11/04/2011 08:50 am ET Updated Jan 03, 2012

Our Fallout Shelter

I was in my early 50s when my father died. He lived alone in a small town in upstate New York - my hometown - a decaying rural community that had become his adopted home a few years after his escape from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. When my sister called to tell me he was in the hospital, I took the red-eye from Los Angeles to be at his bedside, but I was too late. He was dead before I got there. He was 89.

My mother had died six years earlier. She had suffered a heart attack in a parking lot at Stewart Airport, which had been an important strategic Air Force base during the Cold War. My family and I had come to visit them. As we stood by our baggage, my mother had gone to get the car and died at the steering wheel. She was 70.

Following my father's funeral, my sister and I were left the task of cleaning out his house. He had been a hoarder all his life, and sorting through the endless piles of paper took us a week and required two dumpsters. He had saved nearly every piece of mail he had received since the 1950s, including those self-adhesive address labels people get from charities. He had been an internist, a "general practitioner" as they called them then, and he had kept every patient's chart. We found his old doctor bag, still filled with medicine vials, tongue depressors and gauze pads.

Sifting through the papers was a challenge, because every now and then, hidden between the sheaves, we'd find an important document. One of these was an official order my father had received from Hitler's Reich, forbidding him from practicing medicine in Germany. Another was my grandfather's passport, which documented his circuitous travels throughout Europe, a successful journey that managed to keep him and his wife out of Auschwitz. My heart stopped for a second when I saw the official purple Nazi stamp at the bottom of each document, a circle surrounding a swastika.

These papers, unpleasant as they were, we kept. They are part of the family history. They will be passed down to our children and then to their children. That is the hope anyway.

Once our cleaning chores were completed, my sister and I drove around town hoping, I suppose, that we would feel some nostalgia for a place we had always despised. There was the junior high, the old synagogue, the candy store where we had bought wax lips and jawbreakers.

Eventually, we arrived at our old house, a gray clapboard structure on a busy street. We had lived upstairs, and my father's practice had been downstairs. His shingle had hung on the front lawn. Never much a businessman, my father had chosen to establish his office on a street with no parking. His patients had to be dropped off by taxi or park a quarter mile away. The street had so much traffic whizzing by that my sister and I were not allowed to cross without an adult until we were 14.

The place hadn't changed much. It was painted brown now and a white picket fence surrounded the front yard. Neither of us had lived there for over thirty years. It was an ordinary house except for one thing - the fallout shelter in the basement.

My father had hired some local workmen to build it in the early 1960s. At the time, nearly everybody in America was fearful of nuclear war, but the people in my town felt we were in greater danger of a direct attack -- Stewart Air Force Base, where my mother had died, was only 30 miles away.

I vaguely remember the fallout shelter. It had thick concrete walls, bunk beds, a ventilator, a toilet, a transistor radio, and shelves that had been stocked with cans of food, bottled water and a row of ten tobacco pouches. My father smoked a pipe.

As we stood on the sidewalk looking at the house we had been brought up in, my sister and I wondered if the shelter was still there. Perhaps it was a den or a playroom or a storage unit now. Perhaps it had been dismantled.

When I was a kid, the shelter had helped to ease my anxiety about perishing in a nuclear attack. I slept a little better.

But that day, as my sister and I re-imagined it, the whole idea seemed idiotic. After a nuclear war, what were we to do when our food ran out? Leave our shelter and go to the nearest grocery store for some vaporized produce?

Clearly, my father hadn't thought it out at the time. But I found my mind returning to the loathsome documents we had discovered in his house and I suddenly knew why he had built it.