A lesson never forgotten
In a few days we will observe the 58th anniversary of a world event I will never forget. Fifty-eight years ago this month the world came closer to nuclear war than ever before or, to the best of my knowledge, ever since. If you’re middle aged or older, you surely remember the Cuban missile crisis.
A year after the infamous 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion, Fidel Castro was convinced a U.S. invasion of his island nation was imminent. He requested help from the Soviet Union which responded by sending nuclear missiles to Cuba.
In the autumn of 1962 American U-2 spy planes spotted 72 of the nuclear-armed Soviet ballistic missiles in Cuba. Military experts determined the missiles were capable of destroying U.S. cities as far away as the Pacific Northwest.
On October 16, 1962, President John F. Kennedy called a meeting of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council to debate a plan of action in response to the Soviet missile presence in Cuba. This was the first of a series of crisis meetings which continued for nearly two weeks.
Before it was over, the confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union — between Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev — brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war. To stop the flow of Soviet weapons into Cuba, Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of the island. After several days of agonizing tension, Krushchev agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba if the U.S. promised not to invade Cuba and to remove 15 intermediate-range Jupiter missiles from Turkey.
Americans were generally unaware of the situation until President Kennedy delivered a televised address to the nation on Monday, October 22. Even then, as a 14-year-old, I didn’t fully fathom the gravity of the situation until the next morning.
My first class of the day as a high school freshman was a math class taught by our football coach, Mr. Monochino. A tall, muscular man with closely cropped hair, Mr. Monochino commanded respect with as little as a glance. Classmates said he was an ex-Marine and his demeanor certainly confirmed that.
This particular morning he called the class to order with a simple statement: “Put your books away, class, we’re not going to be talking about math today.” He spent the rest of the period explaining the Cuban missile crisis in terms we could understand and preparing us for the possibility of nuclear war.
He drew a map of the Midwest on the chalkboard and explained how Omaha would probably be one of the first targets of a Soviet missile strike because of Offutt Air Force Base. Then he explained how long it would take the nuclear fallout to reach our part of the state.
Mr. Monochino didn’t have to tell any of us to shut up or behave that morning. We sat transfixed as he told us how to build a fallout shelter in our basements and how to stock it with food, water and other survival supplies.
I don’t recall ever having been that afraid before. The boogey-man fears of childhood quickly paled in comparison with the reality that our nation, our society, our families were on the brink of destruction by nuclear missiles. We had participated in the CONELRAD radio exercises in grade school but that was like a fire drill — a good way to get out of studying for a few minutes. A CONELRAD test was not frightening.
When the bell rang at the end of the period there was little of the traditional freshman horseplay. I recall walking to my next class somberly.
I recall, also, wishing Mr. Monochino hadn’t been so frank with us that morning. Ignorance can be, at least temporarily, bliss. As time passed, however, I realized what a favor he did for his students. He forced us to deal with an abhorrent reality of our age, a reality which lingers today.
Mr. Monochino gave us a lesson which has shaped my thoughts and opinions in the decades which have followed. It was a lesson which is vividly recalled 58 years later.