The Fallout Candy

Our life was sweet, even if the world was coming to an end

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As a child, I never imagined a world without the Soviet Union or the Berlin Wall. Nuclear war was a real fear, so public fallout shelters were abundant. It's nice to realize that the situations crazy adults thought of back then have gotten so much better. Well, two out of three, at least.

Anyway, in 1967, places to hide yourself from radiation were mostly located in school basements and other places that no kid in his right mind would want to be trapped while things cooled down. In our Boston neighborhood of Dorchester Lower Mills, however, the public fallout shelter was a firehouse on the corner of Temple and River. It hadn't housed any firemen or firefighting equipment for years. It's only remaining function was to be a place where everyone would run like deranged lunatics when atom bombs were launched. Tall weeds sprouted in the surrounding yard and litter piled up in the driveway.

Stephen Murphy and I were 10 years old, walking around our neighborhood one summer day with nothing planned, when we passed by the old firehouse. We took a detour off Temple Street and circled around, poking in the weeds and trash for whatever might interest young boys. We came to a door. We didn't expect it to be unlocked, but we tried the handle, anyway.

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The door opened. With as little hesitation as dogs offered filet mignon, we went inside. The mere thought of being able to slide down the fire pole without anyone around to tell us not to was enough to make it the best day so far that vacation.

We crept about in the hot and dusty interior. There wasn't much in the place, on either floor, other than a few ramshackle wooden chairs and a dilapidated desk. After sliding down the pole a couple of times, we were about to leave when Stephen tried a door we had assumed was a closet. It opened into a small room we had yet to explore and, in that room, we found a large barrel-shaped container made of hard cardboard. It was imprinted with a "civil defense" symbol. It had metal rims on the top and bottom, and a metal lid. With the direct logic of youth, we decided the best way to find out what was inside was to open it. So, we pried off the lid and found, much to our immediate delight, that it was loaded to the brim with CANDY.

We couldn't have been more surprised had a genie popped out of the thing. It was hard candy, in three flavors: raspberry, orange and lemon/lime. It looked like it wasn't rotten or anything, so we each had a couple of pieces. We didn't die, so we decided to take the barrel home and have the rest of the candy later.

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As we hauled it home—which wasn't easy, as it probably weighed 40 pounds, was an unwieldy shape, and we were two kids trying to bring it up one hill and down another for a total of three blocks—we just naturally assumed our parents would let us keep it. After all, it was United States of America government-issue food, even if it was candy, and we had been taught for years that, while Communists were evil, our government was beneficent and kind, so if you couldn't trust government candy, what in hell could you trust?

We brought it inside the duplex shared by our families. Our moms inspected it. The barrel said the candy was jammed full of vitamins and minerals. We all figured out it was meant as a ration of some sort should there have been a nuclear attack and folks were trapped in the firehouse for a century or two. It had been sealed tight, so it didn't appear to present a danger from being spoiled or contaminated. And, anyway, it was hard candy, and that stuff has a shelf life similar to petrified wood, which was probably why it had been chosen as the vehicle for conveying vitamins to people whose skin would be peeling off due to radiation poisoning. So, our moms, who didn't want to haul it back and maybe have to explain what they were doing to any authorities who caught them, let us keep it.

Every so often, Stephen or I would eat a piece. We showed it to our buddies and they had a few pieces, too. But, even though it was free candy, it wasn't the sort you felt like gobbling down over and over. We got tired of it in a relatively short time and finally threw the whole shebang into the rubbish a few months later, after the container started getting moldy from being stored in our leaky cellar.

The firehouse was eventually torn down and now there's nothing on that corner but a vacant lot. As far as I know, neither Stephen or I suffered any deleterious effects from eating the fallout candy. As a matter of fact, what with all of the vitamins in it, we were probably the healthiest kids in the neighborhood.

However, if North Korea ends up bombing Boston, and folks in Lower Mills go on a frantic search for vitamin-enriched government candy, I'd like to take this opportunity to apologize in advance.

Tags: memoirs