The Missile Crisis Hits Home
“Kennedy’s going to kill us all with his recklessness,” my Old Man would tell anyone who’d listen, “If that sonofabitch Roosevelt had listened to Patton and let him keep going straight through to Moscow, the whole goddammed country could’ve avoided all this bullshit.” He’d served in Patton’s army from D-Day to Berlin with a stop along the way at the Battle of the Bulge and remained loyal to a fault.
At the dinner table he kept us current by delivering profane blow-by-blow accounts of the blunders and absurdities that had transpired over the previous twenty-four hours. One evening he read to us from the paper about how church attendance in New York City had gone up since the missile crisis began. He always added commentary when he read to us, “Idiots. Dolts. What good is that going to do?”
“Some people get comfort from it, dear,” my mother said, “the whole country’s nervous.”
“That comfort won’t be worth a good goddamn once they drop the bombs. Let’s see what church does for them then; flattened like everything else. They’re the ones that’re always going on and on about the end of the world, let’s see how they like it when it actually gets here.”
We all fell into silence, contemplating our impending obliteration.
“Plus, the story’s completely anecdotal, they don’t provide any actual statistics, they’re just filling column inches with religious blather.”
“Then why’re you so upset about it,” my mother mumbled, more to herself than anything.
“Daddy,” my kid brother Davey piped up, “can we go to Palisades Park soon?” It had been a year since we’d last been there, after all. The Old Man had bitched for days afterward about how much the whole adventure had cost him.
“Yes, soon, yes, I guess…Jesus!…but only if Kennedy doesn’t bomb us first,” he said, “If that happens all bets are off. And I don’t want to hear any whining about it.”
Davey, being too young at the age of seven to do anything else, took my father literally. At ten I was much more sophisticated and in touch with the day-to-day events; how could I not be when the Old Man never shut up about them? By then I could tell when he was joking and when he was being serious pretty accurately, averaging something like seventy-five percent.
But Davie’s idea of who Kennedy even was remained vague at best and the thought that he might be flying overhead on a bombing mission with our backyard as ground zero wasn’t as far-fetched to him as it might have been to the rest of the family. That the chances of going to Palisades Park any time soon and a President Kennedy-led nuclear attack were indeed of equal likelihood but said more about the chronically broke Old Man than it did about our President.
For weeks after, every time a plane flew over, Davey would stampede in from the yard yelling, “It’s Kennedy! It’s Kennedy!” and run upstairs to hide under his bed.
There was no comforting him, no talking him out of it. My mother stood at the foot of the bed in her best soothing voice.
“OK, stay there. See if I care. But you’re not going to miss school tomorrow because of this nonsense.”
Eventually, in his own sweet time, he would creep out from under the bed, peer out the window into the yard, cringing as if it were inhabited by a tribe of sexually-aroused Komodo dragons, check the sky carefully for Kennedy’s warplanes, and, jst in tome for supper, slink downstairs.
My mother would hug him into her apron and telling him to calm down and to pay no attention to his Old Man’s nonsense.
“You know what a nut he can be. Why do you even listen to him anymore? No one else does.”
After we’d gone to bed, we could hear her upbraiding my father downstairs, “You put these crazy things into their heads and go gallivanting off to work, or whatever you’re up to over there in the city; and leave me here to deal with the consequences of your bullshit.”
“I’m simply trying to have a little fun for crying out loud, that’s all,” he said, settling back with the martini she’d poured him, “Plus the fucking Russians aren’t gonna bomb Oritani, New Jersey, for Christ’s sake. This is the last place they’re go for. On their list of targets we’re near the bottom.”
“You’re not getting the point,” she said.
“OK! OK! Christ, so tomorrow you can come to work with me. Will that make you happy?”
Byron Spooner is retired as the Literary Director of the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library where he produced literary events and ran their book sales operation. He founded and edited The Readers Review, literary blog, where he wrote about books, music, film and bookselling. With his wife, Judith Ayn Bernhard, he co-edited Arcana: A Festschrift for Jack Hirschman. His writing has been published in Passengers Journal, Manifest-Station, the San Francisco Examiner, the Anderson Valley Advertiser, Arthropod and Isis. He serves on the Board of Litquake and the Advisory Board of the Beat Museum. His collection of stories, Rounding Up a Bison (Andover Street Archives Press, 2021), is scheduled for release in fall, 2021.