That 1959 Miami Herald headline proved prophetic for Melvin and Maria Mininson who, after a celebrated two-week honeymoon in a Miami fallout shelter, have remained happily married for an amazing 41 years.
The pair whose civil defense stunt was featured in numerous newspapers and magazines including LIFE and PRAVDA recall that they had already been seeing each other casually for ten years when, on a date, they heard a radio promotion for an unusual contest. The station, in conjunction with Bomb Shelters, Inc. (a firm whose business card featured a mushroom cloud and the slogan "It will save your life."), were seeking a couple willing to marry and then immediately spend two weeks in a fallout shelter. A "real" all-expenses-paid Mexican honeymoon was promised to the winners.
Reflecting back on the moment that changed their lives, Mel Mininson says with a hearty laugh, "I just looked over at Maria and we both knew it was now or never!" The Mininsons are quick to point out, however, that contest or no contest they would have eventually taken the matrimonial plunge. The convergence of geopolitics, commerce and luck merely served to expedite their vows.
The bride-and-groom-to-be were chosen from among at least one hundred similarly nuptial-minded teams. Paul Indianer, the shelter company owner, remembers that he chose Mel and Maria because he noticed on the entry form that Mel was a graduate of Miami Beach Senior High, Mr. Indianer’s alma mater. Maria’s stunning appearance did not hurt their chances either. So on July 12, 1959, the winning couple tied the knot in an outdoor ceremony attended by friends, family and county officials.
Directly after the reception - wedding cake leftovers in tow - the newly minted Mininsons descended into a 12-ft. deep, 6 x 14ft. wide shelter - and the annals of Atomic Pop Culture. Sheriff Tom Kelly, Chief of Dade County Civil Defense, officially sealed the Exit Hatch and a large calendar - marking the days until that seal would be broken - sat waiting to be X-'d off as each of the 14 days passed.
One of the first things that Mel and Maria noticed about their honeymoon suite was how hot it was. On some days the temperature would exceed 90 degrees. They later learned that this was due to the fact that the concrete in the brand new shelter had not yet properly cooled. Indeed, the 22-ton structure had been built in a hurry to meet the demands of the contest schedule.
When not taking Noxzema sponge baths to beat the heat, the Mininsons were kept busy with a strict regime of Civil Defense-issued tasks like applying lime to their chemical toilet and operating the air filtration system with a hand crank. C.D. officials were also obsessed with food preparation in the shelter. "They wanted to know how we prepared the food, what we prepared, what cans we used, why we didn’t eat the peanut butter…" says a still bemused Mel. They also played cards and argued vigorously over the finer points on the rules of checkers. All this activity combined with the publicity machine that whirled above them left little time for boredom.
Indeed, Maria recalls that while they may very well have been safe from fallout, they were never shielded from the intense "above ground" interest in their adventure. The shelter hotline practically rang off the hook: "Our parents, Civil Defense, the newspapers or the radio station would call us every hour on the hour... My mother-in-law would shout, 'Are you OK down there, Maria?'"
The daily debriefings of the Mininsons and the media coverage of the event mimicked certain aspects of the nation’s burgeoning fascination with the space race. The Mininsons were treated like Cold War pioneers on a mission for Civil Defense. Of course, the sexual subtext of newlyweds in a bomb shelter was also hard for the media and the public to resist. Even the staid LIFE magazine had its reporter inquire of the couple whether there would be any little Mininsons running around anytime soon. The affirmative answer to that impolite question would have to wait another ten years.
On July 25, 1959 a bearded Mel and a beaming Maria emerged from the "officially unsealed" Escape Hatch. After a celebratory dinner featuring entertainment by Henny Youngman, the Mininsons embarked upon their second honeymoon, and, gradually, the rest of their private lives. "There was a lot interest when it happened and then it sort of faded away..." remembers Maria who adds that no one - before CONELRAD - had ever approached her or her husband for a follow-up story on their post-shelter years.
Today, the obviously still-in-love couple expresses shock that anyone—including their 31-year-old daughter—would find their unusual honeymoon interesting anymore. Loretta, who is the Mininsons’ only child, found out about her parents’ exploits just a couple of years ago from a third party and says she is still amazed by it all: "My parents are a part of history," she enthuses. "We moved on with our lives," laughs Maria who rose to the rank of Deputy Director in Florida’s Refugee Services program during a 33-year career before her retirement. Mel is in the industrial chemical and supplies business with no plans of slowing down.
Asked how they felt about being used as spokesmodels for Civil Defense, the Mininsons say they have fond memories of "raising the consciousness" of the public, though they had no illusions about whether their steel-reinforced lovenest would have survived a direct hit. Rather, they say they thought it would have been more effective in protection from radiation. Maria, who is both good humored and wise, views some of the Civil Defense contingency plans of the era as being a means to "keep people from panicking." She continues, "It was a frightening time for everybody because things could escalate and the button could be pushed..."
Having done their bit for their country, the Mininsons are preoccupied with more personal matters now. In addition to cherishing time with their two-month-old grandson William, they are seeking a kidney donor for Mel who has been on dialysis for a little over a year. They are confident they will find a match soon, though Maria wishes Mel’s doctors would have allowed her to donate one of her kidneys.
When asked finally if they have any advice for today’s post-Cold War couples who might be altar bound, Mel answers, "Marriage is like a job, you have to stick with it." Maria offers, "Take your time, get to know each other before you get married. That way there won’t be any surprises."So, were there any surprises in that shelter 41 years ago? Yes, one of the Mininsons - and we still aren’t sure who - cheats at checkers.
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