South

Suburban Diary

Way back when, it was a scary drill

A P2V Neptune US patrol plane flying over a Soviet freighter during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.
Getty Images
A P2V Neptune US patrol plane flying over a Soviet freighter during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

It’s bedtime. I crawl beneath the covers and grab a book. Nothing unusual there. I write book reviews, so I’m always reading something, especially as sleepy time approaches.

This night, I’m reading a new book about the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. It’s “Above and Beyond: John F. Kennedy and America’s Most Dangerous Cold War Spy Mission” by Casey Sherman and Michael Tougias, two South Shore authors who also penned the bestselling “The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue.”

The book is an exciting account of the U-2 pilots who flew dangerous missions over Cuba to obtain the evidence President Kennedy needed to confront the Soviets. As I read, I am suddenly transported to another place in my mind. Nothing unusual there either. A good book should take you to lands anew and galaxies far, far away.

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However, this place is not of the authors’ writing — not Cuba or the White House or even the Soviet Union. It is Binghamton, N.Y., in 1962, and I am there. It is my own life during this challenging moment in history. I am back in the first grade on a cold, wet October day. The rain is slanting down and I can still see the yellow leaves of fall twisting in the chilly wind.

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On this day, my classmates and I are scared — not because the world is on the brink of destruction. No, we are too young to understand the implications of nuclear missiles on a Caribbean island just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. We are frightened because we are being asked to do something completely different than our regular school-day routine: put on our raincoats, climb in a big yellow school bus, and travel to a church a few miles away.

Looking back from 55 years in the future, I understand now what was happening. It was a drill. Our school did not have adequate facilities to protect us during a crisis — weather-related or otherwise potentially disastrous — so we were being transported to a location that did. “This is just a test. In the event of a real emergency . . .” Well, who knows what would have happened in that case, but most likely nothing would have protected us from a rain of nuclear fallout.

To the 6-year-old mind, the specter of fear had more to do with the disruption of routine — and the attitude of concern displayed by the teachers, our “parents” away from home. They are nervous and pensive, definitely on edge. Who wouldn’t be when the end of the world is easily imminent?

I remember sitting in the basement of the church. It was dark and damp with small windows high on the wall that let in the gloom of a stormy day — the perfect backdrop for an Edgar Allen Poe story or even a 1960s tale of potential death and destruction on a biblical scale. I’m sure that moment didn’t last long. Get in, get out, and get back to school. After all, this was just a drill. But in my memory, it is an eternity.

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The whole scenario plays out now in my mind — very incomplete, of course. Bits and pieces of memory surface from the dark recesses of my subconscious like shards of a broken dream. The narrative is all out of whack, and I’m sure some of the recollections are distorted by time and space. Still, it is an unsettling reminder of a moment when individual lives cross with history in the making.

President John F. Kennedy makes a national television speech from Washington on Oct. 22, 1962, announcing a naval blockade of Cuba until Soviet missiles are removed.
AP
President John F. Kennedy makes a national television speech from Washington on Oct. 22, 1962, announcing a naval blockade of Cuba until Soviet missiles are removed.

Cuban leader Fidel Castro responding to President Kennedy's naval blockade via Cuban radio and television on Oct. 23, 1962.
AP
Cuban leader Fidel Castro responding to President Kennedy's naval blockade via Cuban radio and television on Oct. 23, 1962.

Fortunately, it is a story with a happy ending. The world walked back from the brink of Armageddon, the missiles were removed from Cuba, and the Cold War returned to a sort-of calmer version of Liar’s Poker with nuclear weapons as stakes.

Memory is such a fickle thing. It seems to come and go as it pleases. It can bring back happy times or dredge up fears from long ago. If nothing else, it helps us put life in perspective and connect our own selves to moments of meaning in the march of time. It makes us see that history is not just dates and distant figures — it is us and how we fit into the experience that is happening around us, locally and thousands of miles away.

Dave Kindy lives in Plymouth and loves to write about history and other subjects when he doesn’t have to earn a living. He can be reached at davidkindy1832@gmail.com.