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Perhaps the scariest time of my life came during a few weeks when I didn’t know how scared I should be.
I was a third-grader, and at a time when most boys my age were concerned with being liked by classmates, having to take a regular bath and making the starting lineup, what I didn’t quite grasp was that the security of my world was teetering on the brink of total annihilation.
Even now, knowing that danger, stretches my understanding. Fifty years have passed, and like anything relegated to the grainy and black-and-white corners of your mind, the images you conjure are at once vivid and fuzzy until….
Until you filter them with the clarifying software of time and perspective and realize that there were deadly missiles aimed at you by an enemy.
You know now that you must have known it then, but did you?
This was October of 1962, not long after the Yankees had beaten the Giants in a great World Series, and, as those of you of a certain vintage recall with shuddering reality, the Cold War was at its absolute lowest and most numbing nadir.
President John Kennedy had gone on national television and told us the terrifying news that the Russians were installing intercontinental nuclear missiles at bases in Cuba, just 90 miles from the Florida coast and an easy flight to anywhere in the U.S. – including, say, Fort Knox, a scant 40 miles or so from Simpsonville, where I lived.
If you don’t remember those harrowing few days – and it was only a few days – surely you have learned since about that threat. Maybe you l watched the excellent TV movie The Missiles of October,which brought to life the drama and personalities of that awful confrontation. Maybe your image is William Devane, who becameJohn Kennedy in that teleplay, as he told us, ultimately, that our enemy had blinked and avoided a confrontation that could have sparked an out-and-out war on all fronts, quite possibly wiping out significant portions of the United States and jeopardizing all hope for mankind.
Yes, it was that terrible a time, but somehow God steered us to a course of safety.
That, I know now. Then I didn’t know the fingers were close to the Defcon buttons or what Defcon even was.
Think back. Can you conjure those Civil Defense signs springing up on buildings, of committees forming and some of our parents attending meetings? Think of the term “bomb shelter” and the sound of an “air-raid siren” and the many other new phrases that came to our society that you didn’t quite understand or, in some cases, maybe couldn’t quite hear, because they were spoken in hushed tones as groups of adults gathered out of the earshot of children.
Maybe you remember the drills at school, when the alarms would sound, much like an ordinary fire or storm drill, only you sort of knew that going into the hall or getting beneath your desk really wouldn’t matter much in this scenario.
I recall being in the old school building in Simpsonville, where Corpus Christi Academy now is located. Mrs. Jackson’s class, half of the third-graders, were in the room in the northeast corner of the main building. We could look out our window across the small playground, past the Christian Church and see Herrick’s Market.
But what I remember about those drills and those days was that some parents would come to collect their children. We would look out those windows and see them drive up in front, jump from their cars and come to knock on the classroom doors.
Most children didn’t leave this way, but those who lived in “town” sometimes did. I didn’t know why. I had seen them do the same thing in second grade, when we had a tornado warning, but I don’t know why their parents showed up some days to take them away.
Maybe it was during the blockade, when President Kennedy sent warships to intercept the path of Russian ships that were transporting to Cuba parts to complete the missiles and their launch facilities. If those ships hadn’t stopped and agonizingly slowly reversed course, what might have happened?
It was the “what if” that must have permeated the minds of adults, our parents, our loved ones. But even they didn’t know as much as we do now. Can you imagine wanting to protect your family in a time when the president is telling you to be worried and you could do almost nothing to confront the danger other than have faith?
Larry Gravett was my best friend in those days. He and I played almost every Saturday at one of our farms or the other, roaming the woods as cowboys, throwing and hitting baseballs and sometimes spending the night with each other, as kids do.
And I can remember that Larry’s parents had a “fallout shelter” built beneath their house on Antioch Road. It was off their basement, and had bare concrete walls. I recall Larry showing it to me – I can see those stark, concrete walls right now, because this was something strange and new – and I recall there were some provisions stored there, some beds. I don’t know what else.
A cottage industry sprang up that October to pour the several-feet-thick walls for those shelters. Some companies seized on the fears on the day and built tubed facilities that you could purchase and have buried on your property. Some people, we now know, did just that.
I don’t recall having heard President Kennedy say that everything was OK. I didn’t know how that worked until I first saw Devane’s recreation of that moment on television or, later, the actual tape of Kennedy’s speeches to our families, to our world.
Were our parents right to be scared? Was more prayer in order? Was there a true threat?
We now know all those answers were yes.
We discuss often these days the threats on our soil in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, of how our lives were changed, our culture invaded and our security and sanctity redefined. That awful and tragic attack was the worst of most of our lifetimes.
But the aftermath may not have been greater than what we endured 50 years ago this month.
The missiles that October were aimed at our homes, and we only in retrospect conceive how scared we should have been.