The October 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. I was in middle school during those fateful days. I remember sitting in class, gripped with fear that a nuclear catastrophe ushering in the end of the world was imminent. I vividly recall Mr. Gaug, my American history teacher, lecturing on the Revolutionary War, my classmates engaging in discussion, and me silently questioning the relevance of history when we were about to be blown to smithereens in World War III.
Maybe my hypersensitivity had something to do with my father suddenly dying of a heart attack the year before. Attuned to the fragility and transience of human life, I just wanted to go home so I could be with my mother and sister when the bomb fell.
Oddly enough, despite its emotional impact, I have rarely thought about the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 50-plus years since John Kennedy agreed not to invade Cuba and Nikita Khrushchev pulled his Russian missiles from Cuban soil—that is, until recently, when a cup of coffee with Cary, an acquaintance from my exercise class at the 92nd Street ‘Y’, unexpectedly thrust that historical event back into my consciousness.
I knew that Cary had fled Cuba with her mother and sisters in the mid-1960s, and that her father, a counter-revolutionary pursued by the Castro regime, had escaped to the States a few years earlier.
Cary never talked about her life in Castro’s Cuba. We chatted about pedestrian subjects: exercise teachers, body aches, jobs, deteriorating medical care, life in New York City, etc. But one day at the coffee shop where we would meet after exercising, we found ourselves talking about 9/11.
Cary said that 9/11 had been especially stressful for her because it revived the emotional trauma of living in Cuba during the Castro regime. In 1961, during the Bay of Pigs Invasion, her father fled to the mountains. After he left, young soldiers—neighbors she had grown up with--started coming to her house looking for him. Pointing machine guns at her, her mother and sisters, they threatened to kill the family. She was aware of the executions of counter-revolutionaries at a nearby prison; she could hear the deadly shots at two or three in the morning.
Shunned by neighbors because of their anti-Castro sentiments, the family felt vulnerable and isolated. Cary said that whenever they would go to the store to get food rations, no one would speak to them.
Given such a hostile environment, the absence of her father, and the growing threat of an American bombardment, I could not imagine what Cary’s life was like during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
I told Cary about the anxiety I had experienced as an American teenager that October, admitting that I’d never considered the plight of people on the “other side” of the crisis.
Surprised that I mentioned the Cuban Missile Crisis, Cary said that most Americans didn’t seem to even know about it.
“I lived 500 meters away from the missiles. They were practically in my backyard,” she told me.
The same Soviet-armed nuclear missiles that were aimed at the United States? I was incredulous.
Cary’s family lived in the countryside next to a military base where the Soviets had installed missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads to major U.S. cities. She said that initially no one knew it was a missile base because the missiles had arrived piecemeal on trucks and were kept hidden under tarps. No Cuban soldiers were allowed inside the base; it was exclusively manned by the Soviets.
She remembered the Soviet soldiers well. They would come to the house (one had a crush on her sister) and bring cans of food and bread. She even learned some Russian. The family let them picnic on their park-like property and gave them fruit from their orchards.
Since the family lived in such proximity to the base, they were aware that if the Americans bombed the base, they would be killed. Cary, who had been studying English in preparation of eventually joining her father in the States, remembered, “I said ‘I’m not going to study anymore. If we are all going to die, what is the point?’ ”
As I sat glued to television to hear the latest developments in the deepening crisis, Cary only had limited access to news via a small radio. She could sense that a crisis was unfolding because of the heightened activity at the missile base. The soldiers who would visit were not allowed to leave the base. Cary could hear sirens blaring day and night--“rehearsals”--in case of an American attack.
Cary said that without full news coverage she never realized how close the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to nuclear disaster. However, more than five decades later, she chillingly recalled, “If I remember correctly, they uncovered the missiles. They never uncovered them during the day. They were ready.”
We were ready, too. Senator John McCain, a former naval pilot, told voters at a campaign stop during his 2008 bid for the presidency, “I sat in the cockpit, on the flight deck of the USS Enterprise, off of Cuba. I had a target. My friends, you know how close we came to a nuclear war.”
As both sides readied to annihilate each other in October of 1962, Cary in Cuba and I in the United States, riddled with fear and pessimism about the future, waited for the bombs to drop.
Fredricka R. Maister is a longtime Manhattanite and freelance writer.