pills, nausea medication, several ointments, and an assortment of orange tablets in several different bottles at the bottom of the medicine case. But that wasn’t even all of the medicine!
There was also plenty of First Aid
The Kaufmans were also super prepared for any physical injuries that might occur in the event of an emergency, so they had a fully stocked First-Aid kit ready for whatever might happen!
The First-Aid kit that the Kaufmans had in their bunker contained such necessities and first-aid basics as a foot powder, some bacitracin ointment, and several packs of super absorbent cotton gauze! Pretty much every shelter during the Cold War era had a kit like this, some of which even contained sewing kits for stitching. But there was still more inside…
There were several type of foods!
You can’t have a fallout shelter without food! The bunker had several different types of edible goodies packed within, some of which was Multi-Purpose!
Next to a tin of cookies on the shelf, the family found two packages of Multi-Purpose Food. What is that, you ask? Well, “multi-purpose” food is basically a protein powder mix that is supposed to provide adequate nutrition at a very affordable price!
Some less appetizing than others…
There were also some other foods, though, just in case Multi-Purpose Food doesn’t cut it for you. There were some cookies among other dried goods, though the multi-purpose stuff was the most popular food for emergency situations.
Multi-Purpose Food, or MPF, for short, was extremely affordable as it only cost 3 cents per meal! The affordability of this substance allowed President Clinton to found the not-for-profit, Meals for Millions. This organization would distribute 6.5 million pounds of relief to over 129 countries! Of course, they also had some stuff for entertainment, too.
There was plenty of entertainment
In the case of a nuclear fallout, a family might be stuck in a fallout shelter for an indeterminate amount of time. So, understandably so, there needs to be plenty of entertainment so as to avoid boredom!
Kaufman anticipated the boredom that might come, so he packed plenty of American Science Fiction magazines and Fact Magazine copies. The American Sci-Fi magazine published many classic sci-fi stories from the likes of Isaac Asimov and John W. Campbell, and Fact Magazine published many articles about futuristic technologies, aliens, and weird science. It’s enough to keep you entertained for years!
They had every good you could think of!
The bunker also had several other necessities, including rolls of ancient Kleenex paper towels. We hope they packed enough to last several weeks!
Given that a family of four would have been living in the bunker, the rolls might not have lasted very long, but you have to make do with what you have! Kleenex was originally used for removing cold cream and makeup, but they eventually spread to other uses as well.
They also had those good ol’ Dixie Cups!
In addition to all of the Kleenex, the bunker also had plenty of Dixie Paper Cups, presumably for drinking water. Though, we suppose they also could have been used for making all of those Multi-Purpose Food mixes…
Dixie Cups were first created in 1907 so as to more easily serve drinks of cold water on long train rides. It was a nice and easy way of better accommodating passengers! They were even originally called “Health Kups.” And they could have been easily used to drink the next thing that was found…
And, of course, the most important thing of all…
Besides all of these amenities, the Kaufmans also had one other very important thing packed up in their bunker, just in case of emergencies: coffee.
The room was littered with various jars and cans of ground coffee, in several different varieties, so they had plenty of choices! The coffee was all around the room, though many of them were never opened. It seems the family were huge fans of a good cup of joe!
The Family Behind the Design
The family that dwelled in the home long before the Otcaseks took up residence likely understood the threat of war and its potential implications better than anyone else.
Father and husband Alvin Kaufman was a nuclear engineer. Like most seasoned engineers, he cherished innovation and wanted to use skills to help protect his family. The shelter that the Otcaseks discovered illustrated just that. He understood what a safe, sound and logical shelter would entail and how to go about building one. The fact that the bunker was precisely 15 feet underground reinforced his ingenuity and meticulous nature.
Kaufman’s Daughter Speaks Up
Alvin Kaufman’s daughter Debra could attest to her father’s plan and the fear that permeated the air at the time of the shelter’s construction.
“In that era, in the 60s, there was a much greater fear and feeling that a nuclear war was possible,” Debra remarked. She also confirmed that the structure was meant to house a family of four and that provisions were set aside to provide for such a family.
The Kaufman Shelter Continued
Debra also stated that the shelter was not meant to be a long-term situation. It could house a family for several weeks.
Beside the stockpile of food, toiletries, and medicines, the shelter also had a place for the family to sleep comfortably, as well as a water tank and an air filter, which had to be operated manually.
Debra Kaufman Speaks of Her Father with Great Reverence
In an interview with John Rabe of Off-Ramp, Debra returned to her childhood home in Woodland Hills to discuss not only the shelter and what it meant for her family, but also the man behind it: her family, Alvin Kaufman.
Debra described her father as a humble man who worked for Litton Industries. He was fascinated by the potential of nuclear war and worked diligently to understand how a nuclear attack might affect not only people, but also their provisions. That is what inspired him to build a robust shelter in his own backyard.
A Modest Proposal
Kaufman didn’t build his structure with just his own family in mind. He also hoped to get his neighbors involved. Unfortunately, they weren’t quite on board with the idea.
Debra said that he took the rejection well and continued just to build the shelter for his own family.
Charting the Passing of Time
Among the foodstuffs and necessities was a beacon of hope should a nuclear disaster ever have devastated the world: a 30-year calendar, as well as a writing pad should any resident find the urge to jot a quick note.
Colleen Otcasek tried to imagine what one would use such calendar for. “Anyone who built a shelter in their backyard would have to be pretty optimistic,” she conceded.
Thankfully, they never had to use the shelter
Of course, we all know how the story ends – the Cold War was never truly realized, and so the bunker never had to go into use – thankfully!
It’s a good thing that the Kaufmans were super prepared for the worst, but we’re all very glad that the country never entered a nuclear war. Otherwise, those three weeks of food might not have been enough! It’s still incredibly amazing to see what’s inside a little piece of history.
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