some people, but to me, they ain’t shit. There’s stuff out there that’s waaaaay nastier than zombies.
It was fifty years ago this week that I endured the scariest week of my life.
We all go through times when we have to deal with fearful circumstances. We worry about our health, about the fell diagnosis. We fret when our teenage kids go out at night... and even when they are adults, that nervousness never quite leaves us. We get paranoid about our jobs, our ability to pay the bills and keep the wolf from the door. And there’s the bully in the schoolyard, the crazy family down the street. Don’t forget the nutcase with the clown costume, a garage full of bad oil paintings, and a crawl space full of decomposing middle school kids.
But in October, 1962, I was scared to death... and I wasn’t the only one. It was the week of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world’s two great superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, stood toe-to-toe at the brink of nuclear war.
My chief mistake at the time - I was a mere ten-year-old - was that I had read up extensively on nuclear weapons, a subject that had fascinated me with the same fascination a mouse feels as he stares into the eyes of a cobra. One of the books we had in our extensive home library was a thin volume with a black cover bearing the single word Secret. A comprehensive history of the Manhattan Project, the nuclear coda to World War II, and the subsequent Bikini Island atomic tests, it had been published in the late 1940’s by Westinghouse (if I recall correctly), one of the contractors that had worked on the Project. The slim black book had all kinds of information on nuclear physics (explained clearly in layman’s terms), but most important, it had maps and photographs. Photographs of Shit Blowing Up.
I made it my business to know what would happen in the event of a nuclear strike on New York, the nearest obvious target. Things would get ugly pretty fast out on the south shore of Long Island where we lived, some 35 miles east of the city. Even if we were spared the immediate destructive effects of heat and blast, we were downwind. Fallout would get us if the blast didn’t.
Since our family hadn’t succumbed to the kind of paranoia that would have had them building a backyard fallout shelter - quite the rage in those days - I envisioned us camping out in the basement for two weeks while the worst of the radioactivity settled down. We’d have to fill in the window wells with dirt, of course. I had it all figured out.
This was, of course, all hypothetical. Fever-dreams of the youthful imagination. But when the Cuban missile crisis started to unfold, the spectre of nuclear annihilation suddenly seemed all too real. One night in late October - was it the 26th? - it seemed imminent, as tensions between the superpowers ratcheted up to an unprecedented level. I remember going to bed that night convinced that the missiles would be flying before dawn. Scared shitless, I was.
Then, to everyone’s relief, Khrushchev backed down and agreed to remove the USSR’s missiles from Cuba. Kennedy had secretly agreed to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey and Italy (mostly obsolete pieces of crap, as it turned out) in exchange for the Soviet withdrawal: To the world at large it appeared that the USSR had caved. But at the time I didn’t care about the back-room deals or the politics. All I cared about was that I was still alive... along with the 100-200 millions of others who would have likely been killed had things gone pear-shaped.
Had I known that the nearest likely target was a lot closer than New York City, I would have really had a shit-hemorrhage. Years later, it was revealed that there were several missile bases on Long Island, including one right next door in Amityville. (Yes, that Amityville.) At first, the Amityville base was stocked with conventional Ajax missiles, but in 1963 the nuclear-tipped Hercules Nikes began replacing them. Which means that we would have been pretty much at ground zero in the event of a massive Soviet attack. Yeef!
When Hallowe’en came along the following week, we were all pretty blasé. How could ghosts, goblins, and zombies ever scare us after the week we had just been through?