A look back at the Cuban Missile Crisis

Oct. 23, 2012 at 5:23 a.m.

Even after 50 years, it's still hard for me to take a deep breath when I think back to the October 1962 face-off between America and the Soviet Union over their placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba.

I was in college, and in my dorm it was hard to get a seat in the TV room, as we and the rest of the world sweated and wondered if there would be a tomorrow.

President Kennedy spoke to the nation in prime time. He appeared strong and steadfast, and that was somewhat reassuring to the country. But in retrospect, I know he must have been tormented by the idea that if he made one wrong move, it could be the end of everything.

He warned Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev of a "full retaliatory response" if even one of those missiles were launched from "that imprisoned island."

The facts of that 13-day period of uncertainty are now a matter of historical record. But my most vivid memories are of the good - yes, good - things that were brought about by the horrid possibility of nuclear war.

The pay telephones on campus were constantly busy. People grew suddenly close to families far away, and many even left for home. Mothers and fathers wanted their kids near, to face - whatever - as a family.

As I passed by people talking on the phone to loved ones, I saw nervous laughter, heard shared memories of good times, and saw unabashed weeping.

Young people did not want to be cheated out of their future; old folks huddled together in the coffee shop near my dorm, grim-faced and unprepared for the end, no matter how long they'd been on the earth.

I swear the faces of my fellow Americans were like blank slates, upon which were written anguish and worry, hopes and dreams, unfulfilled goals and some regrets.

I still remember so clearly how it felt to face the very real possibility of that brilliant flash, and then nothing. There is no better word than scary. It was real scary.

But slowly, carefully, like tapping in the ground for land mines and taking one step at a time, our leaders got us through the crisis and into another day. But to me, that new hope came at a great cost.

Day by day, the closeness we had all felt as Americans began to fade once again. Families went about their business as individuals, and the memory of raw fear subsided.

The pay phones fell silent.

Only on that tragic day of September 11, 2001, when the twin towers disappeared from the New York skyline, did I see that unity again. It's naïve, I know, to ask why we can't hold on to the strength that comes with the closeness that crisis brings. But I can't help but ask why.

Let's hope we're vigilant enough not to completely lose sight of the fact that we're awfully lucky to live in this great country and that, for all those 50 years since the Cuban crisis, the missiles have slumbered in their silos.

Jim Bishop resides in Victoria and is the former Advocate executive editor.



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