A big resort in the mountains of West Virginia, called The Greenbrier, figured often in my great-grandmother Sallie’s tales of her girlhood in Richmond. Before “The War” (as she always called it—from her point of view, shared with many other southerners, it was the only was that counted) she and her family escaped the stifling Richmond summers by taking a train to the West Virginia mountains and staying for weeks at a time at “The Old White,” the big hotel that was torn down and replaced by the larger and much more elaborate Greenbrier which even had air conditioning as well as golf courses, swimming pools, tennis courts, riding trails and many other entertainments to replace croquet and badminton.
The hardships of that war, and of her decades-long life as a widow sharing a house with her family, did not obscure or darken Sallie’s rosy point of view. The rosiest of her descriptions summoned The Greenbrier and its social customs, continued unchanged for decades. Most romantic of all were the balls, held, it seemed, almost every evening: highly chaperoned young people met on the polished floor, engaging in flirtations that, especially for the well-connected, could lead to engagements and marriages and honeymoons in the same mountain resort.
One story about those balls has Robert E. Lee in attendance—he the worshipped hero of the Lost Cause. One of the young women sitting at the edge of the dance floor was said to be Jewish; no one would dance with her. Lee heard the rumor and asked her to waltz. After that she did not lack for partners.
Now, the little towns close to The Greenbrier are ragged, depressed and almost empty: one storefront displays a big sign, FREE HONEYMOONS, but the store, like those honeymoons, is now defunct. And there are no African-Americans at the resort who are not waiters. Among the long list of notables who stayed there—all the presidents except for Carter and Obama, many screen stars and billionaires—there is no one who is not white.
Most fathers and husbands stayed in town to work during the week, coming up to The Greenbrier on Friday evenings; Sallie remembered that the wives would wash their long hair on Thursday evenings and throw it forward over their heads to dry on the railings of the porches.
Sallie’s determined gaiety and equally determined innocence, perhaps essential to the life she led during slavery, the War and Reconstruction, would not have predisposed her to believe in the secret bunker, built at the height of the Cold War in 1963, that underlies the old resort. After sixty years of secrecy, an article in The Washington Post finally revealed its existence (the guide who led us through the place called that article an act of treason) and led to its decommissioning and becoming another tourist attraction.
It was built to house members of Congress in the event of a nuclear attack on Washington, D.C. Before the use of rocket fired missiles and the helium bomb, there might have been enough advance warning of a Russian attack to allow House and Senate members to scurry to a special train that would deliver them in short time to The Greenbrier, and possibly sixty days of life underground. In 1963, there were only twenty women members of both chambers; the genders were divided, all sleeping in bleak double-decker steel bunks jammed close together in a grey, windowless dormitory. A bookshelf provided some copies of the Reader’s Digest compendiums and The Andromeda Strain. There were no televisions, no radios, and no access to the outdoors. An enormous reinforced concrete door sealed the members inside.Before admission, they stripped and stepped into showers, then were dressed in camouflage fatigues and herded to their dormitory. Three times a day, they went to an enormous cafeteria to eat, the floor a dizzying design of black and white squares that our guides explained was designed to hurry them out.
Our tour ended with a long display of the electrical and water systems and the giant incinerators that took care of, or were supposed to take care of, all needs. An infirmary was stocked with plenty of meds, useful in the case of dissatisfaction, and riot helmets and sticks awaited to deal with members who tried to rebel.
Our tour group included several children who looked dazed. They probably had never heard of the Cold War and its excesses of paranoia, which continue to stain public consciousness today, producing, for example, the new administration’s strictures on Cuba. The adults politely looked and listened without any evidence of shock or even surprise. This hideous installation would remain unknown to this day, its systems updated and kept running, its water and frozen food supplies maintained, if The Washington Post had not revealed its existence.
This led me to wonder how many other secrets and secret hiding places remain, unrevealed. Now that newspapers have cut their staffs to the bone, there are few if any investigative reporters or publishers willing to hire them, and the public seems at times too dazed by entertainment and consumerism to care much about what our government is doing.
But we can be sure it is doing something of which we know nothing.
Of course, my great-grandmother knew as much about denial as anyone living today, blocking out the stench of the dead in nearby Civil War battlegrounds with memories of those balls at “The Old White.”