11:35:26 pm on
Sunday 14 Jul 2024

The Diefenbunker
Sjef Frenken

“Have you ever been to the Diefenbunker?” asked Jack.

I said “I’ve not only been to the Diefenbunker, but I’ve been in it. Three times, in fact. It’s quite something.” I took a bite.

Let me bring you up to speed, while I’m chewing, dear reader, if you have never heard of the Diefenbunker. It’s a massive four-storey underground fortification built in the early 60s at the height of the Cold War, to house and protect essential members of the Canadian government and armed forces in case of a nuclear attack. It’s situated in a hill in the village of Carp, about 30 kilometers from Parliament Hill in Ottawa as the homing pidgeon flies. Its name derives partly from its function and partly from the Prime Minister at the time who ordered its construction: John Diefenbaker. If you want to know more about it, visit the website www.diefenbunker.ca Or better yet, go have a look. It’s worth the trip, or at least a detour, as the current Michelin guide probably has it. I don’t know for sure as my copy is an old one, from the days before the site was opened to the public.

Jack asked me to describe it, and I did in between bites. I suggested we take a trip there sometime in the near future. Jack said he’d only recently heard of it.

I said “I remember the time the bunker first got major play in the news. I was working for an Ottawa radio station at the time. There was supposed to be a large scale mock alarm on Parliament Hill, and all the important people – ministers, generals, emergency specialists of all kinds-- who were going to be transported by helicopters from The Hill to Carp in the case of a real warning had to participate in the drill. Everything went off as scheduled, with helicopter after helicopter flying in a Westerly direction over Ottawa. Next day it became known that Diefenbaker himself had refused to go along with the proceedings. He was too busy, was the reason given in the press. My reaction at the time was ‘if he doesn’t take it seriously, why would anyone else?’ And that, for a time, was the last thing I remember of that event.” I paused for a bite.

“’For a time”, you said,” said Jack, trying to urge me to continue.

I said “A few years ago my late friend Bob Froese invited me to tag along as he was going to show the Diefenbunker to some of his siblings. It is indeed impressive – the massive concrete walls and pillars, the huge storage area for the gold reserves of the Bank of Canada, the freezers, the media facilities, the kitchen and cafeteria, the hospital rooms – you name it, it’s all there. Everything you need to accommodate more than a hundred people underground, to house them and feed them, for weeks on end.”

“What if someone died? What would they’ve done with the body?” asked Jack.

“They’d thought of that too. There was an incinerator for just that purpose. I tell you it was all well thought out. Except for one thing.” I took a bite. A tiny mean streak – or was it no more than a desire to add to the suspense of my little tale -- made me take another bite.

“And … and,” Jack prodded me.

I said “Remember I said Diefenbaker refused to go on that helicopter ride to Carp? Well, according to the tour guide in the Diefenbunker, the real reason Diefenbaker didn’t go was that no provision had been made to accommodate his wife Olive. If he would have to leave his wife behind in the case of a nuclear attack, he damn well wasn’t going to sit in a bunker without her. And that put a whole different spin on Diefenbaker’s decision.”

“Yes,” said Jack, “but it also raises the question of where his duty lay: as Prime Minister to the people of Canada, or as a husband to his wife?”

I said, “I guess we’ll never know.”

“How do you mean,” said Jack, “he showed where his loyalty was.”

“Maybe not,” I said. “Dief the Chief was a complex man. He was vain and arrogant and very much aware of his image. But underneath…who knows. Remember his refusal was to go along with a mock exercise. Maybe he wanted to show his wife that she was important to him. And this was a cheap way to do it. After all, it wasn’t as if it was a true nuclear attack. But it brings up an interesting moral or ethical point: how many men -- or women – would choose to abandon their family at such a time for the sake of the population at large. It’s a poser!”

“Well,” said Jack, “you will never have to make that decision.”

I said “Why not?”

Jack said “You’ll never be important enough to be invited to a helicopter ride to Carp.”


Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.

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