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November 7, 2011

I Was Just Thinking: Remembering my small glimpse of the Cuban Missle Crisis


Daily Star

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I read recently in a newspaper that the U.S. was beginning a "year-long observance of the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, culminating in October 2012."

Fifty years?

I'd been following the crisis on TV as my mom and dad fretted over the news being presented by the dour-faced men in gray business suits who gave us the news each night on our brand-new Zenith television set.

I followed the story of secret missiles in Cuba; of a ranting Russian madman named Khrushchev, who banged his shoe at the U.N. and promised to bury me; and of a wild-eyed Marxist revolutionary named Fidel Castro, who smoked stogies, had a Fagin-like beard, wore cheesy uniforms now associated with Mission Impossible TV heavies, and was the latest Central Casting puppet of the Politburo.

Pretty heady stuff for a 12-year-old to absorb, huh?

I remember the image of missile-bearing Russian ships steaming toward Cuba, forcing a Tom Clancy-like showdown with the U.S. Navy. I remember the spectacle of our courtly U.N. ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, blowing his top at the Soviet delegate, another Central Casting baddie named Zorin, when Stevenson demanded to know if Russian missiles were in place.

"Don't wait for my translation. Answer me now!" thundered Stevenson. Zorin sat like a stone. "Mr. Ambassador, I'm prepared to wait for my answer until Hell freezes over," Stevenson spat.

The crisis went on throughout 1962. One night I was sprawled out on the floor of our living room at 69 West Main St. in Sidney watching "My Three Sons." I remember suddenly feeling the floor subtly start to move. Like a miniature earthquake. I got up and my Mom and I walked out to the front yard. It was freezing cold and pitch dark. And it was as quiet as a church whisper outside. But still I heard the faint rumbling of a giant "something" in the October sky.

I looked up, and there it was. Twinkling lights slowly creeping across the night. Hundreds of them, it seemed. I asked Mom what they were and she said, "Planes, I guess. Big planes." My 12-year-old mind raced. I was convinced they were bombers heading to Cuba to go to war with the Russians. The news had peaked all week long _ someone had to blink or we would all be gone. Our young President Kennedy had come to the brink of the abyss with those villains from Central Casting. Who would blink? Who would die? Would our "ghost bombers" win a victory for America?

I never got to sleep that night.

Recently I was in Rome, N.Y., and I drove out to the old former Griffiss Air Force Base to look around. The base is now empty, but a very famous relic of the Cold War is still there for all to see.

It's the "ghost bomber" of my youth.

At the entrance to Griffiss stands an actual B-52 Stratofortress bomber. It is a magnificent, massive football-field-sized killing machine. The cockpit name reads "Mohawk Valley." It was the first bomber to take off at Griffiss in 1960 and the last one to land there in 1991. It is now on permanent display.

As I grew older, I learned just what it was that my mother and I watched rumbling across the night sky over Sidney almost a half-century ago. They were bombers coming out of Griffiss heading south to prepare for Armageddon. These were my "ghost bombers." Maybe even the Mohawk Valley flew over my house. I'd finally come face-to-face with my childhood imagination and made it real.

We all know what happened to end the Cuban Missile Crisis. JFK defied his salivating generals and held fast against the ships heading our way. Khrushchev blinked, was humiliated at home and disappeared within two years. Kennedy was murdered a year after the crisis. And Castro, like the loud uncle who always stays too long at Thanksgiving, is still an unbilled B-actor on the world's stage even 50 years later.

Over the next 12 months we'll remember and commemorate that scary time in 1962 with seminars, books, reflections and television specials. Watching those "ghost bombers" rumble out of sight over my house in Sidney those many years ago caused me to stay awake in fear all night. That's how I remember it.

So how do we commemorate something as big, as grand, and as frightening as the world on the brink of a nuclear war like we were?

I will celebrate it by getting a good night's sleep.

I'll catch you in two ...

'Big Chuck' D'Imperio can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his "Oldies Jukebox Show." You can find "Big Chuck" on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at wdosbigchuck@aol.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.