Remembering the Cuban Crisis

  • I was fresh out of college, new to Berkeley. The woman in the next apartment had her radio on that evening and invited me in to hear Kennedy’s speech; people commented how well-phrased it was. The rain, that night and the next day, was that gray-silver cloud that descends when we don’t know if life is soon over. I remember walking up Telegraph that afternoon and buying a lighter and raincoat in the dimestore, after phoning friends to find someone with a car and others who were ready so we could flee. On the campus, some of us met and were having coffee when a siren went off.

    A minute later, we heard the siren moving and realized it was only a fire truck, and breathed again. Later, there was a corner rally and Bill Mandel said “Look, I’m middle-aged, for me maybe it’s all right, but you people are still young! You need your lives,” and Marvin Garson invited everyone to that evening’s End of the World party.

    In the Bassens’ apartment, three of us discussed fleeing and timing; Stephanie phoned the Chronicle. Stephanie: “What time will the Polish ships reach the (US ships’) blockade?” Reporter: “Lady, if I knew that, I’d be in the State Department.”

    In the morning, on little sleep, four of us–Eli and his girlfriend, and Gene, and I–drove up 101 in Gene’s car, which had uncertain brakes. Near Willetts, we camped, buying “good steaks for a barbeque” in a small-town grocery; “They probably think we’re the only people not worried,” Gene or Eli said.

    By the next afternoon, we were heading back, and stopped in Mendocino–my first trip there. I and one of the guys were feeling very embarrassed or ashamed to have run in fear from a fate that all of us around, all of us in the world, might now confront.

    We climbed on the bluffs above the ocean, nearly slipping a couple of times onto the rocks and ocean below. We stopped in a bookstore and I bought a copy of the journal Daedalus, and then we sat on the grass above the town for awhile. I was reading the Daedalus, and there was an article by Bettelheim about surviving the concentration camps, and in it he said, “In this situation” (where one’s life, and everyone around’s, was being threatened, by people who’d no concern for human life), “even to survive was, itself, to fight back.”
    In the evening, we returned to Berkeley. While we were away, the ships had met and the Polish ships pulled back. But the crisis continued until the agreement, that Saturday, and (it has since been learned) for some weeks thereafter. And, as my friend Harvey said, sometime that December, the biggest danger was in the week before the announcement, when the administration had been determining whether to try a blockade or an attack.
    Copyright  2012 by Paula Friedman. All rights reserved, including all print and electronic media.

The Power of a Book

Today, 11-11-11, I reread John Hersey’s book Hiroshima (1946).

This is a book written long before films sported iconic mushroom clouds, a la Children of Men (2006), or bristled with pamphlet-perfect flash-‘n-blast, like the playground scene in Terminator 2 (1985). It’s a book from well before the “nuclear literature” that later became material for graduate-level fields—a book from before the Cold War or the years of post-Dr.-Strangelove sophistication.

This is a book of journalism, built from interviews with six persons who survived an unforeseen actuality in the moment when the Bomb and its effects had been unknown and were still inconceivable, entirely new.

Thus the presentation, moment by moment, of these survivors’ (and, in the writing, the author’s) confrontation with worsening, unimagined horrors can cut, even today, past our defenses.

It’s a good book to read when people in power talk about “taking out” Iran or Israel, Damascus or D.C. It’s a book that may have helped, if people in power opened and read it, in 1946, in 1962, yesterday.

A good book to read those hours one wonders if writing’s a waste of time.