Bunker Door


The Great Bunker Adventure

Hamilton Air Force Base in Novato (decommissioned in 1974 and since repurposed into a vibrant residential neighborhood) is still home to a cluster of wartime concrete bunkers built to store ammunition. Ten of them form a ring around the aptly-named Ammo Hill, and although signs everywhere identify it as Army property and to keep out, the site is easily accessed on foot. Each bunker was built into the hill revealing only a concrete facade with a massive iron door, secured by one or two long hasps and a no-nonsense padlock. Facing this door, about 20 feet away, is a tall cinderblock wall with earth mounded against the back of it. Standing between the wall and the bunker feels like being in a tiny canyon, and each bunker has its own, often overgrown, loop off the main road.

The years have taken their toll on these bunkers, long since they served their original purpose. Rust, nature and graffiti have combined to make them silent exhibits of the variety of ways in which things can decay. One of my favorite activities is to take close-up photos of their peeling, defaced surfaces and corroding hardware as a form of abstract art.

I had always wonderied what was behind those hulking doors, and one Saturday, I found out. While framing an image, I noticed the usual padlock was missing. The hasp was still in its position, but could now be swung out of the way and the door opened. Cautiously, I swung the hasp to the left and opened the door.

It seemed pitch black at first but Immediately I was aware that the acoustics in there were extraordinary…each step sounded like a gunshot. Stomping on the concrete floor sounded like a cannon. As my eyes got accustomed to the low light I could see that the bunker was like the interior of a quonset hut or an upside down half-pipe, with a high ceiling. The walls were decorated with spray can art…not exactly graffiti, but murals intended to remain, done in a scruffy, urban fashion. All the surfaces were concrete, and its effect on the acoustics was profound. I found an empty soda can on the floor and dropped it. It sounded like a train wreck. I sang Amazing Grace. I made a video. I decided to buy my own padlock.

Armed with a new Master Lock from Pini Hardware, I returned to the bunker, intent on securing this audio playground for my personal use. I had also brought a harmonica, and after a period of of excessively echo-y harmonica playing, I locked the bunker, put the key in my pocket and walked home.

My bunker became a weekend retreat to which I returned often. I took out all the empty spray paint and soda cans which filled two large trash bags. A pallet became a makeshift stage and I made videos with a small tripod. I bought a toy piano at a garage sale and left it there. I researched the shortest way to get there, as it’s about a mile and a half from my house, in case I could get some of my musician friends to check it out. I never stayed too long, though, although I never had anyone poke their head in while I was making noise, I didn’t want to have to explain my presence to anyone. For months it remained my little secret.

Then, on a bunker tour, I saw another bunker without a lock or a working door, and realized that I could buy the parts it needed. So I got a 6” x 1’2” bolt, nut and another lock. After spray-painting the head of the bolt flat black to mask its shininess, I bolted the flange back onto the door and tested the lock. Everything worked perfectly. I now had two bunkers under my control. I named this one the West Bunker and the other one the North Bunker.

I continued to photograph the outsides and enjoy the insides of the bunkers. I brought a guitar, I brought a mandolin. I tried different types of sounds to see how they interacted with the echo. I made videos with my dog, Kona. I had memorable experiences, such as the time I discovered a 1-foot rattlesnake sleeping in the hinge of the door to the West Bunker.

My frequent visits to the bunkers paid off, as I discovered a third unlocked bunker which became the South Bunker. I got a keychain to hold the three keys that now secured bunkers for my own personal messing around. I was building an empire. I wanted to control them all.

I envisioned cleaning them up and running them as experimental audio laboratories for musicians, artists and hobbyists. I wrote a Kickstarter proposal and made a video about the bunkers. Life was good for a bunker manager. But the empire would not last.

On a visit to the North Bunker, I noticed a different lock…someone had apparently cut thru mine, removed it, and replaced it with their own. I had no way of knowing whether it was the Army or another bunker crasher, but I had to concede it to whomever, unless I wanted to go through as many rounds of lock destroying as they did. Unfortunately, that’s where I had left my toy piano. At least I had two bunkers left.

Some weeks later I noticed that there was no longer a lock on the West Bunker, and the door was slightly ajar. I peeked in and saw a silhouette of a guy, smoking a cigarette, against the wall. I moved on, not wanting to engage with some random bolt-cutting bunker stealer. On subsequent visits I noticed that the new tenant was using a bicycle lock wrapped around the hardware to look locked, but if you looked closely, it wasn’t. I also had the experience of being suddenly face to face with a pretty normal-looking guy and a golden retriever in front of the bunker…the only possible explanation being that he emerged from the bunker itself.

Still, I had the South Bunker. I packed a harmonica on my trips and practiced my favorite blues licks in the thick reverb, taking note of the continuing decay of the exterior and changes to the murals on the facing walls, and taking photos when the spirit moved me.

One day this past spring, I invited a friend to my stomping grounds for a hike, in return for an earlier hike in his neighborhood. I had planned to let him experience the inside of the bunker, and I brought a key and a harmonca. As we approached the door to the South Bunker, I noticed with dismay that the hasp that the padlock normally went through had been welded to the flange, shutting the door for good, unless you happen to have a portable arc welder.

We toured the remaining bunkers and found the same thing…doors welded shut. Likely it was the Army, not wanting to be responsible for harboring an “attractive nuisance” or something, but whoever it was, it marked the unhappy ending to my great bunker adventure. I wonder if they will ever be opened again, and for what purpose. It sure was great fun.