Growing up in the Washington, D.C. area during the 1960s was… interesting – History would have a way of occasionally butting into an otherwise typical suburban boyhood. The memory of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration comes back to me in a Proustian sort of way through the taste of hot chocolate, which my father administered to me in an attempt to thaw me out during the bitter cold of January 20, 1961; Ask not what your country can do for you… went right over my head – I was trying to ward off frostbite.
In the fall of 1962, I was eleven – my chief concerns were building models, wangling visits downtown to see my favorite museum, and trying to figure out how to get to see Dr. No and Lawrence of Arabia, both of which opened around that time. I don’t recall when I became aware of the doings in Cuba – that the Soviet Union had shipped missiles there that threatened our survival, and that President Kennedy had ordered a strict naval blockade, and that war was right around the corner. If my parents were worried – and they must have been – they hid it very well, or more likely I was just oblivious. My friends and I at Kensington Junior High had heard that some fathers had disappeared – had been secretly sent to what would later be called Undisclosed Locations. But my dad rather disappointingly stayed put, and the one kid I knew who said his father, who worked for the Government Printing Office, had vanished, was widely suspected of lying.
What I mainly remember of the Cuban Missile Crisis was a map published in either the Washington Post or Star. It showed the Washington area with concentric circles radiating out from the White House, illustrating what sort of effects an H-bomb detonation would have – something similar to this, I think. It showed that the downtown area would essentially be vaporized, and lethal blast effects could be expected all the way out to Chevy Chase Circle on the border of D.C. and Maryland. My friends and I discussed the map endlessly. We, out in the leafy Maryland suburbs, could expect a fair amount of blast, but our sturdy brick ramblers could probably take it, we thought – bad luck on any dads caught downtown, though. But the fallout was worrisome. We could expect, the map warned us, a fair amount of gamma radiation out our way. None of our families had fallout shelters, even though they were conveniently offered for sale at a nearby used car lot. I believe our gang decided that we would just hunker down in our basements and hope for the best. One of the guys pointed out that although the map did show the H-bomb detonating neatly over the White House, the Soviets were quite capable of missing the target – Ground Zero might turn out to be nearby Wheaton Plaza, instead. In which case, all of our careful calculations, and ourselves – were toast…
So my friends and I assumed that we were all going to die, but I don’t recall that we were terribly concerned by the thought. At the height of the crisis, our school had a nuclear attack drill – no duck and cover for us; we were all sent home so we could be blown up with our families. As my buddies and I walked home, our main topic was – was it to be bombers, or missiles? Strolling down Kensington Parkway, we looked up at the clear blue autumn sky, and watched for contrails.
Allan Janus in a museum specialist in the National Air and Space Museum’s Archives Division.
Watch a video of Dino Brugioni, former senior official of the information branch of the National Photographic Interpretation Center tell of the Cuban Missile crisis in Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside (Photographic) Story of the Cuban Missile Crisis, recorded on Friday, October 19 in the Airbus IMAX Theater, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA.