The Cuban Missile Crisis | We All Hid Under Our Desks

In the previous message, The Pioneering Age of Radio & Security (Part One), the author alluded to the “Red Scare” and the Cuban missile crisis. Here is the author’s memory of a day in October 1962…

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I sat at my desk eating lunch at elementary school on Wednesday, October 24, 1962. My mom’s tuna fish sandwiches were hard to beat. She added a bag of Lay’s potato chips and a bottle of Yoo-hoo. The class waited for CBS newscaster Walter Chronkite’s fatherly voice to explain how the Russians had responded to President’s Kennedy’s speech two nights ago. JFK had promised to block Soviet ships from entering into Cuba. My classmate Billy Burns boasted that Khrushchev had attempted an end run, like in football, in hopes of scoring a touchdown. Billy said his dad told him that the Russians had underestimated the U.S. defense during the Cuban missile crisis.

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Our Teacher Mrs. Bristlin had placed the small black & white T.V. on her desk yesterday. The students smiled as she sat at Jenny Harding’s desk eating a sandwich like one of us. Jenny had been absent all week with the Hong Kong flu. Mrs. Bristlin was close enough to the T.V. where she could reach over to regulate the sound. CBS News’s Walter Chronkite’s special broadcast placed our class on high alert.

photo by New York Daily News

Monday evening President John F. Kennedy had addressed the nation regarding the Cuban missile crisis. As my dad said, “Kennedy didn’t mince words.” In other words he told us all what was going on and warned that the solution wouldn’t be easy to come by.

From what I understood, Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev had been sneaking missile components into Cuba via ships from the Soviet Union, despite being warned by the U.S. government to stop. JFK told us that once installed, Khrushchev could easily launch the nuclear missiles into United States cities. It sounded pretty scary. Kennedy promised retaliation, like when Carl, who sat behind me, would toss spitballs down the back of my shirt and I’d dig my feet into the floor and ram my desk into his, in retaliation. Of course, Kennedy’s retaliation would have much more dire consequences. Here is an excerpt of JFK’s message to all of us:

My fellow citizens, let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out. No one can foresee precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred. Many months of sacrifice and self-discipline lie ahead—months in which both our patience and our will be tested, months in which many threats and denunciations will keep us aware of our dangers. But the greatest danger of all would be to do nothing.

Before class began Mrs. Bristlin, who had supreme faith in JFK, told us that we needn’t be fearful and that President Kennedy would find a way to stop the Russians. Becky, who sat at a desk in the rear, began crying. Mrs. Bristlin, a Southern Belle transplanted from Alabama to Southern California comforted Becky with words as soft as peach fuzz.

photo by UO Blogs

When Walter Chronkite’s face came on the TV screen Mrs. Bristlin held one hand up to quiet the class while her other hand adjusted the volume. For the next few minutes Mrs. Bristlin clasped her hands at her firm jaw while us kids, like good soldiers, listened on. When Chronkite ended the broadcast he said, “And that’s the way it is.” Like Kennedy he didn’t mince words.

Walter Chronkite told us that Khrushchev bragged that the U.S. would not intimidate the Soviet Union. Khrushchev refused to remove the missiles from Cuba. He also accused President Kennedy of putting the world at risk of a nuclear war by ordering the quarantine.

Mrs. Bristlin forgot to turn the T.V. volume back down. Meanwhile, she told the class that we should continue our lessons so that we’d finish elementary school and progress to high school later.

The familiar bell rang. Unlike the recess bell this one didn’t stop.

“All right class,” Mrs. Bristlin said, in a calm voice. “Everyone get under their desk. Now hurry.”

Was the Cuban missile crisis for real? Did Khrushchev fire missiles at us? I saw that Raymond, who would sit in the back row with his long legs stretched out couldn’t get under his desk. At nearly six feet, he was taller than Mrs. Bristlin, and a foot taller than most of us kids.

If the bomb exploded would Raymond be killed because of his height? That wasn’t fair. Mrs. Bristlin pulled her chair out and said, “Raymond, come here, you get under my desk.”

“What about you, Mrs. Bristlin?” Raymond said.

“Don’t worry about me,” she said.

In the back row Becky cried out, “I don’t want you to die Mrs. Bristlin.”

“We’ll all be fine. Now everyone stay under their desks.”

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When the bell stopped ringing, the room quieted except for the noise of the T.V.

The class followed Mrs. Bristlin’s instruction. We all got up from under our desks while the familiar jingle sounded out of the T.V.’s speaker.

You’ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.

We all smiled as Mrs. Bristlin lowered the T.V. volume and said, “Everybody turn to page fort-two in your social studies book.”

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