A Hole In The Ground

So there I was three weeks ago, perched on the edge of the prime minister’s bed, dying for a cigarette.

He wasn’t in it at the time.  To be honest, no prime minister ever slept in this bed and none ever will.  But this is one historical mattress nonetheless.  This is where the PM would have slept – fitfully, presumably – had North America ever come under nuclear attack from the godless commies.

The bed itself is narrow, boarding school issue.  The prime minister’s suite consists of a single desk wedged into a claustrophobic outer office, a bedroom the size of a freight elevator, and a bathroom that wouldn’t be out of place on a submarine, all decorated in the windowless motif of impenetrable concrete.  It is either the world’s worst hotel room or a well-appointed prison cell.

It is entombed in an enormous four-storey bunker that is itself buried under a hillock, that in turn conceals a gravel pit, the exact location of which, until a few years ago, was a state secret.  My pals and I were there with our kids on an afternoon outing.

We think of technology as rational, if nothing else.  Come on a second-hand tour of this big-ticket relic of irrationalism and learn otherwise.

For most of the 33 years of its active, clandestine life, the facility was officially designated Canadian Forces Station Carp, but everyone knows it as the Diefenbunker, a moniker so perfect it could only have been coined by a headline writer.

The name is the only funny thing about the place.  From top to bottom, the installation is pure technology.  Aesthetics never entered into the design.

Still, what a piece of technology.  It was built between 1959 and 1961, and built to last.  Doors that weigh more than your car still swing effortlessly at the touch of your fingertips.  Le Corbusier, the city-of-the-future architect who inspired a generation of boxy, bad-idea housing projects from Moscow to Manhattan, thought of the human domicile as a “machine for living.”  The Diefenbunker, a subterranean apartment block designed to keep the residents alive when all the high-rises have been vaporized, is the end of the line for that particular crackpot argument.

A machine for living, indeed.  This one has blast-proof doors and an armoury.

It was designed to ensure we would survive a nuclear exchange, but even at the time everyone agreed an exchange was only forestalled as long as both sides acknowledged it would be unsurvivable.

Technologically unimpeachable, the Diefenbunker is still a good example of why guys with slide rules and lousy social skills should never be allowed to set social policy.

The nuclear-bomb shelter has become a thing of the past, which is interesting because nuclear bombs are still very much with us.  The superpowers remain pockmarked with missile silos, and the Russian ones are tended by engineers who haven’t been paid for a while.

By now every halfway technologically ambitious nation-state with a border dispute has armed itself with something radioactive.  Call me fatalistic, but every technology ever built has been used eventually for what it was designed to do.

Well, maybe not every technology every built.  It’s doubtful the Diefenbunker will ever be called upon to fulfill its function, and I suppose we can take comfort from that.  The structure only made sense in the face of massive missile attack from a declared and determined geopolitical enemy.

If Canada’s capital were to be whacked by an A-bomb tomorrow, it would be because a Russian technician said “Oops,” or some sufficiently angry terrorist group decided to set an example for the West.  In either case, the Diefenbunker wouldn’t be much use.

The place is history, in every sense of the word.  Decommissioned in 1994 and situated on the outskirts of the pleasant little town of Carp, a 20-minute drive from downtown Ottawa, it is now a museum run by a crew of local residents, most of whom are volunteers.  Some spent their careers working in the place when it stood on guard for thee.

It’s one thing to walk its corridors and step back in time.  It’s quite another to have the retired chief of the engine room as your guide.  The guy who made the place run won’t be around once our kids take their kids on the tour.

When the military decamped, they stripped the place clean.  The situation rooms were dismantled.  Two generators were hauled out to provide power for Canadian peacekeeping missions.  Mostly what’s left is 1960s-era civil service office furniture.  Which is appropriate, because the Diefenbunker was basically a government ministry sunk into the earth.

It was not an Ark.  From the prime minister to the most junior sentry, there were no provisions to accommodate families.  It was an office, a place of work intended to co-ordinate evacuation and emergency response.  Kids underfoot would have been as out of place as in an air traffic control tower.

There was no daycare, but there was a CBC studio, a press room, three bars and a canteen where you could buy cigarettes.  The project manager of its construction went on to oversee the construction of the Expo 67 site.  The place still runs on the Honeywell mainframe installed almost 30 years ago.  Remember Denis Lortie, the infantryman who shot up the Quebec National Assembly?  Ever pause to wonder where he got the firepower?  He smuggled it out of the Diefenbunker armoury in a gym bag.

The place is drenched in lore like that.  Pay it a visit and relive the signature nail-biting anxiety of the mid-20th century, with one proviso.  When the situation rooms were in active service there were ashtrays everywhere.  Now that it’s a museum, lighting up is frowned upon, no matter how nervous you get.eg

  • Globe and Mail Sept. 30, 1999