The Charlotte News

Thursday, October 14, 1937


Site Ed. Note: We are about to tick off the 45th anniversary of an ominous period of thirteen days in the history of mankind, a baker’s dozen, just short of a fortnight, which could have ended with much of western civilization in ruins, and much of the world contaminated by radiation, one in which, had it been thus, should we have survived at all, an unlikely prospect, we might still find ourselves camped out somewhere underground, awaiting that all-clear signal, someday, some of these days.

We ourselves, as we have remarked, remember it well, for we were among that group of schoolchildren asked to do the dark task of filling in data on ourselves on little manila cards to be taped to the bottom of our school desk seats, so as to identify us in the event a nuclear attack turned us to toast (never mind that, even then, we did not quite understand how the desk and card would survive with us being toast, but we kept quiet about it for fear of alarming the lesser lights among our peers).

We were at the time a thousand miles from Miami, but not only well within range, but within a city rumored to be in the high seedings of targets, for its industry, especially one making the guidance devices for the missiles, an industry parked but a couple of miles from where we lived.

So, toast, to be sure we would likely become, were such an unthinkable war to be.

In any event, we remember it. We remember, above our bed, the little gold placard hung above our bedside, embossed on which was a little boy kneeling with the words of the Children’s Prayer etched below: "Now I lay me down to sleep…" We studied that plaquette assiduously during the nightly rounds of those days of October, 1962 and asked for guidance to the President to make the right decision to keep us well in the next morning tide.

It all did not officially begin, those thirteen ominous days for mankind, until October 16, 1962, but the U-2 flight, which began it all with the aerial photographs of the installation in progress, occurred 45 years ago this Sunday, October 14, also a Sunday. The photographs were processed the following day and President Kennedy was provided his first glimpse of the problem on Tuesday, October 16.

We shall endeavor to give you a bit of a running chronologue, from various sources, including that culled from the Kennedy Library, as the thirteen days pass us by again, still with the sunshine shining and the rain pouring occasionally, albeit in some places too much these days, in others, not enough, and the fall leaves still falling well, in evidence of time still passing season to season, birth to birth, and death to death.

We have recounted it once before, but should you indulge us, we shall again, just briefly, reference the moment in our childhood, in 1961, when the air raid siren, one on top of the pharmacy near where we lived, left over from even darker days, had short-circuited one Saturday night, causing it to spin round and round out of control, blasting that awful, seeringly screeching, high-pitched cacophonous roar to our ears, a pitch when sounded which undoubtedly suggests, within the innate make-up of man, something evil afoot, a tone the origin of which inexorably springs from somewhere and some event or series of events in time too far back to recognize in the recorded histories.

"Naked City" was on the television screen when it happened.

All the adults trooped out onto the porches of the apartment complex where we were, including the adults who accompanied us, and all stood quietly, an elderly man next door standing, palpably standing, puffing contemplatively on a cigarette, clearly puffing it as if it might be his last puff any moment. The silence was deafeningly funereal, the air so thick with nerves, yet so helplessly full of accustomed submission to the fates by the elders, that it was positively calming by its acceptance of an inevitability.

We stood with the others looking to the night sky; we wondered what an inbound missile might look like as it hurtled toward us, but quickly stopped considering that idea, as we understood it to be a futile thought, and, instead, simply said a silent prayer.

No missiles came, the air raid siren stopped whirling after about an hour, or so it seemed. Everyone chuckled to each other and returned inside to finish the night’s programming on the tv, which Conelrad had not bothered even to interrupt.

We cannot recall the episode of "Naked City", or the month of this incident for certain, though we know it was not winter or spring, probably summer or early fall.

But a year later, it all almost came true, and this time, no air raid went off, no one went to the porches to look to the night sky. It was all on the television, all in the newspapers, as if the year before had been a dry-run in preparation for the actuality of the thing. This time, it was no short in the wiring. Yet, still, no missile came.

We escaped, thanks to calm-headed leaders who did not rush to the fight, knowing its potentiality for dreadful and ruinous consequences, consequences which subsequent history has informed us would have almost certainly included nuclear exchange, and obliteration of some substantial part of the east coast of the United States, including Washington, had we in fact done that which General LeMay and the more headstrong of the Joint Chiefs recommended, and invaded and bombed the missile sites in Cuba; for some of the sites, without our realizing it then, were already operational, and Premier Castro has since assured us that had we invaded, he would have fired at will, and regardless of the fatal results to his own, instanter.

The genius of the blockade, a mere afterthought from the Pentagon, and the courage of the President to implement it in the face of a groundswell of enthusiasm among his closest military advisors of the time for the invasion, stands as one of the vital testaments to resolution of international conflict by honest, and simple, diplomacy rather than the complex strategy of warfare, made doubly the more courageous by the contrary inertia of casus belli which could have been set in place in the President’s mind by the inevitable comparisons to Munich, and the indecisiveness and lack of steadfastness in appeasement leading on to World War II a year afterward(however rankly unfair the tangential connection to the fact that Joseph Kennedy then happened to be Ambassador to Great Britain, having come to the post only six months prior to Munich, and that nowhere else in the annals of American history does one find evidence of any set of numb skulls seeking to lay blame for a war at the feet of a mere Ambassador, whether to the Court of St. James or else).

So, take a gander at this day’s prints, from The News of 25 years earlier, before that fateful day when that U-2 pilot pushed the button in the cockpit and the little eye opened and recorded the elongated wormy images below which nearly ended all of civilization as we know it, one crisp October day in 1962. Especially consider the Ripley’s of that earlier day in 1937, the piece below it on Einstein and his lamenting the insistent casuistry abetting his time, the design to unseat the very existence of time, to make of it a return to the void, and see what you can see. (And in doing that bit of reflection, don't neglect to recall that the pre-empted military coup set forth in Seven Days in May, by Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey, published in 1962 by Harper & Row, was headed by a character named James Mattoon Scott.) It is indeed one of those things where one shakes one’s head a bit and wonders, and perhaps says a silent prayer of thanks that we have made it this far, another 45 years, another 70 since then, without blowing ourselves to toast somewhere along the line in the process of getting here.

Pardon us, we could use a headache powder about now. (Incidentally, the modern FDA, more than just a check on adulteration and labeling of drugs, as it had been since 1906, but also as a testing agency for pharmaceuticals sought to be marketed, came into being in June, 1938, the deadly headache powders being one of several sources undoubtedly which cried out for such a screen.)

Now, we lay us down to sleep…

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