By Debbie Duncan
JFK was not a popular president in Corona del Mar, my sleepy Orange County, California beach town. There were only two registered Democrats in our half-built housing development on the edge of town which rose like layers of a wedding cake above three private, rocky beaches. Every home had an ocean view, with Catalina straight ahead on the horizon.
My mother, especially, did not care for President Kennedy. It was personal: Pat Nixon had taught typing at her high school. I’d worn a “Dick Nixon for President” button in second grade during the 1960 presidential campaign.
So I was alarmed when Mom clicked on the car radio after our weekly Brownie meeting ended in the church social hall just before 4:00 the afternoon of Monday, October 22, 1962, and put her hand on my arm.
“Who’s talking?” I asked.
Mom leaned forward over the big steering wheel of her Lincoln Continental as she drove slowly up and down the hills that paralleled Pacific Coast Highway, listening to the radio. I listened too. My heart quickened as President Kennedy scared me with phrases such as: “… an explicit threat to the peace and security of all the Americas. … worldwide nuclear war. … To halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. ... to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union. … provocative threat to world peace.” And, “… abyss of destruction.”
We sat in our driveway as Kennedy concluded with, “Thank you and good night.”
I felt glued to the front seat, too shaken to get out of the car and open the garage door.
My two older brothers were home with my younger brother. They’d watched Kennedy on TV, and appeared excited about the prospect of war with the Soviet Union. (Boys!) War—nuclear war—was suddenly a real and imminent possibility. My oldest brother, David, explained that a quarantine was like a blockade. The U.S. was setting one up around Cuba, 90 miles off the Florida coast, to intercept any Soviet ships that might be taking missile-building equipment to the U.S.S.R.’s Communist ally, Cuba. Scary stuff. Kennedy also ordered the Soviets to dismantle the nuclear missile sites the U.S. knew were there. If they didn’t, there would be consequences.
Then I remembered that Dad had left in the morning on a business trip—to Cape Canaveral, Florida! (His aerospace company was scheduled to launch a missile into space.) He called Monday night and told me not to worry. I asked why we hadn’t built a fallout shelter under our house. I knew there was one in the home under construction below ours, one street up from the beach. He said he didn’t think we needed one. “But now we do,” I insisted.
When my fourth-grade teacher opened the door to our classroom Tuesday morning, I saw that all the desks had been turned forty-five degrees, away from the wall of windows. Mr. Magnuson explained that light from a nuclear explosion is blindingly bright. Also, we’d fare better with our backs to the windows if glass exploded in. We weren’t at our desks five minutes before we heard the bell for the first of many duck-and-cover drills of the day. I dropped to the cold linoleum and covered my eyes with one arm, and the back of my neck with the other.
I don’t think we did any regular schoolwork the rest of the week. Mr. Magnuson read to us. He also told war stories, of all things. He told us he’d been a fighter pilot in World War II, dropping bombs on Nazi Germany. “I never thought I’d live to see the age of 25.” But he had.
We weren’t a TV-news family, but I read the Los Angeles Times daily, including articles headlined by “SHOWDOWN NEAR” and “FATEFUL HOUR NEAR.” Someone reported Soviet subs were spotted off the coast of Catalina—my Catalina. One article said Soviet missiles could reach as far as Los Angeles. And we were a mere 35 miles south of L.A. Dad called home from Florida most nights. By the end of the week, he was certain the U.S. was about to invade Cuba. “Marines are all over this town.”
When Kennedy was running for president, Mom contended he’d take orders from the Pope. Now, she said we needed to support JFK. But how would he avoid a confrontation with Nikita Khrushchev and the Soviet Union? I’d no idea. I was afraid every day would be my last, or at least the last day of life as I’d known it.
On Saturday night, my dramatic teenage brother David pointed to the electric clock above the oven. “If we’re still alive in an hour, we’ll probably make it.”
To my amazement, we did. Mom took us kids to church Sunday morning, and in the middle of the service, while I was praying like crazy down in a pew, Mr. Gomke, the minister, announced that Khrushchev had agreed to Kennedy’s demands. The Cuban Crisis (as it was called then) had ended. Like my teacher the fighter pilot, I had eluded catastrophe.
The intense fear I experienced that Monday to Sunday when I was nine years old is as fresh today as it was more than half a century ago—it had that much of an impact on me. I studied the Cuban Missile Crisis in high school and college, and learned that the danger was real: the U.S. came as close to nuclear war with the Soviet Union as it ever would.
I’m also completing a novel for young people about a family in turmoil during that scary week. Though fiction, my main character has an older brother who proclaims impending doom and destruction that Saturday night in October 1962. And there’s a half-built neighborhood fallout shelter. Sometimes history is more compelling than fiction.