TOWER Guest Writer

Fifty years ago, in October 1962, I watched President Kennedy’s live TV address to the nation warning of the consequences of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union on the Western Hemisphere.

The Soviets had been caught red-handed (they were known as “Reds,” after all) placing offensive atomic weapons on the island of their ally, Cuba. These rockets, once fired, could reach many of the major cities in the Eastern U.S. My hometown in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia was three hours from Washington, D.C., so if World War III broke out, we’d suffer the consequences of fallout. And the expected spring tour of D.C. by those of us who were serving as traffic-safety patrol boys that school year?  Forget it. This really upset me.

In my sixth-grade class, we marked the occasion with profanity-laced commentary on the playground each recess, condemning Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Cuba’s dictator Fidel Castro, and their henchmen as only little sixth-graders, proficient in the latest cuss words, could do. I won’t reprint these epithets here, but be assured that the Commies received a sound verbal whipping from us—shortly before our voices would deepen in adolescence—as we killed time during recess on a set of ancient stone steps leading into the playground.

So now the President was publicly challenging—and privately negotiating with—Khrushchev to let reason prevail. We watched the news anxiously. The Cold War, the missile race, the space race, and the rest of it hadn’t really touched our daily lives in our small town until now. My grandmother, who worked at the county health department, had handed out Civil Defense literature; I carried a card with instructions on how to respond to various sirens. One type of siren blast would signal that an attack was imminent, and we school kids were then supposed to “duck and cover” under our desks to protect us from the fire ball. Yeah, right. Another, different siren was meant to be the all-clear signal to come out from hiding and see what was left of our world. It was expected that the silver lining in all of this was that school would be cancelled for the duration of World War III.

The only problem with our preparations was that our local fire department’s siren seemed to have one speed—long and loud. So it would be difficult to determine when to take cover and when to emerge.

I worried that my family didn’t have a fallout shelter. Such had become an industry as Americans stockpiled food, water, portable radios and batteries, board games like Parcheesi, and Geiger counters meant to last a family of four for a month until the fallout blew over. I asked my mother where our fallout shelter was to be.

“Oh, I suppose we could go over to your grandmother’s basement,” she said. “That should do. It could be damp in there, though.” She promised to set aside some canned goods, just in case. We made sure the Parcheesi set was intact.

As to the space race, the Russians had beaten us with Sputnik, the world’s first man-made satellite, whose launch into outer space several years before signaled that they could deliver a missile attack on us, too. I had also stayed up to watch coverage the previous year of the first human in space, Yuri Gagarin—their guy, not ours. I think by that point we were still fooling around with astro-chimps to test our space capsules, and a lot of our rockets had blown up on ignition at Cape Canaveral.

Khrushchev himself seemed something of a buffoon, pounding his shoe at the United Nations, threatening Kennedy with a lot of fat-faced bluster, and now doing something really stupid with those missiles in Cuba. The U.S. had him dead to rights, however, with U-2 surveillance photos that revealed the Soviets’ intent to turn parts of Cuba into an atomic launching pad.  The once-remote possibility of World War III suddenly seemed more immediate. Time was running out.

Undoubtedly somewhere in America, some guy was making a case to his girlfriend that she shouldn’t perish untouched in a nuclear holocaust.

Initially, I saw the Cuban Missile Crisis, as did many of my classmates, as a convenient way to avoid doing homework, brushing one’s teeth, and going to bed on time. These outcomes would offset the incineration of Washington and the cancellation of our patrol-boy trip. I was also still upset with JFK because his emphasis on national health and fitness had turned part of each recess into a calisthenics course. Did you ever try to do jumping jacks in a long winter coat?

Still, when the President’s face flashed onto our black-and-white television screen, he looked plenty worried. The words “full retaliatory response on the Soviet Union” didn’t sound like an idle threat. We began to hear about family members in the service who’d been put on full alert. I don’t think we knew it at the time, but the Soviets had hedged their bets with tactical nuclear weapons available to destroy our chances of a successful ground invasion of Cuba. Once those were fired, we learned later, there would have been no turning back.

Our teachers in school soldiered on as best they could, teaching us about native tribes in the Amazon, dinosaurs, long arithmetic division, and other hot topics. Somebody mentioned that Nixon, not Kennedy, should have been elected in 1960. The Commies were scared of what “Tricky Dick” might do, so it was said, and now here they were pushing around President Fitness.

Finally, after about two weeks of tension, the whole thing blew over. Khrushchev pulled his missiles out of Cuba and sent them home. The Civil Defense cards went back into our wallets. We kids recalled our anti-Communist cussing.

I never made the patrol-boy trip to Washington the next spring. Mononucleosis, not the Soviet Union, felled me. About a year after the Missile Crisis, Kennedy himself was dead from the assassin’s bullets in Dallas. My first thought was that Khrushchev had ordered it in revenge for his humiliation in Cuba. Speculation about that would go on for years. I thought of what had been said about Nixon, and realized that JFK had handled the missile crisis correctly. The two super powers had successfully stepped away from annihilation.

Life went on. We beat the Russians to the moon. The nuclear threat subsided. In college, a decade after the Missile Crisis, I finally quit carrying the Civil Defense card with its instructions. In the basement of one of my classroom buildings at West Virginia University were rows of canisters of stockpiled water and non-perishable food, stored there a long time before, just in case. The Soviet Union itself eventually collapsed from its own misguided spending on armaments.

Before it did, I visited Moscow and Leningrad in the early 1980’s, in the depths of a Russian winter. In the cities, the reality seemed grim, poor, and run down. It was hard to imagine that this Communist society, ordered and regimented as it was, had been our Cold-War enemy. I felt sorry for the people whose deadened faces stared vacantly from grimy bus windows, who waited in long lines hoping to be able to buy something of value. Before our tour was concluded, we were permitted to pay our respects at the final resting spot of the Soviets’ celebrated space man, Gagarin, installed with a hero’s burial in the Kremlin Wall. His achievement, I thought as I stood in the snow, had come at enormous cost to the Russian people.

Years later, the local Board of Education in my hometown tore down the main building of our old graded school. Today those stone steps where we stood and swore in October 1962 remain, leading now to a non-existent playground. There is little left of our world as we knew it then, but more to the point, the world is still here.


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