In 1962 I was 12 years old and just becoming aware of world affairs. Our family lived in a small town in northwest New Mexico, hardly a target for nuclear weapons, but we went about our daily lives with the awareness of the Russians and the threat of nuclear destruction. In school we had practiced the drills – hide under your desk if we are attacked! I was really nervous with all the heightened anxiety – everyone was scared, and it showed.
We studied the newspapers intently each day, eagerly seeking reassurance, only to grow more alarmed by news of recent developments, and the uneasy relations between the United States and Russia. Then in October, things took a frightening turn. My parents tried to appear calm as we watched the blockade because of the Cuban missiles unfold in vivid black and white, right there before us on the television.
Television added an immediacy that I had never experienced before – these events were live, this was happening now! In school we walked the halls nervously, greeting each other with forced smiles, trying to appear nonchalant. Our teachers were more easily upset than usual.
One day after school, a friend and I were playing outdoors when the cloud filled western sky turned to brilliant pink and red hues – another gorgeous New Mexico sunset. My friend convinced me that the Russians had bombed and that this was the beginning of nuclear fallout. I ran home in a panic, believing that it had happened, and wanting to know – needing to know – what were we supposed to do next? We didn’t have a fallout shelter, so instead of hiding under a desk, should we go in a closet? What could protect us against the rain of nuclear fallout? Were we all about to die?
My parents had to talk with me for quite some time before I began to calm down. No, there hadn’t been a bombing. No, that red sky wasn’t nuclear fallout. I believed them – sort of – but it was a long time after the missiles had been removed before I could really relax. After the events of October 1962, I lived with a gut awareness of how close it had been, and what that would have meant.
Be sure to visit the JFK Library’s interactive documentary website Clouds Over Cuba.
This post is sponsored by the JFK Library