Thursday, March 23, 2017

My Cuban Missile Crisis

October 1962

One day when I was 12, a teacher told us the Russians were headed toward Cuba and if we tried to stop them, they would send an atomic bomb our way, and we would send one back their way and so on until pretty much everyone in the world would die from fallout and everyone's skin would burn off due to radiation and there would be a kind of winter on the planet forevermore with little hope of even weeds sprouting out of the blighted surface of the baked earth.

Later that day I went to basketball practice, and Coach Primm had us all sit on the bleachers as he addressed us from the tiled gym floor, whistle around his neck, a basketball cradled against his rib cage. He tried to say some consoling things. He answered some questions as best he could. 

We were a row of shirtless boys, aged 12 through 15, our bare backs warmed by sunlight coming through windows high up on the gymnasium walls. We looked like old men, stooped, hunched over, as we leaned in toward Coach Primm, aching to hear something hopeful. 

After school, I fed chicken scratch to the bantams in our yard. As I scattered the cracked kernels, thoughts flowed in and out of my mind, till one took hold and stuck around: I would never play basketball for the Pinetta Indians.

This had been my dream since I was five. Just to pull that blue and gold jersey over my head and hitch up the satiny blue shorts with the gold trim and the blue pretend belt. To join the ranks of the legendary Joe Adams, Jackie Strickland, Randall Buchanan, Jerry Bass, to live on in glorious memories. 

This dream lodged itself between the present and whatever the future held after basketball. 

Let the bombs fall after that.

I kept feeding the chickens. A hen my sister named Queenie wasn't afraid of humans. She ate out of her hands and let us hold her. Now she pecked at the grains at my feet and I felt bad that she would be part of the carnage even though she was neither Russian nor American.

Whenever I got excited about anything in the future, my dad always had the same response: "I wouldn't get my hopes up. Anyway, it won't be the end of the world if it doesn't happen." 
Who would be the grownup?
In my memory, anyway, I said aloud to Queenie, "Don't worry, it's not the end of the world," before realizing I needed to think of some other consolation, a bromide more suitable for the Atomic Age.

That night, and for some nights to come, I was afraid to fall asleep, but when I finally drifted off, I would wake to the sound of fighter jets roaring overhead, perhaps having departed from Moody Air Force Base 30 miles to the north.

They were flying low. They made a terrific roar and were gone in a hurry. They were hauling ass. What would happen to them?

Then I would escape my nightmare by falling back to sleep, only to be jarred awake by another flight of fighters.

We had no television, so my dad listened for updates from staticky AM stations as far away as New Orleans, Chicago, Cincinnati. As he listened, his face betrayed no emotion. Even now, I can only guess how he felt about it.

On the school bus the next day, Bobby Joe Buchanan would tell us what he had learned from Walter Cronkite on TV. Kennedy had said something. Khrushchev had said something else. Something about a deadline. A point of no return. Nothing hopeful. 

The next day, he brought a transistor radio, and we listened in silence on the way to school, then again on the way back. We heard somber male voices, fading in and out, scratchy. What was that last thing he said? Turn it up!

Afterwards, Bobby Joe -- a junior in high school, and the bus's alpha male -- would provide commentary and analysis: "It doesn't look good." 

This mess. This damn world-ending mess, and for what? It just confirmed what I had always believed: The worst usually happens -- although, to be fair, the worst had never happened to me, not even close, except inside my head. Now I would be justified. "See! What did I tell you?"

One day after school, we drove over to see my dad's best friend, M.C. Herring. I don't know why. His wife Louise, who always looked sad even when she smiled, met us on her front step, and she said hello, and looked even sadder and shook her head slowly and peered over us and across a pasture to a line of pines and said, "All day long I been looking out yonder expecting to see a mushroom cloud."

My mom said, "One time last night I heard some kind of rumble and it scared the daylights out of me."

Even so, I could not feel the grownups' fear. As grownups, they had no choice but to believe in our survival and somehow ensure it. "Our children will not die in this thing."

Inside, though, I bet they weren't grownups at all. I bet they were scared shitless. I bet they prayed till their throats were raw, all the while knowing that God has little power in the Atomic Age, that once we had plucked the atom's apple from the tree, we were on our own.

So that left President Kennedy as the grownup. Could he save us?

One night my mom, my sister and I were sitting at the table after supper. My mom was and is a worrier, but she looked us in the eyes and said, "Even if there's a war and the bombs fall, not everybody is gonna die. There'll still be a few stragglers like you and me left over, so don't worry about it."

We almost believed her. It felt good to hear it, anyway.

Then suddenly it was all over.

About a year later, President Kennedy was over.

I got to play basketball for the Pinetta Indians. 

Years later, the World Trade Center came down, and while I waited for news, I remembered what my mom said, and tried to believe it again. The Age of Terrorism was set in motion.

And more years have come and gone, and there have been wars and rumors of wars, and here we are.

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