That Time I Discovered My Dad's Secret Plot to Save Us From the Apocalypse

That Time I Discovered My Dad's Secret Plot to Save Us From the Apocalypse

By Gemma Hartley


Because one day, those screaming about the end of the world will be right.

By Gemma Hartley

Gemma Hartley is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Glamour, The Washington Post and Women’s Health.

My dad has many books, but one is my favorite. It is voluminous and black, much heftier than a Bible, and its cover displays cards and poker chips. Not to be confused with a gambling guide, the illustrations on the playing cards point to a survivalist’s handbook. Each depicts nuclear explosions, tornadoes, citizens donning gas masks.

The poker chips have words: “clean water,” “iodine,” “shelter.” On the back cover, there are no words, no disaster montage — just a photograph of a peaceful lake and a wildflower-filled meadow beneath a snowcapped mountain on which a gigantic white cross has been photoshopped. The bedtime stories my dad told me probably weren’t the kind your parents told you.

We acclimate to our parents’ idiosyncrasies, but there are things about my dad that stand out even to me. He’s a stout former Marine, a well-trimmed handlebar mustache attaching to his short-cut sideburns, one arm bearing a “Death Before Dishonor” tattoo, the other a full-color inked Pink Panther.

A joking-but-not-really-joking conspiracy theorist, he was convinced nuclear disaster was imminent. He felt so sure, in fact, that when I was 16, he welded a metal bunker, sank it underground in an undisclosed location and started filling it with Spam, a product with an indefinite shelf life.


His obsession with the end of civilized society bloomed as my brother and I got older, became more independent. Our father would drill us on what to do in various catastrophic situations — only to be disappointed by our lack of interest and appalled by our lack of basic survival instincts. My brother and I may not have been born survivalists, but we were his babies, and he wanted to keep us alive. So he made a plan.

The day I found blueprints in the backseat of my father’s car, I was dumbstruck. Throughout my childhood, he talked about building an underground bunker, while waxing poetic about the nuclear apocalypse and the necessity of survival skills, potable water and the proper storage of dried foods.

He had left nothing to chance. When disaster struck, he would save us, even if he were long gone. 

When I grilled him, mockingly, he provided sparse details, leading me to doubt he would really do it. The blueprints were nothing masterful, just a freehand pencil drawing with a few numbers jotted here and there. My father was a welder, an architect of stainless steel. Sketching out plans that never come to fruition was a part of the creative process, but still, this felt like more than a passing fancy. The plans unfolded, quietly in stolen hours, until the night he dropped a flat of Spam on the dining room table and asked my brother and me if we would like to see the bunker.

“Carry that,” he said, nodding toward an empty plastic container with a garden hose attached to it. It might have been used for coating plants with insecticide once upon a time, but now it smelled faintly of bleach.

“What is it?” I asked.

“A shower.”

Walking at night, with no trail to follow, the landscape was disorienting. I would elaborate except I can’t, because my father has an abiding fear — not of me revealing that he’s the type of person who would build an underground bunker to survive the apocalypse, but rather of me revealing the location of said bunker. He’s afraid that in the inevitable event of a disaster that will require us to live in his carefully curated shelter, people who know the location will flock there and try to kill us to gain access to the bunker. And to steal our Spam.

When we finally arrived, the spot was unassuming, until my father removed the large metal hatch lying on top of the bunker. He told my brother and me that it could withstand more than 2,000 pounds of pressure or resistance. 

I peered into the darkness, seeing only metal slat stairs leading down the rabbit hole. The bunker wasn’t as cold as I’d thought it would be. It wasn’t as spacious either, but my father quickly told us there were additions planned, that what we were looking at was mostly for food storage, of which he had an ample start on. There were stacked flats of Stagg chili, Spam and water, buckets of freeze-dried food, 100-hour candles, crank lights and assorted other supplies.

america june 2009 075

When the apocalypse comes, I’ll be underground eating spam … with my dad.

Source Courtesy of Gemma Hartley

I asked how we would breathe underground, and he explained the complex ventilation system, with separate intake and outtake valves, one of which had a nuclear particle filter and the other that traveled underground for more than 100 feet before venting out. When I commented that the temperature underground wasn’t nearly as chilly as outside, my father said the bunker maintained at 66 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. He had left nothing to chance. When disaster struck, he would save us, even if he were long gone.

He talks with my brother and me about survival even more often now that we are adults. He makes certain we have planned routes to get to the bunker, gives us tips on surviving without the bunker if it appears our path out will lead to certain death. He voices his disappointment when he finds I am not stockpiling canned goods or dried spaghetti, his urgency increasing now that I’m caring for his three grandchildren. He taught his children preparedness is important, and apparently I am never prepared.

My father knows my brother and I will never take him seriously, that we will make fun of his apocalyptic predictions, smirk as we describe the underground bunker to those who could never understand, but still he continues with his plans. He buries more necessities, buys more gear, stays abreast of the latest survival methods and technology.

“You’ll be glad I did this someday,” he tells me. He doesn’t mind that I laugh.

Because come what may, he wants us to survive. This has always been for us.