We are coming up on the 50th anniversary of the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. There will be new books about the Kennedy legacy and many news articles about his death and the conspiracy theories that surround it.
Since his death, we have learned many of the dark secrets of the slain president, but he remains a popular figure despite the discoveries of his womanizing and the revelations that he was a very sick man, not at all the healthy, athletic president we all wanted to emulate.
But it is not his death that I think about most, though I remember the announcement over the school PA system in my eighth-grade English class and the stunned protests and then the weeping that followed. Rather, it is the events of the previous October that return in memory to haunt me.
Just more than a half century ago, the world was poised to go to nuclear war. On Oct. 22, 1962, Kennedy appeared on television to announce the presence of nuclear armed missiles in Cuba aimed at U.S. cities.
It was the day before my 12th birthday, and I recall looking at the reconnaissance photos of hard-to-interpret evidence on the small black and white screen, and the young and serious president at his podium, and being afraid.
Just three years prior, Pat Frank had published his apocalyptic and completely believable nuclear war novel, “Alas Babylon.” The novel tells of the days leading up to the disaster, and the ordinariness of them, and then the terrible aftermath.
As my family gathered in front of the TV, it seemed entirely possible that we would soon be seeing the blinding white flash and the mushroom cloud rising over one of the nearby military bases that surrounded our small city, feeling the effects of invisible radiation raining silently out of the sky.
My father was in the Navy then, and we lived in Key West, Fla., which soon became an armed camp. Though I did not realize it until much later, the troops who rolled in day after day along Roosevelt Boulevard and camped beyond the barbed wire that now surrounded our high school football field were preparing for the invasion of Cuba, 90 miles away.
If they had invaded as planned, Castro and his Soviet advisers were prepared to launch ballistic missiles, which could reach anywhere in the continental U.S., and another 100 short-range nuclear tactical missiles, which could have at least wiped out most of South Florida.
Just more than 12 years ago, the entire country was frightened out of its wits by 19 stateless terrorists flying planes into the World Trade Center. Not to diminish that terrifying day, but in this week in October, 51 years ago, we were a hair’s breadth away from the deaths of an estimated 100 million Americans and the complete destruction of the Soviet Union.
There is no comparison between the two events, except in the way we reacted to them.
I re-read “Alas Babylon” every few years because it remains one of the best stories of its kind, but also because I don’t want to forget how fragile our existence really is.
We were one step away from the edge of an abyss, and some in our government were calling for us to step out. Times have not changed so much.
Walt Mills can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at P.O. Box 174, Spring Mills, PA 16875.