On Facing Nuclear War… The Cuban Missile Crisis

The world teetered on the edge of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Massive destruction would have been the result. It changed my perspective on war, but it was only one of four events that took place while I was a student at Sierra College that impacted my view of the future. In my last post from “The Bush Devil Ate Sam,” I discussed how a Chinese man shook up my view of race. Today, in addition to my reaction to the Cuban Missile Crisis, I explore how my views on religion and the environment were changed.

The Campus Center at Sierra College was the main gathering point for students and faculty. It’s where we all came together in October of 1962 and listened for news on the radio during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The photo above was from a less stressed time when socializing, studying, and discussing/debating other issues were what occupied our minds. I’m in the center with my mouth open. The photographer had asked us to look up.

I took my religion seriously as a young person at the Episcopal Church in Placerville. I started by carrying the California flag in the procession that kicked off the service. I then moved up to the American Flag, after which, I graduated to carrying the cross. I sang in the choir and did solos. I became an acolyte and a junior lay reader. I was even the church janitor. There was talk of my becoming a priest. The church helped get me through my teenage years.

The Episcopal Church in Placerville that played a significant role in my life for 16 years.

One day when I was perusing the small book store at Sierra, I picked up a Barnes and Noble book on comparative religion and learned about Mithraism and Zoroastrianism. I caught a glimpse of how much our great monotheistic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam were based on older mythologies. I learned about Buddhism, Hinduism and the world’s other religions.

At the same time, I was taking a class on world history. I read about the inquisitions and holy wars brought about by religious fanaticism and exclusivity— about the tens of thousands of people who were killed in the name of God. I began to have doubts. My rock that was Peter made a dramatic shift and relocated itself on an active fault zone. So, I stopped going to church. But there was more. I came to believe that an all encompassing God would not limit ways people could reach Him/Her. It followed that people should be free to worship as they chose and that there should be a clear separation of church and state.

Another concept I was introduced to at Sierra was environmental activism. For this, I owe thanks to Danny Langford. Dan liked to talk and could fit more words into a minute than I could in five. One Monday morning he proudly informed me that he had spent his weekend pulling up surveyor stakes in El Dorado Hills, a new development east of Sacramento.

“You did what?” I asked in a shocked and disapproving voice. 

“I pulled up stakes to discourage a developer from building houses,” he responded in greater detail assuming it would make sense to me. It didn’t. Why would someone want to discourage a developer? It seemed positively Anti-American. My Republican roots were offended to the core. 

“Why would you pull a destructive stunt like that?” I demanded to know as I thought of a whole day or possibly several days of surveyor work going down the drain.

“It’s a beautiful area,” Dan responded, “covered with oak trees and grass. They are going to cut down the trees, plant houses, and pave over the grass.”

Suddenly what Dan was talking about made sense. I wasn’t about to join him on one of his destructive forays, but his comments made me think about how fast we were paving over California. Although I was only 20, many of the places I had wandered so happily as a kid had already met their unhappy demise at the business end of a bulldozer. Progress was how this destruction was defined and progress was a sacred American tradition. For the first time in my life, a question had been inserted into my mind about its value. 

The fourth event was one of the scariest our generation would face. All of our lives we had been raised under the threat of a nuclear cloud. We were constantly treated to photographs and television coverage of massive, doomsday explosions and their telltale clouds. In elementary school, I had been taught to hide under my desk and cover my face so the exploding glass windows wouldn’t blind me.

Atom bombs, which could destroy whole cities and kill millions of people, weren’t massive enough. We needed bigger bombs and we needed more. It was important that we could kill everyone in the world several times over and blast ourselves and the rest of life into times that would make the so-called Dark Ages seem like a Sunday picnic in the park. 

None of this was our fault, of course. We had the evil, Godless, Russian Communists and their desire to rule the world to blame. Losing a soul to communism was worse than losing a soul to the devil. And maybe it was the same thing. Better Dead than Red was the rallying cry of people whose fingers were very close to the nuclear button.

The closest we have come to the nuclear holocaust took place during two terrifying weeks in late October 1962.  I was student body president at the time and I, along with most of my classmates and faculty at Sierra College, sat tethered to the radio in the Campus Center as our nation teetered on the edge of nuclear abyss. It had all come about because a cigar chomping left-wing dictator we didn’t like had replaced a cigar chomping right-wing dictator we did. It was known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, and has its own headlines in the history books as being a highlight of the Cold War. 

Castro and his revolution had provided a toehold for Communism in the Western Hemisphere. Jack Kennedy had waged a crusade to get rid of him that had started with alleged assassination attempts using Mafia hit men and ended in the fiasco known as the Bay of Pigs. Castro had then called on Uncle Khrushchev to loan him something to make the USA behave. Russia had responded by offering nuclear missiles. 

The thought of having nuclear missiles pointed down the throat of our Eastern seaboard made the folks in Washington rightfully nervous, so Kennedy set up a blockade of Cuba. Fortunately, aided by promises that the US wouldn’t invade Cuba and that we would remove our missiles from Turkey, Khrushchev blinked.  From that point on in my life, I became convinced that there had to be solutions to solving international differences beyond blowing each other off the map. Nation states rattling sabers was one thing; rattling nuclear bombs was something else.

So here I was in mid-1963, a budding peacenik with international leanings, something of an agnostic, environmentally concerned, and committed to Civil Rights. I had made a left turn from the right lane and definitely become more liberal in my perspective. I figured I was ready for Berkeley. Not. But I was approaching the point where deciding to join the Peace Corps would be natural. First up, however, I learned what it meant to be on the wrong end of a rifle, which will be the subject of my post next Wednesday. I decided later that it was good training for both Berkeley and the Peace Corps.

NEXT POSTS:

Friday’s Travel Blog: Peggy and I are at Harris Beach State Park on the Oregon Coast where we end up exploring tide pools and finding starfish. Lots of them.

Monday’s Blog-A-Book… “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me”: I continue my sleep over at Rudy and Roberts. I teach my friends how to ride pine trees. In return they teach me how to eat a habanero pepper. I end my adventure by taking my first solo hike ever, at 5 AM!

31 thoughts on “On Facing Nuclear War… The Cuban Missile Crisis

    • Thanks, Andrew. I’ve always been interested in thinking about what makes us who we are, both from an individual and societal perspective. Half the fun for me in the two books I am blogging is in exploring the subject. –Curt

    • The 60s were interesting times, for sure, AC— one of those watershed decades where we begin the process of redefining who we are, which is a subject we have been debating ever since. Extensive, rapid change is almost always a time of turmoil. And things haven’t slowed down since. –Curt

  1. I didn’t realize you’re older than I am. I know you’ve talked about your age during your through-hike, etc., but I still think of you as about 60. I was in high school at the time — a junior, I think — and even reading the words ‘Cuban missile crisis’ brings it all back. I was sitting in a different classroom watching a different clock, but the experience was the same. I suspect it is for most of us who lived through it.

    • I still think of myself as about 60, Linda. Or younger. 🙂 And yes, if one was old enough to comprehend what was happening, I think it would have been impossible not to think about the very real danger we faced. –Curt

  2. I wasn’t even born then, but your blog makes me want to take up the hobby of learning more about our history! thank you for sharing your stories!

  3. So much history (told or untold) from the communism era! We visited Havana in 2017, and we ate some ice-cream using the exact same type of tiny plastic spoons we used when we were still living under the communist regime. A bunch of forgotten memories had resurfaced..

  4. Thank goodness the Cuban crisis ended peacefully. I have never been able to understand the animosity towards Cuba. They make beautiful music there and there was or still is a band called The Cuban…. of which I have forgotten the rest of the name.
    Great article, Curt.

    • It was the fear of communism in the 50s and 60s, Gerard. The same thing that led to the Vietnam War. Why it lasted so long? Who knows. A strong contingent of pre-Castro Cubans living in Florida was certainly a part of it. –Curt

  5. Being in Oz, and a little younger, this was all somewhat removed for me. I never did have to hide under a desk.
    I can’t imaging you being religious. Ever. Still, I went through a (very) brief phase myself (I think in my teenage years – can’t remember).
    Another good read Curt.
    Alison

  6. Your curiosity and decision to read about other religions was so important to your eventual perspective on faith. I wish more people had that desire to learn and broaden their views. The world would be a more tolerant place.

    • Few things in the world have created more grief than religious intolerance, Kelly. That and the abuse of religion for the all-too-human objectives like wealth and power. –Curt

  7. You never cease to amaze me, and now you’ve added new words to describe you — from agnostic to peacemaker to an environmentalist. You’re pretty amazing, but you could have gotten into some BIG trouble, I suppose. More later?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s