A friend sent me an email with pictures of a 1960s bomb shelter recently uncovered in the back yard of a Wisconsin home. It was built during the Cuban missile crisis and reminded me of fall 1962, when America, Russia and Cuba faced nuclear war. If you’re concerned about how dangerous the world is now, especially with the Crimea conflict between Russia and other countries, consider how it was over fifty years ago.
It was fall 1962, a dangerous time in America. Bob and I were two years into building our sailboat “Discovery” in the back yard, when Soviet ships carrying nuclear missiles steamed into Cuban waters. U. S. aerial photographs revealed missile silos on the Island and on September 4, 1962 president John F. Kennedy issued Soviet president Khrushchev a warning to pull his ships out of the area.
For thirteen days in October the entire world held its breath—seemingly on the brink of nuclear war. By October 22, with America on high alert, President Kennedy warned the world of nuclear war. Historians named October 27 and 28, 1962––while the U.S. readied for conflict and devastation––as the most dangerous days of the crisis.
I had just read John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” and couldn’t tear myself away from the television news, afraid we’d be nuked before we ever realized our dream of cruising around the world. Consumed with fear, I wished that we were building a concrete bomb shelter, instead of a wooden boat.
Given Bob’s paramedic training if such an emergency happened I knew he would be called to lifeguard headquarters, and insisted we plan a rendezvous location in case we were separated by nuclear attack.
One sunny morning following Kennedy’s speech Bob was working on the boat, Robbie and Sharri were playing in the yard with the neighbor children and I was in the house. The telephone rang. “Is Bob there?” a grave voice asked. Simultaneously, a siren––the one designated for nuclear warnings––began wailing. The serious voice on the other end of the line, combined with the siren’s timing, made my imagination soar. I came unglued.
This was it, a nuclear attack. Bob was being summoned to headquarters. “Hold on, I’ll get him,” I answered, throwing down the receiver. It bounced wildly at the end of its cord while I ran into the yard madly waving my arms and screaming hysterically to the stunned neighborhood children, “This is it! This is it! Go home and cover your faces.”
I yelled to Robbie and Sharri, “Go into the house and get under the bed.” Then I calmed my voice and told Bob, “You have a phone call,” and quickly pushed Robbie and Sharri toward the house.
Bob slowly stuck his head up out of the hatch and shouted at my retreating back, “This is what?”I didn’t bother to answer.
He climbed down the ladder propped against the boat, followed me to the house, picked the receiver up off the floor and said hello to surfboard manufacturer Greg Noll, who was calling about a project we were working on. Conversation over, Bob hung up the phone and stared at me for a long time. Then he shook his head in disbelief and sauntered back to the boat.
To this day, he has never commented on that episode.