I’ll lay the usual third-person editorial “we” aside for this post, because what I’m about to write is intensely personal.
Have you ever had the shit scared out of you?
I don’t mean this in the metaphorical sense, but in the literal meaning of being so thoroughly terrified that my bowels opened up, spewing out in a single violent surge everything contained in my viscera.
It happened to me one night in October, 1962, at the peak of the crisis that brought the world closer to nuclear Armageddon than at any time before or since.
We know it now as “the Cuban missile crisis,” the confrontation between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Krushchev over the placement of nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba.
The United States was encircling the Soviet Union with nuclear-armed bombers and missiles in Europe and Turkey, and the Soviets responded by accepting an invitation from Cuba — attacked two years earlier by the CIA-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs — to install nuclear missiles 90 miles from the American shoreline.
More missiles were on the way, and Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of the island, and for a few endless days, most Americans believed that millions of us would die in an apocalypse of biblical proportions, “the fire next time.”
I was born in 1946 in the very first wave of what would become the Baby Boom, and I grew up in a world filled with images of nuclear explosions conducted above ground at the Nevada Test Site and in the South Pacific.
Films of atomic blasts appeared regularly in the newsreels I watched during Saturday matinees at the Plaza Theater in Abilene, Kansas, and on nightly news broadcasts on the television Dad brought home when I was five.
Still photos in Life magazine brought the images home, delivered in our mailbox in the dominant picture magazine of the day, and at least once a month, the scream of air raid sirens brought life to halt and sent chills down my spine.
As a young child I was mesmerized by what everyone called The Bomb, knowing that this incredible, monstrous creation hung like a sword of Damocles over my future and the lives of everyone I loved.
When, at age 10, we moved to Fort Collins, Colorado, I found myself living 45 miles away from the nation’s first nuclear missile field, headquartered at Frances E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. And at watched as missile silos were dug into the earth just a few miles from home.
A cousin, Harry Yesley, was a uranium prospector, and I used to join him as he searched for veins of pitchblende and thorite. I owned my first Geiger Counter when I was ten.
Obsessed with the bomb, I learned the likely nearby targets, the fallout patterns, all the necessary precautions to take in the event of an attack.
And then, when I was ten, I saw a brief film on The Ed Sullivan Show that consolidated all my deepest fears [H/T to Disinformation]:
I’d forgotten about the film until I discovered it this morning in my daily web rounds, and watching it 55 years later evoked the same sense of despair I felt them. [For more on the film see here, here, and here.]
But the fear I felt after seeing the film was nothing like the abject terror that came six years later.
A fishing trip gone horribly wrong
As the Cuban Missile Crisis played itself out, I glued myself to the television, watching every bulletin, including this 22 October presidential address to the country:
By the 26th, sabers were rattling louder than ever before, and Dad, bless him, was distraught at the terror he saw in my eyes. That’s when he decided we needed to go on a fishing trip.
The happiest times of an often troubled childhood were spent with Dad, exploring the back country and fishing the lakes and streams of Colorado and Wyoming.
Back in 1962, our favorite destination was Glendo, Wyoming, where a massive dam on the Platte River had created a reservoir where we never failed to catch our limits of Rainbow Trout, trolling our lines off the sides of our 14-foot Feathercraft aluminum boat.
So we bundled up our gear and loaded up the camper Dad and I had built on the back of a white Chevrolet pickup, hitched up the boat, then headed north on Interstate 25, a route that took us directly past the entrance to Frances E. Warren Air Force Base.
Sitting behind the wheel, I spotted a line of Air Force blue cars and trucks headed rapidly into the base gate. I’d have turned on the radio, except that Dad Continue reading