By Joe Darby
As I sit around waiting this October for real fall weather to grace our fair old town, my thoughts turn to — the Cuban Missile Crisis?
Yes, it was 57 years ago this month that the world as we knew it came under its most dire threat in the history of mankind. The US and the Soviet Union, with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over, were eyeball to eyeball over Russian missiles in Cuba and no one knew, for a whole scary week, if we would ever see November.
For you younger folks who don’t remember the Cold War it is probably hard to imagine what living at that time was like. The two Super Powers, USSR and USA, were on constant alert, ready to respond with nuclear arms at any overt aggression by the other side.
Mostly we tried not to think about it too much, but it was always in the background. But during that one week in October, 1962, the crisis got the whole world’s attention.
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had snuck nuclear missiles into Fidel Castro’s Cuba, the one openly Communist outpost in the Western Hemisphere. The two Super Powers had confronted each other face to face along the borders between Western Europe and Eastern Europe ever since the end of World War II, but this development in the Caribbean Sea was something new.
The US would not stand for nuclear weapons just 90 or so miles off of our shore. When reconnaissance photos revealed the weapons to President John F. Kennedy, the US informed Khrushchev on Oct. 21 that a naval “quarantine” would be placed around Cuba and that the missiles must be removed.
Would either side blink? Was this going to be the end of it all, with unimaginable nuclear blasts, fires and radiation wiping out millennia of civilization?
I was a junior at LSU, looking forward to getting my journalism degree in another year. Would I ever get to graduate? At that time I was hanging around Mike Hamilton, sort of a girlfriend and sort of a buddy. In spite of her name, Mike was definitely a girl. She was a curvy redheaded lass from Baton Rouge whose dad had been killed in World War II.
Mike, a fellow journalism student, almost always had a smile on her face and we enjoyed playing duets on the piano at her house. I remember her mom as a very nice lady.
So, on the day of the big crisis, when no one knew whether we would have a tomorrow, Mike and I decided to spend the afternoon in a semi-underground bar known then as Rip’s Huddle, a popular hangout for LSU students in downtown Baton Rouge. We figured since it was sort of built into the side of a hill leading down to the Mississippi River, it might provide some protection from the missiles that would no doubt be targeted at Baton Rouge. Sort of like a bunker, you know? (We didn’t really think we’d be protected but Rip’s was as good a place as any to spend that day.)
Well, after a few hours of sipping beer and contemplating our future — would it be for years or for a few hours — we came out of the bar and saw nice clear, blue skies and Baton Rouge still existed. The crisis was over.
Khrushchev had given in. He agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for the US promising not to try to overthrow the Castro regime. There was also a secret agreement that we would remove our nuclear missiles from Turkey, right on the Soviets’ own border.
That’s the closest the world ever came to being destroyed. There were crises in later years, but nothing like that terrible week in October, 1962. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Cold War ended. So, for us who lived through it, we are glad we are still enjoying Octobers, more than half a century later.
By Joe Darby