The cold war chill I caught as a child is directly connected to events that happened sixty years ago today. The Cuban Missile Crisis gave me a case of nuclear jitters that have stayed with me ever since.
Now, just in time for this year’s 60th anniversary of that crisis, the cold war is being taken out of the deep freeze.
With Russian nuclear threats hanging over our heads, President Biden recently called the prospect of Armageddon the highest since that cold war crisis which nearly turned hot. The risk of atomic war has not been as real since 1962.
That chronic case of atomic anxiety that has chased me for 6 decades is being reactivated. I don’t know about the readiness state of our military, but my nuclear anxiety radar has moved into DEFCON 2 mode.
Seeing headlines like the one from Time Magazine asking ominously “Would Putin Roll the Nuclear Dice?” is déjà vu all over again. The dangerous game of nuclear chicken that was constantly played out between Nikita Khrushchev and John Kennedy, is not a game I ever want to witness again.
Though I’m just short of contemplating building a fallout shelter, memories of those terrifying times flood back.
Duck n’ Covering With Dick and Jane
Even before those alarming 13 days in October, it was a time when most Americans assumed the U.S. and the Soviets stood continually on the brink of nuclear war.
During my first week of kindergarten in 1960 I was indoctrinated into the cold war world I would be growing up in.
That is if I would indeed actually get to grow up and not be incinerated.
Along with being given my very own Dick, Jane, and Sally workbook, I was issued a dog tag with my photo, address, and telephone number written on it that we were to wear in case of an attack for identification. Several years earlier, my suburban school district in Franklin Square N.Y. had developed a plan for evacuating elementary school kids in the event of a threatened enemy air raid upon N.Y.C. The school board felt this was a good idea.
Unlike the shiny metal ones issued to GIs like my father, this one was a clear plastic case with paper inserted in between. That the flimsy case would melt immediately in the event of a nuclear attack proving it utterly useless, did not seem to cross the school committee’s mind.
Along with a pair of sturdy saddle shoes and a plaid jumper, the dog tag became part of my school uniform for the first few years of my elementary school life.
I quickly became accustomed to a school day filled with the ominous sound of the air raid drill alarm ringing every few weeks.
At the sound of the alarm, like Pavlovian dogs sporting our dog tags, we would all jump out of our desks, kneel underneath them, hands clasped behind our necks, eyes closed, waiting for that imminent flash. Or at other times as the sound of the alarm, we would line up in size order, and walk silently out of the classroom to crouch in the hallways. With my eyes shut tightly in fear, the feel of the cold tiles would my last memory before the bomb hit.
I never forgot the lesson that our world could someday end in a flash of light and heat while we were crouched helplessly under our desks.
My cold war childhood filled with cold war warriors could easily have turned hot
In 1962 when I was in second grade it nearly did.
The Longest Day
Monday, October 22, 1962 began as a sunny clear day. A burnish of autumn on the sycamore trees that lined my suburban block made everything look peaceful and predictable.
But inside my ranch house, things were anything but peaceful; I awoke that morning with a fever, sore throat, and blotchy skin. The early morning light streaming through my pink organza-draped windows burned my watery, red-rimmed eyes. With a sinking feeling about the telltale rash, my mother called the doctor. Within the hour my pediatrician came to our house toting his black, worn leather bag filled with instruments. After a quick exam performed while seated on my bed, Dr. King confirmed the diagnosis.
The spots had Deutschland written all over them – German Measles-Rubella.
As he placed his stethoscope back in his bag, he informed me that to prevent the spread of the very contagious disease, I would have to be quarantined. These German measles were quickly goose-stepping across my ravaged body, he chuckled to Mom, as fast as Hitler had raced across Europe.
I was to get back to bed mach schnell. And stay there.
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.
There was no debate about the merits of a vaccine because there were none. A vaccine would become available for measles in 1963, and a rubella vaccine wouldn’t exist until the end of the decade.
A Change of Plans
October 22 was also my parent’s 12th wedding anniversary.
Along with dinner at Le Maison Pepe a local French Bistro, they had planned on going to the movies that evening. In keeping with the French-inspired theme, they were eager to see The Longest Day, that star-studded spectacle about the invasion of Normandy.
But now that I was sick, Mom refused to leave me in the care of a babysitter and they canceled their plans.
But there was another incentive for my parents to stay home that evening. Like millions of Americans, they were anxious to watch President Kennedy’s live broadcast on television that night.
That noon while listening to the kitchen radio as Mom prepared lunch for me, there was a news bulletin. 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.
Overhearing the worried tone of my parent’s conversation, I knew something serious was up. Across the country while Americans’ eyes would be fixed on their TV sets gripped in the most intense moment of recent history, I was confined to my bedroom without one. 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 the ornate Resolute 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 snuck missiles into Cuba just 90 miles from Florida. Along with the Offensive Missiles, Khrushchev had deployed bombs and 40,000 Soviet troops.
Panic was about to go viral.
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.
The Russians would have a quarantine imposed on them, but my father wasn’t convinced this was the best tactic. It might work for preventing the spread of measles, he sniffed, 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 the Western Hemisphere, Kennedy said firmly.
The President’s voice faded away as my parents 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. Things were heating up and that was no secret.
I eyed my dog tag resting on my bedroom dresser. Padding across the room, I quietly slipped it over my cotton pajamas with the prancing lambs.
This was no longer a drill.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2022 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.
Sally, thanks for the chilling reminder. I read and saw a documentary on historian John Meacham’s book “Soul of America.” He noted, JFK solicited advise from Dwight Eisenhower who told him to surround yourself with knowledgeable people and listen to what they have to say. This precisely what Kennedy did and he stood his ground. He also had a back channel to Khrushchev that enable the Russian leader to save face as he backed away. Keith
It is only in the past decade or so that it was revealed how very close we came to nuclear conflict. Kennedy did indeed handle this skillfully. Yes, Khrushchev removed his missiles, but we silently dismantled our missiles in Turkey as well.
Sally, thanks for this reminder of a fearful chapter in American history. I was in kindergarten in 1962, so I don’t remember the events of October 22nd quite the way you do, but I do remember the air raid drills we underwent during the next few years, when alarm bells would sound and we would all crouch under our rickety wooden desks, with our hands clasped above our heads. Of course, none of us kids realized that our actions would likely have extended our lives by only 1/10th of a second longer, had NYC actually become ground zero (prior to 9/11), but the practice seemed valid at the time. The recent rise of European nationalism and Putin’s not so idle nuclear threats, are clear evidence that the world has learned nothing in the past 60 years. Armaments have become more sophisticated and perhaps more controlled and country alliances have shifted, but people basically remain the same. There is still too much hatred and lack of empathy in the world for these types of threats to be rendered moot. Sad state of affairs that that is.
The drills we had were of course in retrospect totally useless for a nuclear attack, and more suitable perhaps for a conventional bomb used in WWII when flying glass and debris were of concern. Nor have we seemed to have learned all that much in 6 decades as you rightly point out. The fact that Putin would be threatening a nuclear option is frightening, irresponsible and barbaric. We are indeed in a sad state.
I was a teenager when this happened. I was smart enough to realize “duck and cover” was a joke yet lived close enough to missile silos here on the High Plains that I potentially was at the mercy of presumably primitive Soviet guidance systems in missiles aimed my way. I was scared! Really scared!
Living close to the silos must have been quite alarming being that they would be a natural target.
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I remember it as though President Kennedy was sitting in front of me now. To us in Canada he was a beloved and admired President. Sally we must take into account that President Kennedy removed the nuclear missiles from Turkey in exchange for the missiles being removed from Cuba. President Putin asked NATO in 2014 to remove all nuclear missiles only 20 kilometers/ 12 miles from the border of Russia.It’s a fact rarely mentioned in our western media. I wonder how President Kennedy would have handled the situation today. My guess is he would never allowed it to happen.
It was a very clever strategy to remove the missiles from Turkey but keep it somewhat under wraps. Everyone saved face. It is curious to imagine how Kennedy and his advisors might have dealt with Putin who seems to us more of a meglomaniac than Khruschev was.
Sadly we don’t have a leader intelligent enough to have responded to President Putin’s Munich speech in 2007 or his one at the UN in 2014. I don’t know of any world leader who voiced his concerns so many times and was ignored by our elected politicians. He’s got their attention now in the only language they know “war”.