Castro and My Cold War Childhood

mad-magazine-castro-jfk

My cold war childhood filled with cold war warriors could easily have turned hot if not for MAD… oh, and our nuclear policy of Mutually Assured Destruction too. Mad Magazine covers (L) Fidel Castro October 1963 (R) JFK October 1961

Though a half a century apart, November now marks the death of two Cold War icons.

Just four days after the anniversary of the assassination of President John Kennedy, his nemesis Cuba’s Communist leader Fidel Castro has died at age 90.

Both loomed large in my cold war childhood.

Fidel Castro cover Life Magazine

Any Communist foothold in our Hemisphere seemed an affront. Life Magazine June 2, 1961 Fidel Castro

It is hard to imagine today the dark shadow cast by Castro extended all the way to a suburban N.Y. child.

That the fear of communism represented by the bearded bombastic Fidel Castro on a small island 90 miles from Florida could so menace an entire hemisphere seems today almost inconceivable.

castro-invasion-comic

But panicked Americans were convinced Castro and his Communist cohorts were aiming to undermine the influence of the US and break ties with Latin America which was in the United States sphere of influence.

Communist control in Cuba it was feared would trigger similar uprisings throughout Latin America and so extend Soviet Influence.

More importantly, not only did Castro bring the cold war  to our hemisphere, he brought it right into our homes,

No more so than during the Cuban Missile Crisis, those harrowing 13 days in October 1962 when Castro and Khrushchev  nearly brought us to the brink of thermonuclear war.

It is a story I have never forgotten and it is worth remembering again.

Measle’s Crisis of October

health measles crisis of Coctober

There was a time when measles was all but wiped out

I didn’t know until years later that they called it the Cuban Missile Crisis. In my mind it would always be remembered as the “German Measles Crisis.”

It was late October, and trick or treating  was just a few short weeks away.

For that years Halloween my parents had picked out our Halloween costumes for my older brother Andy and I. There would be no glittering fairy princess with a magic wand for me. No ghosts or goblins for my brother.  No, my parents had something more ghoulish in mind.

vintage Halloween mask Castro

Vintage Halloween mask Fidel Castro

Mom and Dad thought it a hoot to costume their children as Soviet Leader Nikita Khrushchev and Cuba’s very own Fidel Castro.What better way to keep a cold war chill in the air than to dress my brother and I as those 2 lovable cold war communist cut ups.

But as luck would have it, I came down with a nasty case of the measles.

The itchy red spots were spreading from my face to my body as quickly as Communist aggression was visualized on maps and films at school.

Those scary red splotches of Communism shown slithering around the globe, oozing over continents, a ready reminder that the Russians were hell-bent on world conquest, were a familiar feature in My Weekly Reader.

Now the measles red rash was on its own expansionist path with me.

German Measles

Illustration of German Measles and vintage Nazi stamp

German Measles were goose-stepping across my ravaged body. (R) Vintage German Nazi Stamp “Victory at Any Price”

To make matters worse, I learned it wasn’t just plain old measles.

They were German Measles; Nazi measles goose-stepping across my ravaged body.

Despite having been born a full decade after the end of WWII, which in a child’s mind is an eternity, I was tormented by the very thought of Nazis.

I used to have nightmares that men in brown shirts, black jack boots, and wide Sam Browne belts, rank and file members of the Nazi Party would storm into my suburban ranch house, lustily humming the Nazi anthem Hort Wessel Song, brutally taking me away.

Now the Germans and their horrors fused with the Russians and their nuclear bombs, and there was nothing to stop the fiery red rash that was charging across my 7-year-old body.

Monday

vintage photo doctor making house calls

House Calls

Monday, October 22 began as sunny clear day. A burnish of autumn on the sycamore trees that lined my suburban block made everything look peaceful and predictable.

But all was not quite on the Western Park Drive front.

Inside my house things were anything but peaceful; I awoke with a fever, sore throat, blotchy skin and the streaming morning light burned my watery, red-rimmed eyes.

My body was clearly sending out distress signals. With a sinking feeling about the telltale rash, Mom called the doctor.

Within the hour my pediatrician came to the house and confirmed the diagnosis.

The spots had Deutschland written all over them – German Measles – Rubella.

Solemnly my pediatrician Dr. King informed me that to prevent the spread of the very contagious disease, I would have to be quarantined.

Like a heat seeking missile, a careless sneeze, or an explosive cough could shoot troublesome germs in your direction at a mile a minute speed. In case they invaded the tissues of your throat, you could be in for a cold, or…worse.

I was to get back to bed mach schnell. And stay there.

Think Pink

Besides bed-rest, baby aspirin and fluids there was no cure. A big brown bottle of soothing Calamine lotion along with a suggestion to clip my fingernails to stop me from the inevitable scratching were the doctors best suggestions.

Not even the venerable Ben Casey could come to my rescue.

There was no debate about the merits of a vaccine because there were none. A vaccine would become available for measles in 1963, a rubella vaccine wouldn’t exist until the end of the decade.

The Longest Day

Missiles Cuba Collage

Mom had already had her longest day dealing with the measles crisis when the Cuban Missile Crisis was announced. (R) Headline of NY Daily News announcing the Cuban blockade

October 22 was also my parent’s 12th wedding anniversary.

They had planned on going to the movies that evening to see “The Longest Day”, that star-studded spectacle about D Day the Normandy invasion.

But now that our normally germ-proof home had itself been invaded with a contagious disease, plans were promptly cancelled.

John Wayne would have to wait.

Besides which my parents were anxious to watch President Kennedy’s live broadcast on television that evening.

Panic Goes Viral

kennedy-addresses-cuban-missile-crisis-television-1962

President John Kennedy addressed the nation of the Cuban Missile Crisis on television

At noon while Mom was preparing lunch, JFK’s press secretary Pierre Salinger had made a dramatic announcement that the president would speak that night “on a matter of the highest national urgency.”

The crisis that was brewing in Cuba that had begun a week earlier had been kept top-secret. Now with rumors circulating, there was a nearly unbearable sense of foreboding and tension.

Across the country while American’s eyes would be fixed on their TV sets gripped in the most intense moment of recent history, I was confined to my bedroom without a TV. At a loss, I trained my ears to tune in to the console playing in the living room.

We Interrupt This Program…

At 7:00, I could hear the TV announcer from the popular game show based on the game charades saying: “Stump the Stars will not be seen tonight so that we can bring you this special broadcast….”

Along with 50 million other Americans my parents listened in pin-drop silence as President Kennedy spoke about Cuba.

Sitting behind his desk, a solemn President Kennedy got right to the point. This was no time to play charades.

He grimly announced to a shocked nation that Russia had sneaked missiles into Cuba just 90 miles from Florida. Along with the Offensive Missiles, Khrushchev had deployed bombs and 40,000 Soviet troops.

Fidel Castro welcomed them with open arms.

The alarming evidence from photographs showed that nearly every city from Lima, Peru to Hudson Bay, Canada would lie within push button range of thermonuclear bombs in Cuba.

Panic was about to go viral

Cuba Missile crisis distances-of-major-cities-from-cuba

Every major US city would lie within push button range of thermonuclear bombs in Cuba.

“To halt this offensive build up,” a determined Kennedy said, “a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment to Cuba is being initiated.” The Navy’s mission was to block the flow of Russian weapons to Cuba.

Like me, the Russians would have a quarantine imposed on them but Dad wasn’t convinced this was the best tactic. It might work for preventing the spread of the measles but not for the missiles. If Russians didn’t withdraw the missiles as demanded, a U.S. pre-emptive strike against the launch site was inevitable.

The United States would not shrink from the threat of nuclear war to preserve the peace and freedom of Western Hemisphere, Kennedy said firmly.

The President’s voice faded away as my parents grimly turned to another channel to watch “I’ve Got a Secret.”

Struggling with the ramifications of what they just heard, the longest day was about to get a lot longer.

A Rash Decision

Health of Nation Cuba Missile Crisis

Temperatures were rising as the Cold War heated up. (R) JFK clashed with some military advisers about invading Cuba. After criticizing Kennedy’s call to blockade Cuba as too weak a response, General Curtis LeMay Air Force Chief of Staff (seated closest to JFK in photo) told the President that his refusal to invade Cuba was a mistake and would encourage the Soviets to move on Berlin. Photo by Abbie Rowe National Archives

As the cold war heated up so did my fever, and I was wracked with chills.

Despite being doused with great blotches of pink calamine lotion I was struggling not to scratch the angry rash that was invading my body.

Hot and bothered, the US military were having the same problem.

Just itching to go to war, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had to restrain themselves from scratching that very dangerous itch.

The Soviets had crossed the line. They had come into our Hemisphere, their nuclear warheads aimed directly at us and we had to make sure they didn’t strike first. The time had come for a direct military showdown with the Soviet Union.

Luckily cooler heads prevailed.

We Can Work it Out?

jfk-khrushchev cuban-missile-crisis-cartoon

JFK and Khrushchev arm wrestling for power as they sit astride nuclear weapons in this Oct 29, 1962 cartoon.

On Wednesday, when Soviet ships changed course rather than make contact with the naval blockade, there was some relief.

No new weapons were being shipped to Cuba. But Hi-ho-hi-ho it was off to work they go as industrious red dwarfs continued to work day and night on the existing missiles which would soon be operational.

The pressure on the President to order an air strike or an invasion was mounting.

As the tension grew, many atomic armchair strategists felt strongly that the best defense was offense – get ‘em before they hit us. “If the Russian offensive build up continued, Kennedy would have no choice but to unleash the mighty US force,” Dad remarked  gravely.

Russian nuclear retaliation would be inevitable.

Going on the Defensive

collage Fallout Booklet and picture of child with measles

Short of building a fallout shelter, there was little anyone could do about the missile crisis, but it was all out war on the measles at my home. (L) Vintage booklet “Fallout Protection Kit” for your shelter

An air of crisis hung over the country.

Short of building a fallout shelter, there was little anyone could do about the missile crisis, but it was all out war on the measles at my home.

Prepared to do battle, Mom took the offensive with the pre-emptive striking power of Lysol, Lestoil and Listerine, to immobilize and incapacitate any rogue germs. There was a full frontal attack on dirt – every counter every surface in the house was scoured and sanitized, hands were washed and rewashed until skin wrinkled and puckered.

School Daze

Atomic Bomb Coloring Book

A Page out of history (L) Vintage illustration from “Our Country Historical Color Book” 1958 depicting the Atomic Blast at Hiroshima

With the containment policy strictly enforced, the days passed slowly for me but I busied myself with Colorforms, Crayolas and coloring books.What better way to pass the crisis than coloring in a picture of the Atomic Blast at Hiroshima in my American History Coloring Book.

Barricaded in my bedroom, I could still hear the ominous sound of the air raid drill alarm ringing every few hours at West Hempstead High School a few blocks away. I could picture all the frightened school kids jumping out of their desks as I had done countless times, kneeling underneath desks, hands clasped behind necks, eyes closed waiting for that imminent flash.

I had little sense how school officials were currently scurrying to make all sorts of contingency plans for what seemed like the possibility of a real attack.

Several years earlier, my school district had developed a plan for evacuating elementary school kids in the event of a threatened enemy air raid upon N.Y.C. We had been issued plastic dog tags with our picture and address on it that we were to wear in case of an attack.

collage vintage illustration school children and Atom Bomb attack duck n cover

School Day drills (R) In a photograph published in Colliers Magazine June 1952, schoolchildren in Nevada practice what they have been told to do in case of an Atomic attack:lie flat on the ground, shield their eyes with one arm and protect their head with the other arm

On Thursday my fifth grade brother brought home a printed permission slip for my parents to sign, allowing students to participate in a practice walk-home air raid drill.

In case of emergency it was thought better to be incinerated at home rather than at school.

Irritable and impatient as only a sick 7-year-old could be, I was deeply disappointed that I would miss out on the fun of the walk home drill. Pleading with Mom to let me out of my sick room long enough to view the march, I wistfully watched from the living room window as my classmates, lined up in size order, earnestly paraded down my deserted block.

The loud roar of an overhead jet temporarily distracted me.

Anxiously I scanned the blue skies from our picture window for an enemy attack, as though it were WWII and I were a spotter standing on a rooftop scanning the skies for the sight of a Japanese flag painted on the belly of the aircraft.

I was too young to comprehend the total annihilation of nuclear war. All I knew was, we were to be prepared. I knew a nuclear attack could occur any time anyplace any day. Would this be the day?

My parents would shake their heads, as they watched me but neither of them had the heart to tell me what they already knew – that now, by the time you eyed the enemy…it was already too late.

Tossin’ and Turnin’

collage Missile Crisis and the Measles Crisis

By Saturday I had taken all the orange flavored St. Joseph aspirin that I could, yet my fever had still not broken. Along with the shivering and shaking, there was a whole lot of tossin and turnin’ as the red splotches of German Measles continued their assault goose-stepping across my body.

A vaporizer had been brought in to help with the breathing and between the fog and my feverish delirium, disparate sounds and thoughts merged in my mind, as I drifted between states of fractured foggy wakefulness and fitful sleep.

Have Gun Will Travel

Blending with the hushed anxious tones of my parents, the shrill, ear-piercing, buzzing signals on the radio during the CONELRAD broadcasting system tests and the ominous news bulletins, were the incessant commercials constantly blaring on TV…

“…..And now a word from our sponsor… This is only a test…In a world threatened by thermonuclear holocaust…. it’s new…. its different….it….gives the surest protection-the new Missiles with Gardol, wonderful new Anti-Russian fighter forms an invisible shield of radioactivity around them….They can’t feel it – taste it – see it – but its protection won’t rinse off or wear off all day, just like New Pepsodent…..

“…Don’t settle for wishy -washy conventional weapons….New deep penetrating Thermonuclear Bombs bring speedy relief from Reds…. Goes in-goes in fast….help restore restful democracy, relieves pesky Russian interference…

“Yes, fast acting Ajax the white tornado…. Ajax missiles kill millions of people associated with Communism, ..Reaches all infected areas in minutes….shrinks populations, restores free way of life. An exclusive anti communist Ingredient….That’s all there is to it…

“…This is not a test…we now return to Have Gun Will Travel…If this had been an actual emergency ….. take 2 aspirin and call me in the morning…”

As hot as I was with fever I knew things were only going to get a lot hotter once this thermonuclear war began.

On Sunday morning my fever broke and Moscow announced their decision to dismantle the missiles and return to sender. I wouldn’t understand until years later that the Russians backed off or as Dean Rusk was to famously say “We were eyeball to eyeball and they blinked first.”

Though my fever and measles eventually healed, the cold war chill I caught that week would never leave me.

© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

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19 comments

  1. The best anti nuclear war song ever?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lynn

    Thank you for an excellent summary of those frightening times. I wish I had saved my Mad magazines!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was a very scary time indeed, rivaled on;ly bu the state we find ourselves in now. And as an aside, those MAD magazine article really stand the test of time. Just as bitingly sarcastic and smart as they were decades ago

      Like

  3. Another anti war song from the new Nobel laureate Bob Dylan, sung by his ex Joan Baez, who seems to have it as one of her favorittes. Most people seem to have coupled this with the Vietnam war – but I think this is a little short sighted. I thought from the day I first heard it, of an all out thermonuclear war, judging from the last lines in each verse, even if the approach is a surrealistic poem
    Farewell, Angelina, the sky is on fire and I must go
    Means farewell, Angelina, the sky is trembling and I must leave
    Farewell, Angelina, the sky is changing color, I’ll see you in a while
    But farewell, Angelina, the sky’s changing color and I must leave fast
    But farewell, Angelina, the sky is embarrassed and I must be gone
    But farewell, Angelina, the sky is erupting, I must go where it’s quiet
    But the scene with the man leaving his woman, going to war, is an eternal one since the dawn of man.
    (In my youth, I thought that the odds were less than 50-50 to be spared a war in the near future, and if there was a war, my chances to survive it would be less than 1 in 10)

    Like

  4. One of the very best movies on the subject is not well known. Judging from the web, the the response from those who have watched it is very split – “I regret watching it! It has ruined my life!” to “This is the best”-
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097889/

    (Out of topic: One of the best Sci-Fi movies, also not well known, has the global warming as a key feature in the plot – quite different from the environmentalists or the denial conspirators
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097889/
    But the follow up, ‘2’, is very lousy)

    Like

  5. This was a great piece of memoir. Of all the memories I have of the sixties, the Cuban Missile Crisis is one of the first I remember so vividly. During that time, I was living in Fort Worth, Texas. There was a SAC Air Force Base there as well as several defense plants. My family and the family of friends all believed that Fort Worth would be one of the cities for the first strike if the Russians fired their missiles. It was truly a scary time. We breathed a huge sigh of relief when it was over and thanked our Creator for bringing us safely through it. In the history of the Cold War, I don’t think there was a time when we came closer to annihilation. All that goes to show is how fortunate we were to have the leaders we had then.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Glad you enjoyed it Don. It is only in recent times that we realize how very close we came to nuclear war. The Russians had been instructed to launch the missiles if we attacked Cuba which many were advising JFK to do. Cooler heads prevailed. One can only shudder if presented with such a scenario today under Trumps ” leadership”

    Like

  7. It is a very good article. We were told to hide under our desks at school. It was supposed to prevent us from being vaporized by a nuclear explosion. Children to young to know. Comedian Lewis Black remembers it too.

    Like

  8. Reblogged this on Journalism as Art and commented:
    most people were happy to see the Berlin Wall come down. The so-called “free world” dramatically expanded.

    Like

  9. Thank you for a trip down memory lane.

    Like

  10. Pingback: Castro and My Cold War Childhood — Envisioning The American Dream | rodneywallacegantt

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