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 always bought his trucks bare bones, a legacy of the frugality imposed by his experience of hard times during the Great Depression two decades earlier.
Instead, we sang the songs we often sang on our trips, an odd combination of tunes he’d learned as a child and popular ballads of the day.
We arrived at Glendo after sunset and set up camp in our favorite campground, located on the south-facing slope of a hillside west of the dam, giving us an unobstructed view of the Wyoming prairie.
We turned in early, curled into our sleeping bags on the wooden platform behind the pickup’s cab, with the eerie deep thrums of diving bull bats [nighthawks] easing our way into troubled sleep.
Things that go boom in the night
Suddenly I was awake and deeply alarmed. An instant later came a loud explosion.
Yanking the sleeping bag’s zipper down, I slid off the platform, bare feet touching the cold metal of the pickup bed. Through the camper’s plate glass rear window I beheld a sight that sent a spasm through my gut, a rocket control arcing into the deep black of the night sky.
The recognition was instantaneous. A rocket launching to the south could mean only one thing, an Atlas missile launch.
We were at war.
I was just able to lurch out of the truck, simultaneously yanking down the bottoms of my pajamas as a blast of excrement erupted from my bowels. As I huddled, shivering, I heard Dad’s voice.
“What’s the matter son? Did you shit yourself?”
In those few brief seconds, a whole scenario had burst into consciousness, vivid and richly detailed.
We had to rush into town, break into the hardware store, load up on firearms, ammunition, shovels, blankets, dried food, cans of white gasoline for our cookstove — the list was long and detailed.
We had to head west as fast as we could, our destination the Snowy Range and a mine tunnel I remembered, where we could hole up.
I knew that the missile base would soon be blasted by Soviet nukes, and that the fallout would blow east, given the prevailing winds. I knew that my mother and sister would be incinerated, and so too the young woman I loved, Phyllis Posner, who lived on the slopes of Cheyenne Mountain, where her father served in the nuclear command center tunneled deep into the peak’s granite interior.
I knew too, from reading George Stewart’s Earth Abides — a brilliant novel about another kind of apocalypse — that the future would be grim and likely violent. We were, after all, in Wyoming, where almost every pickup carried a rifle rack mounted over the cab’s rear window.
Once we arrived at the mine, we’d hang blankets over the entry, barrier against the fallout. There was water inside, so that wouldn’t be a problem. But we’d ned a bucket for our waste. . .
On and on the scenario played, and the list of necessities grew longer.
Then more explosions, another rocket launch.
I wiped myself down with the roll of toilet paper dad handed me, then threw on my clothes and climbed into the truck’s cab, cursing the lack of a radio.
I sped out of the campground, grief-stricken, still shivering, yet oddly clear about the tasks ahead.
My world was gone, and everyone I loved save for the man sitting beside me. A brutal new age had begun, one as cold and as empty as my guts.
On the way into town was a a general store, complete with a bar where locals and fisherfolk gathered for their evening beers. Strangely, the place was lit up, with cars in front.
“Pull in,” Dad said, and I did.
As I approached the door I heard sounds of laughter inside. Strange, I thought.
Walking through the door, I saw a small group of regulars sitting at the bar, laughing at the monologue by the new host of the Tonight Show, a spritely young comedian named Johnny Carson.
“How come there’s no news bulletins!? There’s missiles going up! We’re in na nuclear war!!”
The bartender laughed. “Oh that,” he said. “That’s the National Guard. They’re having night artillery practice. They send up rocket flares to illuminate their targets.”
And with that, World War III was over.
Except, of course, it wasn’t — at least for me.
A bell that can’t be unrung
My life’s never been the same since that October night 49 years ago.
Though my perceptions had been false, anyone in similar circumstances and armed with similar knowledge would have experienced what I did that dark Wyoming night, the opening minutes of a war that would change life on earth forever.
Nothing in what I experienced was irrational, given the events then unfolding in Washington, Moscow, and in the waters off Cuba.
I had stared into the abyss, and the abyss stared back.
The events of that night profoundly altered the course of my life, and played a major role in the subsequent abandonment of my lifelong dream of becoming an archaeologist and my discovery of my vocation as a journalist.
How had we come to a point where my experiences of that October night had become a possibility? What was I about us as a species that led us into developing the weapons that could ensure not only our annihilation but that of other species?
I became a driven being, driven to ask the questions I am still asking today, almost 49 years later.
What else can you do when you’re the only living survivor of World War III?
And I’ve also been seeking, through all of those years, one other person who can fully comprehend what that night has meant to me.