Red and Pink Marked the Corridors of Death
In January, 1961, President John F. Kennedy came into office under full sails. He sounded good, looked good, and had the ability to connect with folks. He was charismatic, people just liked to get near him, and his big grin kind of lit up the room. As I wrote in Rocket Boys, I first came across Kennedy in Welch, our county seat, when he was trying to win the state primary against fellow Democrat Hubert Humphrey. It was necessary that he win our primary, so the press accounts went, because we disliked Catholics and if he could win in an awful state like West Virginia, he could win anywhere. This was, for most West Virginians, something of a surprise. We had no idea we were prejudiced against Catholics. I surely didn't know anybody who didn't like them. In fact, a high percentage of Coalwood folks were from Italy and Eastern Europe and were Catholics and we didn't think a thing about it. I understand now, of course, that even if it took inventing prejudice where it didn't exist and giving our entire state and its people a black eye in the process, the press didn't much care as long as they sold their newspapers.
But, anyway, there Kennedy was standing atop a limousine expounding on the benefits of food stamps which didn't yet exist, and how he was going to save coal miners from being poor. Since nearly all of the miners listening to him were fully employed and weren't hungry unless they happened to have skipped lunch that day, he wasn't making much headway with the crowd. That was until I asked him what he was going to do about space with a follow-on recommendation that we should go to the moon. When he said if he got to be President, maybe that's what we'd do, the crowd gave him a good cheer and I think it buoyed him a little bit. He won the West Virginia primary going away.
A freshman at Virginia Tech, I heard Kennedy's inaugural address on a radio in my room and liked what he had to say a lot. He promised we were going to fight tyranny, meaning the Communists in Russia and China, and also said that we should figure out what we could do for the country and not worry about what the country could do for us. Since I was in school to be an engineer to help beat the Russians in the space race and also intended to become an officer in the military, I figured I was right in line with President Kennedy's speech.
Looking back on it, I don't recall any of the cadets I knew caring two cents about politics. As far as we were concerned, the USA had grown as it should since 1776 during war and peace during which our country mostly did the right thing when it had to do it. Our history flowed from war to war and the country progressed westward and led the industrial revolution and that was all we needed to know. If we thought about modern history, it centered around the Cold War. Most of us thought, one way or the other, the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union would boil over and we might get caught up in it after we graduated but that was well into the future or so we thought. What we didn't know, while we were enjoying a crisp, beautiful Autumn in 1962, was there was something strange happening in Cuba that was about to bring the entire world to the brink and us with it.
These days, a lot of people make fun of the 1950's and 60's when grade school kids hid under their desks during atomic bomb drills. I mean how could a desk stop an atomic bomb? Haha. Well, not so fast. As it was explained to us by our teachers, it actually made some sense. We got under our desks to keep our little bodies from being sliced through by flying glass from shattered windows. That might not work but wasn't it worth a try? The fallout shelters that families built inside their homes back then are also thought of as pretty droll. Maybe so, but even if hiding out after the nukes dropped didn't work out, at least it showed parents cared enough about their children to prepare as much as they could. The point is most Americans thought back then that there was a real possibility that the Russians were going to hit us with atomic bombs and we'd hit them back. In other words, it was almost certain that we were all going to get blown up. Many a young man got his first successful sexual encounter in those days by reminding his young lady friend that they might as well spoon because they were probably going to die awful deaths, anyway. I mean that happened. A lot. Trust me.
In October my junior year at Virginia Tech, Premier Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union noticed American Jupiter nuclear-tipped missiles were being installed in Turkey which was right next door to his country. Khrushchev was a commissar at Stalingrad, that horrific World War II battle, and had seen a lot of blood and guts and dying and killing. In comparison, Jack Kennedy was a lowly PT boat skipper in the South Pacific during that time, working in exactly the same setting as James Michener's novel Tales of the South Pacific. I also wrote about what really happened to Kennedy in The Ambassador's Son. Anyway, it wasn't Stalingrad. The Russian leader got it in his head that if that young upstart of an American President thought he was going to ring in his country with nuclear weapons, he'd return the favor by putting missiles in Cuba. Cuba was only 90 miles from Florida which meant our entire country east of the Mississippi was well within range. President Kennedy, getting wind of this, didn't take kindly to it and so the next thing I knew about it, I was with my cadet buddies huddled around our television sets in the day room listening to the President tell us that there was a very good chance that nukes were about to fly. Of course, he didn't say that directly but from the steel in his voice, and the phrases he used, it sounded a lot like an ultimatum and anybody who knew anything about our military knew there were atomic and hydrogen bombs already in the air aboard B-52s, just waiting out there somewhere over the Arctic ice to head to Russia. Likely, their bombers were also out there circling ready to go.
Toward the end of his speech, Kennedy gazed into the camera lens and with what I took as the utmost gravity said:
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 will be tested...
"Months! Holy shit," somebody said. "We're going to war!"
"The Corps will be called up," somebody else said and nobody argued with that assessment although, privately, I think there were more than a few of us who suspected we would be radioactive dust long before that happened.
When I heard a professor who was an expert on radiation had agreed to talk to the Corps, I gathered with a crowd in the Burruss Hall auditorium. It was packed. I recall the sour smell of damp wool. We were sweating in our uniforms. The man, an older gentleman with a kindly face like somebody's favorite uncle, was dressed in a tweed jacket and soon had us mesmerized by his calm, matter-of-fact analysis of the horror that was coming.
On a flip chart, he showed the likely targets for the Soviets and his assessment of the size of the bombs they'd use. Cities with more than a million population or the District of Columbia were probably going to be hit with 100 megaton monsters. Smaller cities were going to get 50 megatons. Military bases would be pounded by the more surgical 25 tonners that would still leave craters ten miles in diameter. The closest military base to Blacksburg was Radford Arsenal, about twenty miles away. The good Professor said Radford would probably only get five or ten megatons. "Still," he went on, "we'll feel its effects here. If you're standing outside when it hits and looking in that direction, you'll first see a flash and then you will be completely, utterly blind. That will essentially be a death sentence. The heat will be close behind so, if you were lucky enough not to see the flash, I recommend you try to get behind something. The blast effect . . . well, it'll be like a hurricane. Buildings will come apart and debris will be flying everywhere with enough force to kill. Then will come the radiation but not just from Radford. From everywhere."
He flipped his chart to show the normal winds of October in the United States with red and pink swaths marking the likely path of fallout and radiation from an attack on the east coast. The only thing on his chart that I halfway liked was that Coalwood and, in fact, all of McDowell County did not fall within any of the radiation corridors. Maybe my folks would survive even if my brother and I didn't. But what kind of world would be left? The Professor wasn't hopeful. "There will be massive casualties," he said. "There won't be many doctors or nurses left and most of the hospitals will be rubble. It will be a nightmare where the living will envy the dead. Eventually, I suspect, most life in the northern hemisphere will die off. In the southern hemisphere, well . . . " He shrugged. "It depends on where the wind blows and the currents flow. Are there any questions?"
If there were any, I don't recall them. I slogged dismally back to Brodie Hall and joined the Squadron A cadets in front of the television in the day room. No one said anything. We just watched the constant news which really had nothing new to say. My text books were waiting in my room but I saw no good reason to study.
On October 27, the news came that one of our U-2 reconnaissance planes over Cuba had been shot down and the pilot killed. "Those damn Russians! Kill 'em all!" I heard a cadet yell down the hall. Much of America echoed that sentiment. Shortly afterwards, an American destroyer was reported to have depth-charged a Russian submarine. We began to see on television film of fallout shelters being prepared and troops on the move in Florida toward Key West to jump off to Cuba. Civil Defense made announcements with advice on what to do if war came, mainly to listen for the sirens and get to the shelters if you could find one. All that was left to the students at Virginia Tech was to do what we always did and that meant for the cadets, get up at oh six hundred in the morning to calls of "First Call to Growley, sir!" and march in formation to breakfast and then spend the day in class or the library or in our rooms studying and then evening formation and dinner in the mess hall and back to our rooms for more studying or going down to the day room to watch the television. For the most part, there were few smiles and none of the usual high jinks or pranks in the Corps. We just existed to wait to see if we would continue to exist.
It was hard to sleep. My old lady - as our room mates were called back then - in the lower bunk asked me what I was thinking. "Nothing, really," I told him which was true. I thought it was better not to dwell on it.
I let my mind wander inward to see if I was. "No," I said, honestly. "Not yet."
"I am," he confessed.
It occurred to me that I was who I was. Coalwood boys mostly learned not to be scared. Our fathers disappeared every day down into a deep, dark coal mine and there was no guarantee they would come back up whole. That should have scared us every day but, after awhile, I guess we just got kind of numb to it. Still, this was different. There was a good chance the whole planet was about to die.
A week after Kennedy's speech, without any specifics, it was announced that the Russians had agreed to withdraw their missiles and the American blockade was lifted. As the years passed, we would learn that we came very close to an exchange of nukes because of miscalculations on both sides. To this day, if you read most American historians, they will claim that it was Khrushchev who blinked and gave in. A deeper unpeeling of that onion shows very clearly both he and Kennedy blinked. With the big news operations in the United States in collusion with the Kennedy Administration to make it look like we won, the removal of the Soviet missiles was celebrated while the quiet removal of our Jupiter missiles from Turkey went mostly unreported.
In the Virginia Tech barracks and dormitories and classrooms and cafeterias and mess halls, as yet we students knew nothing of that and some never would for, all too soon, they were to be bloody sacrifices to a proxy war in Vietnam. Instead, we tried not to look or act as relieved as we felt.
For a while, at least, we slept the sleep of the saved.