Mtume Salaam 8:43 a.m., May 24
It wasn't until some years later that the name for this experience my childhood pals and I lived through would have the word "missile" inserted into the middle of it, and become the iconic "Cuban Missile Crisis." It was shortly before Halloween 1962, and I distinctly remember how the news commentators, including probably Walter Cronkite--a grim figure who depressed me with his constant recounting of disasters and misfortunes everywhere--referred to it simply as "The Cuban Crisis," like some sort of clever poetic title.
As for us kids, we were more concerned with what we were going to wear for Halloween. Henry Clay Elementary put on a pretty good carnival in the evening every year, and we'd all go to it before setting out for Trick or Treating... in those days without our parents hovering over us like parents do now. I went as a skeleton that year, I think. About a third of the boys in any given year would wear one of those black suits with the bones emblazoned on the front and a plastic skull mask. It wasn't original, but every kid wants to do it at least once for Halloween. I really don't remember what my little brother wore.
We were aware that something was seriously wrong, but figured the adults would figure it out. I'd seen pictures of the Soviet leader, Khruschev. He was usually smiling good-naturedly in them, and had even visited Disneyland a few years before. My little kid's oversimplification of things was sometimes pretty far off the mark. I couldn't figure out how Martin Luther King could be such a great heroic guy, for example, if the police kept arresting him. Yet my buddies and I couldn't imagine that grownups who could smile and enjoy Disneyland, people like our moms and dads, would let such a beautiful world come to an end before we had really had time to experience it.
As it was, we kids were right. It didn't seem so at the time, though.
My 2nd grade teacher had been born in Hungary in the mid 1920s, and came to the U.S. at a young age. She'd served in the Coast Guard during WWII. She had a deep and abiding love for this country, a belief that we were the Good Guys in this world. I didn't really know these things at the time, though it didn't surprise me to hear them from her forty-something years later when I visited her at a retirement home in Hillcrest.
The topic of the Cuban Crisis was unavoidable, and I'm not sure how much guidance the teachers were given in how to approach it during class time. Mid to late October was also the anniversary of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. I remember her mentioning that to us, though it would be another half decade before I'd see a documentary about it in a junior high school history class. The last radio station still in operation as the Soviets invaded implored the United Nations and President Eisenhower to intervene with airborne troops ("For the sake of God and freedom -- help Hungary!"). The sheer desperation of the English language plea brought tears to my eyes, yet in the Very Big Picture it was probably wise for the old five-star general to concede to the Soviets their sphere of influence.
On that particular day, my 2nd grade teacher pulled down the rolled map of the world in front of the chalkboard. It doesn't seem like much in the era of satellite maps, but at the time I was amazed. I'd never seen a map--and such a large one--of the whole world. Dad was impressed enough with my interest in it to soon buy an even larger map that covered the entire wall of the bedroom my brother and I shared.
She explained in simple language that both our country and the Soviet Union had the capability to destroy each other through missiles that could travel over the North Pole at incredible speeds. Both sides knew that, and neither wanted to start a war that no one could survive. However, these smaller missiles in Cuba could cause problems that might escalate out of control, like a couple of kids whose argument on the playground leads to a big fight with groups of kids.
It wasn't a half bad explanation, actually. We weren't going to have nightmares about it, but on the other hand got some idea of what the adults were so preoccupied over. Then it was time for recess, and my main concern was with getting my turn in to kick the ball around.
Some days later, an end to the Cuban Crisis was declared. Everything was fine for Halloween, as we kids always knew it would be. I gathered a lot of candycorn and miniature Hershey bars and such in an old pillowcase, while wearing my skeleton costume.
I really liked my 2nd grade teacher, and sent her a Christmas card every year until the end of high school. She didn't live that far away, just in Mission Hills on a Cul de Sac above Mission Valley. Yet I never visited her, and after high school lost track of her altogether. I remembered the street name though, and one day half a dozen years ago was on the way back from dropping my dad off at the airport for one of his Elder Hostel trips when I decided to see what it looked like.
There were only four or five houses on the street, and a guy out in front of his doing some gardening as I pulled up. He knew her and said she'd been in a care facility for about a year, but had hopes of returning to her house sometime. He said the facility was nearby, and a few days later I went to visit her there.
It didn't take her long to remember me, and we had a nice visit. She didn't have any kids of her own, and her husband had passed away some years before. A few months later, I stopped by again to see how she was doing and to ensure discreetly that she had someone to help her take care of her affairs. It turned out she had a much younger sister in the area, and was well attended to.
I didn't visit her again, and a few weeks ago did a websearch, knowing what I'd probably find. She had passed away early in 2008. I was glad to have had a chance to see her again after so many years, and that she remembered me so clearly. Then when I was reminded this week that it was 50 years ago that President Kennedy had addressed the nation on the Cuban (Missile) Crisis, I thought of her and realized what a very young and innocent boy I was then. I believed in happy endings and looked up to adults as people who would always know what to do.
With people like her so influential in my young life, I suppose it wasn't really so way-out to feel that way.