A Boomer Kid’s View of The Cuban Missile Crisis

Kim Jong Un has become a household word in the United States, right up there with cod liver oil and Preparation H.  Like a clogged sink drain that even Draino can’t remedy, he just won’t go away.

The North Korean leader has spread consternation throughout the civilized world with repeated ballistic and nuclear missile tests, his main goal being to develop nuclear weapons capable of hitting the mainland United States. Despite heavy sanctions, he remains defiant, vowing to redouble efforts to increase his country’s military might.

A North Korean government organization recently stated that the United States should be “beaten to death like a rabid dog” for imposing sanctions and that its ally Japan should be “sunken into the sea.”

“Now is the time to annihilate the U.S. imperialist aggressors,” a spokesman for the North’s Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee blustered. “Let’s reduce the U.S. mainland into ashes and darkness.”

Disregarding outrage from the international community, on September 14, 2017, North Korea fired a second ballistic missile within a two-week period over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.

Can you imagine receiving an alert on your cell phone, radio, or TV warning you to take cover?  Residents of Hokkaido were warned of the North Korean missile launch by a “J-Alert” on their mobile phones:

“Missile launch. Missile launch. A missile was fired from North Korea. Please evacuate to a sturdy building or basement,” the text said.

Loudspeakers blasted.  Sirens wailed.  Bullet train services were temporarily suspended.

According to Reuters, a Hokkaido resident related by text message that “I didn’t feel prepared at all. Even if we get these alerts there’s nowhere to run. It’s not like we have a basement or bomb shelter, all we can do is get away from the window.”

Some parents have been walking their children to and from school in an effort to protect them.  How do the children process such a frightening situation?  Do they cower now at the sound of alarms or sudden loud noises?  Do they fear imminent death by a mammoth bomb from the sky?   Are they afraid to sleep at night?

With the continual escalation of verbal and military provocations between North Korea and the U.S. and its allies, will children in the U.S. soon have the same worries as those in Hokkaido?  Has there ever been a similar time of extreme anxiety in our country?

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The 1950’s and early 1960’s were generally a period of peace and prosperity in the U.S., and the suburb I lived in was akin to Beaver Cleaver’s neighborhood.  One might think that there was no comparison to the dangers children face today—drugs, gun violence, terrorism.  But there was one event that we did have to live through, and the danger was terribly real. For anyone, child or adult, who understood what was at stake, it shook them to the core.

That would be the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962.

Most of you know that a Cold War developed between the United States and the Soviet Union after World War II.  Fear of nuclear war grew throughout the 1950s with the development of the hydrogen bomb by both the United States and the Soviet Union.

In 1959, a coup took place in Cuba that enabled Fidel Castro to seize power, replacing his government with a revolutionary socialist state and aligning himself with the Soviet Union.

 

With the rise in international tensions, President John Kennedy encouraged Americans to build fallout (or bomb) shelters in their basements or back yards.  In October, 1961, he cautioned, “The time to start is now. In the coming months, I hope to let every citizen know what steps he can take without delay to protect his family in case of attack.”

a home bomb shelter

Fallout Shelter Sign

Unchanged photo by Counselman Collection      License

 

The government designated buildings in large cities across the country as shelters, stocking them with canned water and food.  Signs like these were posted on those buildings.

For specifics on how fallout shelters were built, see u-s-history.com.

 

 

 

Civil Defense Fallout Shelter Medical Kit

Tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union reached their peak on October 14, 1962, when the pilot of an American U-2 spy plane flying over Cuba photographed Soviet nuclear-armed ballistic missiles being assembled for installation.

Cuban Missile Crisis

An aerial view showing the medium range ballistic missile field launch site number two

President Kennedy swiftly enforced a military blockade to prevent further missiles from reaching Cuba.  He demanded that the weapons already in Cuba be dismantled and returned to the Soviet Union.  Over the next thirteen harrowing days, critical negotiations ensued between Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev.

Kennedy and Khrushchev

Kennedy and Khrushchev in 1961 before the                            Cuban Missile Crisis

Cubanmissilecrisis.org conveys the precarious situation well: The two leaders “confronted each other ‘eyeball to eyeball,’ each with the power of mutual destruction. A war would have meant the deaths of 100 million Americans and more than 100 million Russians . . . The United States and the Soviet Union stood closer to Armageddon than at any other moment in history.”

At the outset of the Cuban Missile Crisis, some Americans prepared for nuclear war by stockpiling canned goods and finishing up last-minute additions to their homemade bomb shelters.  Some compiled a comprehensive list of  necessities, including such items as an electric generator, battery-powered radio, lanterns, and chemical toilet with waste holding tanks.

Fear swept through homes across the country.  Was doomsday at hand?

Raymond Heard of the National Post, who was a college student at the time, remembers that “people did not go to work. In their living rooms, families clustered around black-and-white TV sets for news about whether they might live or perish.”

There were only three channels to choose from, and the stand-off was all they talked about.  Instead of Looney Tunes and cowboy shows, President Kennedy’s face was ubiquitously plastered across the screen.

 

While adults fretted over nuclear holocaust, we kids were left with a frightening mental jigsaw puzzle of Kruschev, Communists, Cuba, and a strange word called fallout.  But half of the pieces were missing.  Our parents purposely kept us in the dark on many of the details.

But some parents weren’t good at hiding their apprehension.  You expected them to be the ones to comfort you when you scraped your knee or got bullied by a neighborhood kid . . .  or heard stories of atomic bombs.  But what do you do when the comforter is too preoccupied and shaken to comfort you?  Fear can be infectious.

Kids wondered why their parents were taking up valuable space in the basement or out in the back yard, assembling sleeping bags, cots, bottled drinking water, a pile of canned food, and other strange stuff.  “Why was Dad dragging in a big generator?”  “Why did he buy a gun?”

Not only did the crisis affect our home life, it also pervaded our school days.  My friend Marie, who is four years older than I, vividly recalls how President Kennedy’s somber speech to the nation on October 22, 1962, affected her school day the following morning.

“I do remember the uneasiness of a few of my teachers, especially my home room teacher, who was also my algebra teacher. Usually, he was smiling, full of fun, and very talkative. During the morning homeroom period, he was very somber, no jokes, no laughter. He came late to algebra class. He didn’t teach a new lesson. He assigned class work that was to be turned in before we left. He spent the class period in and out of the room talking with the other faculty members. I recall feeling very uncomfortable because I was aware of the situation in Cuba.”

My sister Shirley, in junior high as well at the time, was also old enough to understand the situation: “I remember being very scared that we were going to get bombed and did know what was happening because it was on the news all the time.”

Screen Shot 2017-02-03 at 7.36.39 PMAt my Catholic elementary school, we practiced  “duck and cover” drills, which were actually common in some schools during the Cold War. In order to survive an atomic attack by the Soviet Union, the Federal Civil Defense Administration instructed children to seek shelter under our desks or wherever we were if we saw a bright flash of white light. We practiced kneeling down under our desks with our hands clasped around our heads and necks. Some nuns encouraged students to say a rosary.  How scary is that for a kid who had just turned eleven?

For further practice, sometimes we just dropped down in a hallway.  My husband Frank, who attended a public school not far away, recalls, “They marched us out in the hallway and had us line up against the walls and put our heads between our legs.  Sometimes they’d march us downstairs into the boiler room and do the same thing down there.”

I remember all of my classmates being assigned to groups to practice walking to designated homes in case of an impending attack. I lived close enough that I could walk to my own house. I was accompanied by one of the nuns and several other kids for a twenty-minute walk, and then when we got to my bus stop, I was able to walk down to my house by myself. It was so out of the ordinary that it was rather exciting though we realized that it was for a serious purpose.

Our teachers couldn’t sugar coat the fact that we needed to practice climbing under our desks to protect ourselves in the event of fallout. There was not much they could say to assuage the real fear of a nuclear attack.

Screen Shot 2017-03-29 at 10.56.55 PMBut did the nuns have to petrify youngsters with comments like,  “Every time an airplane flies over, you better pray they don’t drop bombs.”  My former classmate Ann recalls her reaction whenever she heard a plane above her:  “I remember, as a little kid, running for cover . . . for a while.  Then I guess when I realized it wasn’t happening, I wasn’t afraid anymore.”

Some of the nuns who came to the U.S. from eastern Europe told us stories about their sufferings behind the Iron Curtain during the Khrushchev era.  I can understand their purpose—to make us appreciate the freedoms and comforts that we had in this country.  But some went too far.

They talked of communist soldiers coming to churches and interrogating people.  If they admitted to believing in God, they were shot.

Ann gives another example of the thoughtless comments that some of the nuns uttered: “My sister was two years behind me at St. B’s.  Her nun told the kids about (East) Germans putting people in meat grinders.”  What did they gain from sending us little ones home in fear, prone to nightmares, at such a tense time?

We came to equate Khrushchev and Castro with Satan.

The thirteen days of hell ended when Khrushchev agreed to remove Russian missiles from Cuba in exchange for a promise from the United States never to invade Cuba again.  Khrushchev also made a secret deal with JFK to remove his missiles from Cuba if Kennedy removed America’s missiles from Turkey at a later date.  Khrushchev blinked, and the world exhaled a giant sigh of relief.

Life went back on track.  We kids went back to our carefree lives—riding our bikes, sparring with siblings, griping about homework . . . .  But we remembered those thirteen days in October of 1962.

Nikita Khrushchev and John Kennedy, Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump.  Let’s hope that we never again come close to the “abyss of destruction,” especially for the kid’s sake.

*Read Jeff Owenby’s post for more on the Cuban Missile Crisis from a child’s perspective.

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KAREN GENNARI is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62.  It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.

Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more?  Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s.  Virtually every page references the 1960’s.  Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.

The paperback and e-book can be purchased online at eLectio PublishingAmazon, or Barnesandnoble.com.

 

 

 

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