Sunday, September 18, 2011

MAKE MINE A TRIPLE: The Inside World of Bunker Nightlife


“Use of alcoholic beverages on the property [is prohibited] except,

(1) In the Balloon Shed Lounge at Mt. Weather and in other locations that the Administrator or the Mt. Weather Executive Director authorizes in writing…”

- Excerpt from the U.S. government document, “Conduct at the Mt. Weather Emergency Assistance Center and at the National Emergency Training Center,” p. 145


It has been written that director Stanley Kubrick’s decision to translate Peter George’s dramatic Cold War thriller novel Red Alert into the wildly satirical StrangePie Dr. Strangelove occurred during a late night writing session when the filmmaker wondered aloud what exactly the War Room did for take-out food. Did they order pizza? Did they send a runner out to the local diner? This curiosity eventually led the script to be restructured into a comedy.[i] Indeed, the notorious deleted pie fight sequence that was to be the original ending to the film is undoubtedly an outgrowth of the absurdist notion that World War III could be catered. It was Kubrick’s long ago fascination with the trivial aspects of nuclear war that prompted CONELRAD to post an inquiry about the Balloon Shed Lounge (the facility mentioned in bright green in the government document excerpt above) on a respected Cold War Internet discussion group back in 2004. To our surprise, we received a reply almost immediately. Due to a number of factors including editorial backlog and general laziness, we are just now getting around to posting our interview with the gentleman who agreed to share his intimate knowledge of bunker watering holes and cafeterias. 


Our source, who still holds a government security clearance, did not wish to be identified, but CONELRAD is satisfied that this person is legitimate. We cannot reveal how we vetted him as it might tend to compromise his identity, so our readers will just have to trust us on this one. For the purposes of this interview, we will refer to him as “Deep Mug.”


CONELRAD: You have been to The Granite Cove and The Balloon Shed Lounge, the cafes that serve Site R and Mount Weather respectively. Do you know anything about the history of these establishments? In other words, how long they have been in existence at these sites? Do you know if they date back to the Cold War?

DEEP MUG: Granite Cove or some predecessor has existed since Site R opened. It is the only place to eat inside the mountain, besides a couple of really crappy vending machines. You eat there, or you don't eat unless you bring your own. I'm not sure how long The Balloon Shed has been around but it is not a new facility. My guess would be that it or a predecessor dates back to the Sixties.

Location of The Balloon Shed Bar at Mount Weather

CONELRAD: Were you surprised that these facilities had names - as opposed to the typical government-issue cafeterias.

DEEP MUG: Granite Cove isn't a surprise. The Army gives it's mess halls names these days, to give them a little more character. The Balloon Shed is actually not a cafeteria. It is merely a pretty small bar on the first floor of one of the buildings at Mt. Weather. There is a pretty large cafeteria that occupies most of the second floor of the same building. It doesn't have a name.

CONELRAD: Did you or anyone you know ever visit the cafeteria at the Greenbrier congressional bunker in White Sulphur Springs, W. VA?

DEEP MUG: Sorry, can't help you there. You know as much as I do.

CONELRAD: Does the Granite Cove and the Balloon Shed have distinctive signage advertising its presence at the sites or is it pretty conservative? Could you describe?

DEEP MUG: Both have signs. Granite Cove is pretty straightforward conservative but they may have jazzed it up since I was there 10 years ago. Balloon Shed has a nice sign with, well, A BALLOON that looks like it was done by a woodworker. The name "Balloon Shed" hints back to Mt. Weather's origins as a weather station in the early 1900s.

CONELRAD: Do both establishments serve alcohol?

DEEP MUG: No alcohol at Granite Cove, it's just an Army mess hall. The Balloon Shed is a bar...though I think they have bar snacks like popcorn.

CONELRAD: Do they have Happy Hours?

DEEP MUG: Balloon Shed doesn't really have happy hours per se. In fact, it normally isn't open without prior arrangement.

CONELRAD: Are there any uniquely named drinks such as an Atomic Cocktail; or do they just serve beer and wine?

DEEP MUG: Alas, it's just beer and wine...and often pretty ordinary beer and wine at that! No microbrews or fancy varietals. The wine is likely to come from a box.

CONELRAD: Have you ever seen anyone get hammered?

DEEP MUG: Oh, yeah! For several years (until 9/11), FEMA actually held a number of training classes for local and state emergency response personnel out at Mt. Weather. It was a program to take some of the burden off their training center in Emmitsburg, MD. I attended several of these and saw plenty of cops and firemen get pretty hammered. Hell, there's nothing else to do after hours and no place else to really go. The nice thing is that they run a bus service back to the dorms, so you can get as hammered as you like and not worry about driving.

CONELRAD: Do they have Marines serve as bouncers?

DEEP MUG: No bouncers, but if you get out of line at Mt. Weather then you deal with the Mt. Weather security police. They are civilians, but they have NO sense of humor with outsiders, especially these days.

CONELRAD: Are there any uniquely named dishes like a Heart Healthy Cheney Burger or a Rumsfeld Ham Sandwich?

DEEP MUG: You forgot the Senator Robert Byrd "pork" chop! Very normal cafeteria food. Typical colorless government approach.

CONELRAD: Are there juke boxes? If so, what kind of music?

DEEP MUG: Balloon Shed did have a juke box as I recall, with a mix of classic rock and some country. It may or may not still be there.

CONELRAD: Do these establishments have air hockey, pinball machines or Saturday night turtle races?

DEEP MUG: There are pool tables, ping pong and a foosball table, I think, just outside the Balloon Shed. Even if the bar isn't open, the pool tables etc. are available for use 24/7.

CONELRAD: Are there any decorations that adorn these cafes or are they pretty Spartan? Are there pictures of the President? Describe the rooms if you could.

DEEP MUG: The Balloon Shed has some very cool old photos of the weather testing/measurement activities at Mt. Weather in the 1900s to the 30s, including pictures of the weather balloons and the "balloon shed" for which the place is named. It is a small, small bar...not much bigger than a bar one might build in a home basement. The bar seats maybe 8-10 folks, with a couple of small tables holding another 10-15. Granite Cove is a big, open room with a bunch of tables for the military folks. It is carpeted, with white walls and a rather ordinary drop ceiling. It can seat probably 200 or more people at a time. Don't remember any pictures...if there were any, they would have looked like something stolen from a Holiday Inn.

CONELRAD: Is the wait-staff at these establishments armed and friendly or just armed?

DEEP MUG: The cafeteria staff at Site R are all civilians, most of them local residents who've been working there for years...or whose family has worked there for years. They were a pretty good bunch, took good care of the soldiers working in Site R. Same story for the cafeteria staff at Mt. Weather, though they use contractors down there now. The Balloon Shed is operated on an "as needed" basis by something called the Midway Recreation Association. Basically, I think it's a group of Mt. Weather employees/family members. When I was there, you made prior arrangements, shelled out $50 and they would staff the place with a bartender. For some reason, I think they have to operate it that way since these activities aren't directly funded with tax $$$ (seriously!). The bar at the FEMA Training Center in Emmitsburg is operated by the "National Emergency Training Center Recreation Association" and you have to pay $1 for a two-week "membership card" if you're a student up there. I think staff members are automatically members.

CONELRAD: Would both of these establishments be in operation during a crisis in which the facility would be completely locked down?

DEEP MUG: Granite Cove would definitely operate since they feed the Site R staff. I have a sneaking suspicion that The Balloon Shed would also be available! The scary thing at Site R is that when the fresh food runs out, you're probably going to be stuck eating Army MREs. Yecch! What a way to ride out the end of the world.

CONELRAD: When you dine/drink at these establishments what is the mood? Is it slightly eerie? Does the topic of conversation usually keep coming back to apocalyptic themes?

DEEP MUG: Pretty subdued for the most part. Granite Cove is just a place to get a bite to eat and get back to your post. Again, it's an Army mess hall so you have plenty of horny young soldiers talking about what they did last night, what they'll do when their shift ends, who just got a new motorcycle, who's girlfriend/boyfriend dumped them and is now free, how the officers and sergeants are all idiots, etc. When I was at the Balloon Shed, I was there as part of a civilian training course. Most of the time, we just knocked back a few beers and told a lot of lies like most men do in bars. Not too many women attended those courses, and when they did they usually stayed away from The Balloon Shed. There's really not much talk about the apocalyptic stuff. Those who "are in the know" don't talk much for security reasons. Visiting students don't get anywhere near the classified (read: underground) portions of Mt. Weather so they don't have much to say. After a day or so, the novelty of being stuck on a mountain in the middle of nowhere wears off!

CONELRAD: If the Balloon Shed and the Granite Cove were to be rated in one of these guides like Zagat or AAA, what rating would you give them on a scale of 1 to five mushroom clouds (1 being lowest, five being highest or "most explosively wonderful").

DEEP MUG: The Balloon Shed gets a "3" for atmosphere, but it is very inconsistent. I've been there and had a great time, and been there and was bored to tears. It pales in comparison to the bar at FEMA's Emmitsburg training center, which definitely rates a "5" and is named "The Command Post." Granite Cove gets a "2" for atmosphere but a "4" for food. Again, the service is generally strong but the entrees are inconsistent. Dessert is usually good though not exotic.

CONELRAD: What is the strangest/funniest/most surprising thing that you have witnessed at one of these establishments? Have you ever heard any good anecdotes about wild evenings at these establishments?

DEEP MUG: I never saw anything all that interesting at The Balloon Shed. The security requirements do throw a pall over the place. There are probably some FEMA staffers with good stories but they officially discourage that sort of behavior.

CONELRAD: What are the best and worst food items? Do these places serve breakfast?

DEEP MUG: The best food is usually on the short order lines--burgers, grilled cheese, etc. Breakfast at Granite Cove is always great. The military does breakfast right. The worst food items are usually the same worst items from a typical college cafeteria--mystery meat, soggy fries, over-steamed vegetables. Granite Cove used to serve a midnight meal since there were folks inside the mountain 24 hours a day. The quality of midnight chow ranged from exceptional to inedible...often swinging from one extreme to the other in a single day.

CONELRAD: Tell us about the gift shops at these facilities. What kind of stuff can you buy?

DEEP MUG: No gift shop at Site R, but Mt. Weather has a pretty nice one. You can buy hats, sweatshirts, coffee mugs, polo shirts adorned with either a Mt. Weather logo or the Department of Homeland Security logo. They are also selling off their stock of goodies with the old FEMA logo, which was "retired" by DHS...though they allowed FEMA to keep its name. Strange marriage!

CONELRAD: Final question: What happens after last call? Do people stumble back to their bunk beds?


DEEP MUG: No sleep at Site R....its back to duty. When last call hits at Balloon Shed, everyone piles on the bus and gets dropped back at their dorm. BORING!, but few visitors to Mt. Weather have cars so there aren't many options. At the more lively civilian classes I attended, we usually kept the party going down in the small lounges that are found in each of the Mt. Weather dorm buildings. OFFICIALLY, you're not permitted to bring alcohol onto the site. However, there were plenty of ways around that before things got extra-super tight after 9/11. The housekeeping staff usually didn't say anything about all the empties in the trash can as long as you didn't trash the dorm. It was also prudent to keep a slight lid on the dorm parties so that a roving security patrol didn't get curious and decide to stop in.

The preceding interview was conducted by Bill Geerhart via email on August 4, 2004. Photographs of the cafeteria sign, empty cafeteria and bunk beds are from the congressional bunker at the Greenbrier Hotel. These photos were taken by Bill Geerhart in 1998.

CONELRAD would like to thank Deep Mug for his willingness to answer our questions and we hope that he is reading this now on the Balloon Shed wi-fi.  

[i] Vincent Lobrutto, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography ( De Capo Press, 1999), p. 228


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