In 1980, Bruce Beach decided to build a fallout shelter in a hillside half a mile from his home in the tiny village of Horning’s Mills, Ontario. He buried four gutted, interlocked school buses in the ground, and it was just big enough for him and his...
ILLUSTRATION BY MILANO CHOW
PHOTO BY SCHUYLER PISHA
n 1980, Bruce Beach decided to build a fallout shelter in a hillside half a mile from his home in the tiny village of Horning’s Mills, Ontario. He buried four gutted, interlocked school buses in the ground, and it was just big enough for him and his family. Then, in 1985, he decided to add another four buses. It would have ended there, but the tow-truck guys who sold the buses to him kept coming with more buses, and he kept taking them. He stopped at 42 buses, only because construction needed to be finished before winter.
Work crews poured tons of concrete over the buses’ forms. It had to be poured over all 42 buses at once so that it didn’t cause them to shift out of position. Then the concrete had to be sprayed with water for a month to keep it damp until it was fully set, to prevent cracking. The buses encased in concrete make a honeycomb structure, one of the strongest natural forms. According to Bruce, the shelter can withstand a nuclear blast from a mile outside the blast crater of the explosion. That doesn’t really matter though, since it’s located 20 miles away from anything that could be considered a nuclear target. By the time it was finished in 1985, Ark Two, as it came to be called, was a 10,000-square-foot underground complex that could shelter hundreds of people.
Bruce is a hearty, white-haired Kansan, a Santa Claus type who speaks with hard Midwestern consonants and Canadian vowels. He’s in his 70s and has a bit of a lazy eye from a stroke he suffered years ago, but he’s so full of piss and vinegar that it’s easy to forget his age. He began to worry about nuclear war in the late 1950s, when he was a control tower operator at Dobbins Air Force Base in Georgia, landing the big bombers. “It was one of the five bases in the US where you had to have a top-secret security clearance. I saw very unusual types of aircraft there—black birds, flying wings, planes that I’ve never seen since. And I saw UFOs there. I have tons of UFO stories. Anyway, that made me more aware of the delivery and the power of nuclear weapons. When I got out of the service, that was when I first started to store supplies, have a bug-out bag, and make plans to escape.”
One of the more than 150 jobs Bruce has held since then was as a general contractor, building over 20 shelters in Utah and Idaho during the 1960s. In ’74, Bruce felt that then vice president Spiro Agnew was after him. “The rumor was that camps were being opened for people who objected to the administration’s extreme views on things.” Bruce’s wife, Jean, had family in Horning’s Mills and she owned some land there—including the hill where Ark Two was eventually built—so it seemed the place to go.
At one point Bruce was part owner of a company that built robotic arms, one of which was used to salvage the space shuttle Challenger. This may be where the money for Ark Two came from, although Bruce doesn’t talk about his finances or what it cost to build the shelter. You see, Ark Two has caused him tax problems. In spite of the fact that he provided a full accounting of the construction to the assessors, they simply didn’t believe that it was possible to build such a large underground structure for the amount he declared. An informed estimate from another source put the cost of the original construction around $1 million, and the cost to replace it today at $2 million.
When we visited him last month, Bruce predicted, “with 90 percent certainty,” that a nuclear war would be underway within six weeks. There was already one US aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf menacing Iran, and a second was due to arrive within a few days. Bruce explained that the US would use a small nuke on Iran, at which point Pakistan would face a “use it or lose it” scenario. India, Israel, and Russia would likely follow suit. When I couldn’t help but ask Bruce, in a snotty college-boy way, if he really believed this with 90 percent certainty, he said: “That’s where I’m at. You’re talking to the fellow who’s got probably the largest private survival complex in North America. You’ve gotta be motivated, y’know? I travel in a circle where everybody believes this is going to happen. Go down and talk to a Baptist minister about the probability that the Rapture is going to occur in the next year, and Jesus is going to come down—he really believes that.” I stuttered that I wasn’t dismissing his prediction, just the probability. I said I would put the probability at more like one percent. For the rest of the weekend, when I got on his nerves he would call me “Mr. One Percent.” It was a pretty good burn, actually.
ruce’s biggest worry is that he won’t have enough people in the shelter to do what needs to be done inside and—more importantly—outside, once the fallout is gone. As important as it is to him, Bruce views Ark Two as “just a ship to sail across the sea of radiation.” Reconstruction is what he’s all about. For this reason, he dislikes being called a survivalist. He wants to build a new, utopian society after the survivors emerge from their shelters. I really couldn’t even begin to explain his program for reconstruction in fewer than 5,000 words, but you can read all about it on his website. It depends on having pockets of people around the world, working from the same principles of reconstruction, who will eventually link up together. To this end, he maintains TEAM leaders (that’s Together Everyone Achieves More) in each of the 50 US states and around the world. These people correspond with him, subscribe to his email newsletter, and distribute his free pamphlets and DVDs. Presumably most of them are concerned about nuclear war and some of them have shelters, but he admits ruefully that the whole thing is long on organization and short on action, “all hat and no cows, as they say in Texas.” Through his website, Bruce also offers free consultation on shelter building to anyone who asks, on three conditions: That they want to build a shelter right away, that they already have a place to build it, and that they have a budget, however small. Among the hardcore survivalists, Bruce is a living legend.
He has always encouraged people to come and live in Horning’s Mills. Anyone can have a place in the shelter, as long as they put in a few hours of work here and there. A strange cast of characters have drifted in and out over the years. “Various charismatic leaders have shown up with ‘their people,’ but they’ve got to keep ‘their people’ really under control, and they were afraid ‘their people’ would say, ‘Wait, we don’t need a charismatic leader...’ So they disappeared on me.” At the moment, Bruce has a list of 58 locals, many of them his in-laws, who he’s pretty sure will be on board. Of course, since everyone in the town knows about the shelter, any number of terrified Ontarians may show up when the world starts to go all Mad Max on them.
A massive green steel front door, a ten-foot wire fence, and some rusty ventilation shafts poking out of the ground are the only indicators of the vast underground complex below. From the front door, the entryway to the shelter slopes down, into the hillside. All along the walls are electric conveyor belts that will later be used to load in supplies, and at the bottom of the ramp lies the reception and decontamination area. Here, when re-entering the shelter after a trip out into the blasted radioactive landscape of hell, Ark Two members will shower off particles of fallout. Once through decontamination, you enter the shelter proper: About 30 bus-size rooms that branch off a main hallway that runs the length of the shelter.
Most of the floors are scuffed, dirty linoleum. It makes things a little homey. The lighting is generally bare bulbs in those plastic sconces they use on construction sites. It’s a dull, dirty yellow light, but not dim. And it’s roomier than you would think down there. Probably because of the school buses, it has a run-down institutional vibe, more like the basement of an abandoned elementary school than a scary hole in the ground from which to hide from total nuclear annihilation of all that we hold dear and the collapse of humanity from a civil society into roving packs of flesh-eating mutants on jury-rigged motorcyles.
As you walk to the back of one of the bunk rooms, past the six bunk beds lining each wall, your chest might start to feel a little tight. The sleeping quarters are segregated by sex and age. The signs outside each room are coded with animal names, to make it fun for kids waiting out the end of the world. Adult women are Antelopes, adult men Bulls, young girls Cats/Kittens, teenage girls Deer, teenage boys Elk, young boys Frogs, and very young children Gerbils. And don’t worry: There is a designated, private area for having sex.
At the center of the shelter, next to the generator room, is the command area. Bruce thinks of Ark Two as a landlocked submarine. He’s the captain, and just like on a ship at sea, he has absolute authority. He is aware of the potential for mutiny and will sleep in a windowless little cell adjacent to the command area and the generator room, a sort of bunker within a bunker.
any of the rooms are empty shells with a piece or two of basic furniture and a sign designating a hypothetical purpose. There is a Library with shelves but no books, a Computer Room with no computers, and a Transmitter Room with no transmitters. Other rooms are false starts or misfires. Someone gave Bruce a dentist chair and an X-ray machine, so he designated a dental area, but the chair is mostly rusted out and vandals broke the X-ray. People were asking Bruce how he was going to handle the inevitable crushing despair and cabin fever, so he started to build a sensory-deprivation chamber. You know, those big coffins filled with body-temperature saline that could theoretically be used to treat someone who was having a mental breakdown (although in the movie Altered States all it did was turn William Hurt into a werewolf and then into a protoplasm man-thing). Anyway, Bruce’s sensory-deprivation tank didn’t work out, so now it’s a plywood closet that’s being used to store foam sleeping pads. And Bruce doesn’t give much credence to talk of incapacitating despair, anyway. “If the bomb falls, we’re all survivalists. People say, ‘Oh, we don’t want to live through it anyway.’ No way.” To Bruce’s mind, when the fit hits the shan we’re all going to be ready to rumble.
Many of these rooms will probably be better equipped after the shit goes down and Bruce does his final load-in. I couldn’t get him to say exactly what he did and didn’t have stored off-site. But before all of these half-finished and downright imaginary amenities start to give you the feeling that Bruce has built himself a million-dollar couch fort, consider the basic systems of the shelter, the way it provides for the fundamentals of survival.
OK, so what do you need to survive underground for three months?
AIR, SANS FALLOUT—Those rusty tank things on the compound are air-intake towers. They are constructed so that particles can’t get into them and those that do won’t make it into the shelter. Bruce explained it all to me, and it’s a bit complicated, so if you’re curious go look at his website. (I bet you won’t.)
CLEAN WATER—Ark Two’s private well, located near the back door, was completed in 2000. “We have two pumps for the well, and if the pumps fail, we have a pressure pump, and if that fails, then we use the milk tanker [a 5,000-gallon tanker truck filled with water that sits near to the well]. And then we can winch buckets up from the well.”
WASTE DISPOSAL—Sewage-wise, the shelter has a “Large Motel Size” septic tank with room for lots of shit.
FOOD—Bruce stores some food in the shelter, and more at his house. Honey and wheat are the two best survival foods. They both last basically forever. Bruce likes to say that wheat buried in ancient Egyptian tombs has been found sprouting in the present day. Depending on how many people show up at the shelter when the war begins, and what they bring with them, food may be a problem. But it’s not a long-term thing. After five or six weeks, people will be able to leave the shelter for extended periods of time to forage amid the ruins.
POWER—There are two generators at the Ark Two. Currently, the primary generator is an old yellow Caterpillar from the 1940s, and the backup is a 75-watt Perkins. If both of these fail, Bruce has bicycles that can be hooked up to a generator and pedaled continuously to provide minimal power. Diesel for the generators is stored in underground tanks that are not connected to the shelter. The exhaust system works well—when the generators are running, they stink up the compound, but you can’t smell exhaust inside the shelter.
A STALWART WILL—I asked Bruce what he would do with the legions of people who would show up at his door, begging for shelter. “If people came by, we’d have a couple of guards standing at a barrier at the top of the road, saying, ‘Greetings. The shelter’s full. We can’t accept any more. But, you know, the road’s that-a-way.’ We wouldn’t explain to them that we were talking to the walking dead, of course. If these people have been out there for three days wandering, at ten roentgens of radiation per hour, they’re not going to be with us very long.”
Bruce won’t speculate about what will happen to the shelter if he and his wife pass on before the war, because he believes the war is imminent. But friends and supporters of Bruce whom I spoke with think that if he were to die, the local authorities would quickly destroy the underground structure—something they’ve been trying to do since the day the concrete was poured.
Here’s a quick guide to the terms you’ll need to know as you wander the postnuclear rubble that was once America. This is all genuine survival-community-speak, so commit it to memory if you plan to play ball.
ALPHA STRATEGY: This is the idea that one should store more than they will need to consume after the shit goes down. You can use your surplus for barter and charity.
ALICE: All-purpose Lightweight Individual Carrying Equipment, aka an expensive backpack.
ASBO: Antisocial behavior. It won’t fly in a place like the Ark Two.
BIVVY: Short for bivouac. You should know how to do this, pronto.
FUD: Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. Three things that will be very common after the apocalypse.
GOLDEN HORDE: Refers to the Mongol horde of the 13th century. To survivalists, this is the horde of refugees and looters that will pour out of every city in the world.
GRID DOWN: This is when the official power grid is gone.
MZB: Mutant Zombie Biker. Outlaw bikers are a particular threat to survivalists.
POLLYANNA: A person in denial of the fact that society is going to collapse into an anarchic, radioactive shit heap.
PREPPER: A person who is prepared. A survivalist.
TEOTWAWKI (AKA “THE CRUNCH”): Acronym for The End Of The World As We Know It. Pronounced “Tee-ought-walk-ee.”