If our teacher said this word, we were to immediately get under our desks, crouch down on our knees, lower our heads, and cover the back of our necks with our hands. Every generation has school fire drills but in the early 1960s we also had “drop drills.” Teachers in Los Angeles were instructed to say “Drop!” at any unexpected moment and students were obliged to respond accordingly.
Looking back now, this seems ludicrous — as if a school desk would adequately shelter a child from the devastation of a nuclear blast. But it made us feel better that there might be a possibility of survival in this scary Cold War.
Make no mistake. The constant use of the word “war” in Cold War was traumatic for a grade school student of the Sixties. Every now and then, we would walk by a newspaper rack and see a front-page photo of an atomic bomb test, it’s mushroom cloud searing into our youthful imaginations. In Southern California, on the first Friday of every month, the Civil Defense sirens did a 10:00am test, their mournful wails piercing our young hearts like a dagger.
So when President Kennedy made a television appearance on the evening of October 22, 1962 to discuss “matters of national urgency,” Americans stopped what they were doing and paid attention.
I have a distinct memory of watching Kennedy’s announcement on TV with my father. The President’s Boston-nuanced tone was grim. There was a lot of jargon that went over my 4th grade head, and I asked my dad what was happening. He explained that the Russians had nuclear missiles in Cuba and, if they were launched, the United States would do the same against the Soviet Union.
The next day at Stoner Avenue School, my 4th grade teacher pulled down a map of the United States. She pointed to Cuba and then to the Pacific Northwest. She said every place in America could be potentially hit by a Russian missile except Seattle. I realize now that she was trying to keep us informed but back then we kids were terrified by the possibility that a nuclear missile could rain down on Southern California at any time.
Later that day, the school assistant custodian came into our classroom to check the venetian blinds. She pulled them up, then down, then loudly closed them shut, causing several kids to yelp. That’s how on-edge we were. It didn’t help that our teacher kept the blinds closed for the rest of the day — as if those little plastic slats would protect us from a nuclear blast.
Those fateful Thirteen Days of October unfolded at a torturous snail’s pace. I was scared out of my wits because I thought we might die at any moment. That was a frightening thought for a 9-year-old.
Our teacher Mrs. Holzer kept assuring us that President Kennedy would see the country through this crisis safely. The mere mention of the President’s name was a soothing balm. We kids had a deep respect for John Kennedy. He was our country’s leader. We trusted him.
The Cuban Missile Crisis has been well documented in books, essays and popular movies. President Kennedy showed admirable restraint against the gung-ho proposals of his hawkish military advisors. If not for Kennedy’s cautious coolness, I firmly believe we would not be here today. We were THAT close! Nuclear Armageddon might have been unleashed and the world destroyed. But that was not what Kennedy or Khrushchev wanted. Thank God!
As children, we heard that President Kennedy saved the country and the world from annihilation. That’s what the adults in our life told us. Kennedy was our hero. Can you blame my generation for our outpouring of grief on the day that he died?
Next blog: President Kennedy and Superman