I was a very little boy but I sensed something big was going on. My father had rushed home early from work. Now he was sitting in front of our black-and-white TV as the president — Kennedy — delivered an address on what we now refer to as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
This happened fifty years ago, in October 1962.
Spy plane photographs had revealed the presence of Soviet missiles — missiles capable of being armed with nuclear warheads — in Cuba, a stone’s throw from Florida and within range of American cities in the South and Northeast.
This was at the height of that war of nerves and ideologies called the Cold War.
The U.S. demanded that the Soviet Union remove the missiles. The Russians refused. We were on the brink of nuclear war. Kennedy and his advisers, history tells us, believed it might take a miracle to forestall Armageddon.
My father — and 150 million other Americans — sensed this. I could sense his concern — and his fear.
Fifty years later, the whole thing now seems so distant and unreal: the air of crisis, the talk of fallout shelters, the naval blockade, the standoff, the wait…and the Soviet Union backing down. Fifty years later, we know now about the back-channel communications, the military men who wanted to bomb Cuba, the clever (and lucky) diplomatic and strategic ploys.
I think of the line from young Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” when he sings about the “fear to bring children into the world” and his awful and beautiful song “Hard Rain,” inspired by the Cuban missile crisis.
Fifty years later, I remember my 29-year-old father — just 29! — and the worry I saw in his eyes when he looked away from President Kennedy’s flickering image on the TV and looked at my mother and me, when the reality of men’s folly made it clear that life’s fragile light could flicker and fade in just the few moments it would take for someone to give the order to flip the terrible switch.