An essay by Joshua Weinstein
Our fate will not dare to reject us.
This fact I know well, if we’re all blown to hell
It results from some need to protect us.
-Paul Winter, “Fallout”
Monday, October 22, 1962. John F. Kennedy addresses the nation. The Soviet Union, he reveals, has started to install offensive weapons in Cuba with the capacity to launch nuclear strikes against major U.S. cities and nations in Latin America, our allies. Chairman Khrushchev and his Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko lied by offering false assurances that Soviet military assistance to Cuba would serve defensive purposes only. U.S. intelligence has determined otherwise. The Soviet initiative, if allowed to continue, would upset the precarious balance of world power that restrains the use of nuclear weapons.
But the young charismatic President is resolute. “Our unswerving objective,” he says, “must be to prevent the use of these missiles against this or any other country, and to secure their withdrawal or elimination from the Western Hemisphere.” He declares a “strict quarantine” on the shipment of all offensive weapons and related equipment to Cuba. Ships found to be carrying such cargo “will…be turned back.” Continuation of the offensive military build-up already in progress in Cuba will justify “further action” to be undertaken by the U.S. military. If a nuclear missile were actually to be launched from Cuba, it would require “a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” The offensive weapons already in Cuba must be dismantled and withdrawn.
“We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth,” Kennedy vows; “but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced.”
I was 15 that fall. I had just reached two milestones—I started high school, and I got my learner’s permit, allowing me to drive with a parent in the car. These particulars fed into a larger theme, my yearning to be grown up. Childhood for me was a kind of captivity, and I hungered to take control of my life. After the long years of being little, and then bigger but still a child, when my dream of adulthood felt impossibly distant, I had finally reached the stage where it seemed within reach, or almost within reach.
It wasn’t the first thing I thought, lying in front of the television on our living room floor and watching President Kennedy rally the nation to stand up to the Soviets—that I was going to die in a nuclear war and never get to grow up. I thought about how well Kennedy spoke, how earnest he seemed. I thought about all the mess surrounding Cuba, the botched Bay of Pigs invasion and now this. I reacted with dismay to what the Russians were doing, and while I was already critical of U.S. foreign policy, generally believing that we were as much at fault as the Soviets for the state of the Cold War, I accepted Kennedy’s assertion that Khrushchev had instigated the current crisis. I puzzled over the notion of a quarantine, wondering exactly how it could be enforced.
The full magnitude of Kennedy’s speech was not possible for me, and I imagine for most people, to take in right away. But the events of the six days that followed, the bluster and the brinksmanship, the apparent narrowing of room for either side to back down, the nuclear trigger that hovered over each move and counter-move, quickly made it impossible for me not to recognize that we, that I, had been thrust into a life-threatening condition. I went to school not knowing if I would make it home alive; went to bed not knowing if I would wake up in the morning or be vaporized during the night.
As denial gave way to muted terror, my aspirations got squeezed into a single goal, the achievement of one last milestone: losing my virginity. Under the circumstances it seemed so reasonable, wanting to have sex before I died in a nuclear war.
The Cuban Missile Crisis happened just 17 years after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, still the only time any government has used nuclear weapons as an act of war. The horror of the twin nuclear attacks had been preceded by the horrors of firebombing campaigns in Germany and Japan. In February 1945, British and American planes dropped almost 4,000 tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs on Dresden, setting off a firestorm that destroyed almost 12,000 buildings and caused at least 20,000 deaths (some estimates were much higher). The firebombing of Tokyo on March 10, 1945, which included use of napalm, destroyed a fifth of the city and killed over 100,000—more fatalities than in the August bombing of Hiroshima. In the months following Tokyo, fire raids were conducted against more than 60 additional Japanese cities, resulting in another 250,000 deaths.
While the Bomb was a quantum leap in the technology of war—now one device could achieve what had previously required hundreds or thousands of devices—its use was a continuation of what by then had become a standing American war policy, the mass murder of civilians. General Curtis LeMay, who was in charge of the Japanese firebombings, is quoted as having said, “I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.” LeMay went on to become Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, a position he held in 1962 during the Missile Crisis when, as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he advocated for a bombing campaign against the missile sites to be followed by the full scale ground invasion of Cuba, a strategy which surely would have led to nuclear war. Several years later, during the Vietnam War, he was infamous for saying that we should bomb North Vietnam “back into the stone age.” In 1968 he was the vice-presidential running mate of the equally infamous segregationist, George Wallace.
Born in 1947, I never knew a world without nuclear weapons (just as I never knew a world in which Jews had not been exterminated in gas chambers). On Saturdays at 1:00 P.M. in Detroit, air raid sirens went off, presumably to test the equipment; but it also served as a reminder, intended or not, that the threat of holocaust was hanging over us, had become a routine part of mid-twentieth century life. I don’t remember ever being subjected to those absurd dive-under-the-desk drills in school, but we did have air raid drills in which—only slightly less absurdly—we were herded into the basement, as if what had once served as shelter from conventional bombing had any relevance in the nuclear age.
The fledgling United Nations, in January 1946, called for the elimination of nuclear weapons. But the U.S. program continued unabated; then in August 1949 the Soviet Union exploded its first atom bomb, and the race was on. Great Britain joined the nuclear club in 1952; France in 1960. During the 1950s the U.S. conducted 188 nuclear tests; the Soviets 82. In November 1952 America set off the first thermonuclear bomb, 500 times the magnitude of the bomb exploded over Nagasaki. Nine years later the Soviets tested a 50-megaton device, 2500 times Nagasaki.
As a boy in the ’50s, aware of the arms race, the Cold War rhetoric, the rolling of Soviet tanks into Hungary, tensions surrounding Berlin, fears stirred up by politicians, including John Kennedy, about a phantom “missile gap” between us and the Russians, the intractability of international conflicts and the determined positions of national leaders on all sides—I grew up with nuclear war seeming inevitable. It was only a question of when.
I thought about this, especially when I was alone. Sunday mornings my parents would sleep late, there were boring religious programs on TV, and left to my own devices, along with the mundane things I did to fill the time—reading the sports section, combing the TV Guide for afternoon shows—I tried to imagine my future. Then I would think about my grandparents and I was jealous of them, how they had gotten to live their full lives while I was going to die in a sudden explosion so vast that there would be no time to notice my life ending or say good-bye or even to suffer; I would just be gone.
After Kennedy’s speech, as the danger was starting to sink in, I fantasized about escaping the city and its 50-mile radius that I had learned would be the death zone in the event of a nuclear attack. Detroit in 1962 was a city of almost two million, a major center of manufacturing, a certain target. My fantasy hinged on sufficient warning. Somehow we would get word that World War III was breaking out. All the roads out of the city would be clogged with cars, but Larry Goldberg and I would get on our bikes. Larry had been my best friend since seventh grade, and it didn’t occur to me to imagine doing this with anyone else. Two was the right number; a larger group would be cumbersome, and take too much time to gather; and my parents—I didn’t think about my parents. I only thought about getting away.
The monumental traffic jams would doom everyone stuck on the highways. But Larry and I would maneuver our bikes around the useless cars. The farther we got from the city, the clearer our path, and we would zoom. Reaching the 50-mile mark, we would keep going, another 20 or 30 or 40 miles. Finally we would stop in some small town, a place of safety and survival. We would find a small group of Detroiters gathered there, and among them, amazingly, would be Emily Stein and Nancy Jacobs, girls we had known since junior high. They would have also ridden their bikes. Or maybe we would get there first and then see the two girls approaching.
That’s where my imagination stopped. It wasn’t even that I was embarrassed at how juvenile my fantasy was, though it was juvenile and I knew it. The problem was the premise, getting warned in time to flee the city and travel 50-plus miles by bike. I knew the speed with which ballistic missiles struck, and I also knew the speed at which I could ride a bike. There would be no warning, just a blinding flash. I didn’t even get to the point of worrying about the spread of radiation beyond the 50 mile zone, the collapse of social and economic structures, what you could possibly imagine life to be like in the aftermath of World War III.
Six days before Kennedy went public, the Crisis began on October 16 when the President received aerial reconnaissance photos showing that ballistic missile sites were being built in Cuba. Kennedy convened the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, known as ExComm, which served as his inner circle for the duration of the crisis. ExComm consisted of 15 white men perched at the highest ranks of government—key cabinet officials, the CIA Director, National Security Adviser, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Vice-President.
We have extraordinarily detailed and accurate information about the ExComm’s deliberations. Known only to John and Bobby Kennedy, they were secretly taped, as described by historian Sheldon Stern in The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory. And so we know, for example, that ExComm members including both Kennedys professed outrage at Soviet deception about the missiles—a kind of “shocked, shocked” reaction without conscious irony. These men were fully aware that Adlai Stevenson, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, had been given doctored photos to present to the UN in an effort to cover up our actual involvement in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion—a double deception because Stevenson himself was not aware of the falsification. They were equally aware of U.S. covert activities in Cuba, called Operation Mongoose, designed to destabilize the Castro regime and to assassinate Castro himself. But they never connected the dots between U.S actions and Soviet responses, or between a symmetrical pattern of deceptions on both sides.
Instead, the members of ExComm were preoccupied with not appearing “weak”—to Khrushchev, to our allies, to Congress, to the American public, to themselves; an approach that Benjamin Schwarz, writing in The Atlantic, has called “a school-playground view of world politics.” On October 16, notes Stern, “by the end of [ExComm’s first] meeting, the president had all but decided in favor of…air strikes” against the missile bases. Unknown to Kennedy and his team, and only revealed 25 years later, Khrushchev had covertly deployed 42,000 troops to Cuba armed with tactical nuclear weapons, which field commanders were authorized to use at their own discretion. “In the event of American bombing or invasion,” Stern goes on, “Soviet forces…had nuclear cruise missiles in place to destroy the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo—which almost certainly would have ignited a nuclear war.”
Then Kennedy reconsidered, decided on quarantine rather than bombing as his opening gambit, and for the moment he inched us away from the brink.
At school, and among the guys I hung out with after school, no one was talking about nuclear war. Everyone had to be aware of what was happening. Elephant in the room doesn’t begin to describe it, and there is no substitute metaphor I can think of that does justice to the atmosphere of the days that followed Kennedy’s announcement, the dissonance between global events and daily life, the margin between normalcy and annihilation, thin as a spider’s thread. I don’t know what was going on in the minds of my teachers, my friends, how many were blocking out the crisis, how many were consciously terrified.
But in my mind, as I was letting go of my survival fantasy, I began to construct a story of how my life would end. It’s not that I was sure we were going to blow up, or that I wanted to go out in a blaze of romantic glory. I wanted to live, baldly, desperately, and I knew there was a chance—I couldn’t judge how remote—that somehow Kennedy and Khrushchev would bungle through this without pushing The Button. But to me, that didn’t seem the likely outcome.
How my life would end. Not just doing all the same old stuff, games of touch football and cards, grunting my way through homework assignments, sitting in front of the TV at the end of the evening with a bowl of ice cream. Something had to change, to give meaning to the final days of my life. The discarded fantasy of meeting up with those two girls in the town beyond the death zone morphed into something that should be possible, right here, in the diminishing time I had left—to finally have a girlfriend—if only I could figure out how to make it happen.
My father was the one person I could talk to, not about my fantasies (I’d have been mortified), but about the Missile Crisis. He was a professor of sociology at Wayne State University, a serious intellectual, the author of books and articles, and he loved to talk about ideas. When I was younger the things that appealed to me—sports, physical activities outside—were alien to him; he would make an effort, play catch with me in the backyard, take me to a baseball game in the spring and a football game in the fall, but it wasn’t hard to tell that he was going through the motions. Now, as an adolescent, with my own intellectual capacities and interests blossoming, we had long sprawling conversations about books and ideas and politics. When he’d been drinking, almost a sure thing if it was after noon, Dad could get especially animated and passionate, which I enjoyed except when he got really drunk and incoherent.
The foundation of my father’s politics was Old Left, the union movement, civil rights and civil liberties, socialism and standing up to McCarthyism. The year before the Missile Crisis, he’d been out of town to give a talk and came back with a copy of The Communist Manifesto as a gift for me. I knew he wasn’t a communist—he’d flirted with it in the ’30s—but I thought it was the coolest thing that my dad, in a political atmosphere in which “communist” was the equivalent of monster, would give me something like that.
So as the crisis erupted, it didn’t take long for both of us to cast a critical eye on all of the anti-communist rhetoric, the demonization of Castro, who we thought was infinitely better than Batista, the notorious right wing dictator he’d overthrown. We were also critical of the Soviet Union, we thought the ideals of Marxism had been distorted and betrayed, but in light of the embargo on Cuba and the Bay of Pigs it seemed more than understandable that Castro would have turned to Khrushchev. The main point, we told each other, was that the U.S. was no better than the Soviets, this was not a question of good guys and bad guys, and now Cuba was a pawn in a geopolitical tug of war that had absurdly escalated into a nuclear crisis.
Wednesday, October 24, 10:00 A.M. The naval blockade of Cuba goes into effect. Russian ships are reported to be approaching. No one knows what will happen. If the ships attempt to break the blockade, what then? Will shots be fired, exchanged? Or even if they do stop, will they allow themselves to be boarded by the Americans, inspected for offensive military equipment? And if such equipment is found, will the Russians turn back? Or will they initiate a military confrontation at sea? If they do, how quickly will it escalate? And what about Soviet submarines, equipped with nuclear weapons, known to be in the vicinity? Will they attack U.S. ships? If they attack, how will we respond? Flash points are everywhere, all of them pointing in the direction of an outbreak of war.
In fact, against great odds, six Soviet ships turn around. Later another eight will do the same. Somehow the world survives the first day of the quarantine.
But it’s only a reprieve. The Soviet decision not to challenge the blockade doesn’t resolve the crisis, does not even diminish it. Anxiety persists about the Russian submarines and what they might do. This concern leads U.S. Navy ships to drop “signaling depth charges” that explode next to one of the submarines in an effort to force it to the surface. The Soviet captain, out of radio contact with Moscow, orders “the arming of a nuclear-tipped torpedo.” Decades later, two versions will emerge of what happens next. In one version, the captain reconsiders and decides to surface at night; in the other, he issues an order to fire the torpedo but is persuaded by another officer to rescind the order. Another flirtation with nuclear war; another reprieve.
Meanwhile, the fact that Soviet ships turned back does nothing to stop construction of missile sites already under way with materials already in hand in Cuba—this is the exact point on which the hawks on ExComm, the Joint Chiefs, critics in Congress have been attacking Kennedy’s strategy. The quarantine itself, despite a day of apparent success, is in disarray. No one thought to make provisions to have someone fluent in Russian on board each American ship, which is now hastily ordered, almost after the fact, by President Kennedy. There is no plan in place about whether to board ships that turn around, a topic of much debate in ExComm, with Kennedy finally deciding to let the ships go rather than risk a provocation. What to do about passenger ships? Cargo ships? None of this has been thought out in advance. Kennedy and his team are flying by the seat of their pants.
At first it seemed like I had traded one fantasy for another. The truth was I had never even gone out on a date—unless you counted the one time during junior high when I went for ice cream with Emily Stein, which in the moment I desperately tried to consider a real date, but all we did was go to Baskin-Robbins, order our cones, walk about two blocks from the store until we got to my street, and say good-bye. It worked well enough to imagine a fortuitous rendezvous with Emily and Nancy 80 miles in the distance, the comfort of joining forces with girls Larry and I had known for years; and the intended next step, the pairing off into girlfriend and boyfriend, was something that only had to happen in my head—or would have if I had gotten that far.
But to actually pursue a girl in real life, the short remaining span of it, was a different matter entirely, and neither Emily nor Nancy seemed the least bit plausible and for the same reason, how long I had known them. If something was going to happen it would have by now. I really had gone for ice cream with Emily, whether or not you could call it a date, and nothing came of it.
The question answered itself on Wednesday afternoon in Spanish class. Seating was alphabetical, so I was in the back row. Next to me was a guy named Weintraub, and next to him a girl named Rosa Weiss. My school, Mumford High, drew students from a large swath of Northwest Detroit, and we must have gone to different feeder schools because that class was the first time I’d laid eyes on Rosa. I didn’t know anything about her; we had never spoken; but I thought she was cute, and whenever I glanced over at her, which was fairly often, she seemed to be looking back at me. It’s easy now to say that we were flirting, that I might have realized sooner what that implied, it shouldn’t have taken a global emergency for me to go up to her after class and say hi. But I was 15, shy, socially challenged. I had no clear idea how to make the moves that might lead to a romantic relationship, or that it didn’t have to be a question of making moves, just treating a girl like a human being you were interested in getting to know.
Even that day I didn’t do anything. Class ended, we all gathered up our things, Rosa walked away, and I watched her go. Things in my head were moving too fast and I couldn’t catch up. But the rest of the day she stayed in my head. I saw us together in some nondescript place, the setting was beside the point, what mattered was that she was with me and we were saying interesting things, what really mattered was that she thought I was interesting and she was looking straight into my eyes and her face was alive and our shoulders were touching and then she slipped her hand in mine and then we were kissing, and then we were more than kissing.
As a fantasy, it was painfully banal. But as a plan of action, it brought something into focus for me—“having a girlfriend” had a completely different meaning during a nuclear crisis. In normal times, along with the status and esteem of Being Someone Who Has A Girlfriend there was, or would be, a sense of a steady state, a manner of being in the world that would pervade your days and nights, and as long as it lasted it would define who you were. It would have substance and depth and duration. Now there was no duration, and all the substance and depth had to compress into a single moment. That’s when it crystallized, what it meant to be facing death without ever having had sex; what it would mean to me to have sex one time before I died.
On Thursday, October 25, intelligence from U.S. reconnaissance flights over Cuba indicated that construction of the missile sites “was proceeding rapidly,” reinforcing fears among ExComm members that the quarantine was ineffectual. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara recommended establishing “a pattern of boarding [Russian ships] as a quarantine technique,” presumably to show toughness in the face of continuing missile site construction, despite the fact that toughness at sea seemed to be reinforcing Soviet and Cuban resolve to complete the missile sites. Bobby Kennedy recommended bombing a missile site. President Kennedy deferred decisions on both recommendations. “JFK,” writes Sheldon Stern, “was willing to give Khrushchev more time, but he edged closer to RFK’s uncompromisingly tough stance.”
On the same day, the highly regarded syndicated columnist Walter Lippmann wrote that Kennedy should end the impasse with Khrushchev by offering to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Soviets removing their missiles from Cuba. This symmetry, the fact that we had land missile sites as close to the Soviet Union as the Cuban missiles were to the U.S. mainland, up to then had received little public attention. But privately, as revealed by the secret ExComm tapes, as early as October 18—four days before he announced the quarantine—Kennedy brought up the possibility of a Cuba-Turkey trade. He floated the idea, and then he sat on it. Kennedy recognized that our missiles in Turkey were at best redundant, that missiles on nuclear armed submarines better served all the same purposes, and the land missiles actually placed Turkey at risk of Soviet attack (just as the Cuban missiles put Cuba at risk of American attack). But Kennedy had initiated no efforts at quiet diplomacy to pursue this quid pro quo that Benjamin Schwarz calls a “pretty obvious” solution. Instead he chose the path of a barely contained confrontation, allowing the world to teeter day after day on the nuclear precipice.
Spanish was my last class. On Thursday, everything that came before—my morning routine at home, sitting through other classes, enduring study hall, playing water polo for phys ed, trying to eat lunch—they were antechambers I had to pass through, one after another, to get to the only thing that mattered.
All through Spanish, two seats away from Rosa, catching her eye, trying to read her expression, rehearsing what I would say, my stomach in knots, time slowing to an ooze, I waited for the bell, my moment of truth, and when it came I froze. Rosa got up, walked to the door and out into the hall, and I did nothing. Naturally I was afraid she would say no, but I had enough presence of mind to realize that not asking achieved the same result. It wasn’t fear that stopped me, it was something deeper, something that wasn’t rational and I didn’t understand, could only feel, this inability to act.
In a normal life there would be time, other chances, other girls. But in this life, even having one more chance was uncertain. For hours after school I burned with shame, called myself an asshole, thought over and over that I’d been bullshitting myself, either I couldn’t really face how close we were to annihilation or else I wasn’t serious about not wanting to die a virgin. I holed up in my room, told my mother I was doing homework when really I just wanted to disappear, and I couldn’t even do that. I kept replaying the scene at the end of Spanish class, watching Rosa recede toward the door, words like acid on my tongue, unsaid.
Then, unaccountably, everything shifted. I saw myself as audience, not actor. It wasn’t a question of finding a way to do something that seemed impossible, actually approach Rosa Weiss and ask her out on a date, it wasn’t a question of courage or resolve or taking myself seriously or not being a phony or acting like a grown up, it was only a question of waiting to see what would happen. The same way I’d been waiting all week to see if a nuclear bomb would detonate over Detroit, it was all of one piece, events in this barely imaginable life were happening to me.
It was out of my hands. I exhaled the heaviness that had been weighing my body down, I felt like I could be a person again and I went downstairs and watched TV with my mother. A little before 11:00 my father burst into the house and his first words were, “Josh did you see the Lippmann column?”
“Jake!” my mother snapped. “We’re trying to watch the program!”
Before my father could snap back I said, “Dad, let’s go into the kitchen.”
My mother staged a halfhearted protest—didn’t I want to find out how the show ended? I fended her off and maneuvered my father away from her. A little later, on her way upstairs to bed, she reminded my father that it was a school night and he shouldn’t keep me up late talking, but we sat at the kitchen table for hours, my father drinking beers, as we dissected the day’s developments, Walter Lippmann’s influence, the chances of a Turkey deal, and it was past 2:00 A.M. when I finally got to bed.
Friday, October 26. At sea, the U.S. Navy boards a Lebanese freighter chartered by the Soviets; the boat has been chosen for boarding after being assessed to pose minimal risk for violence. The assessment proves correct, and the boarding does not escalate the crisis. But on land, reconnaissance reports indicate that construction of the missile sites is proceeding at a pace CIA Director John McCone describes as alarming. McCone renews the call for an air strike against the missile sites; Kennedy again delays.
Meanwhile, UN Secretary General U Thant has proposed de-escalating the crisis through an agreement in which the Soviets stop sending weapons to Cuba and the U.S. suspends the quarantine; this would create space for the two nations to begin negotiating a resolution to the stalemate. Kennedy has summoned UN Ambassador Stevenson to Washington for an ExComm meeting to discuss the proposed deal. Stevenson supports U Thant’s proposal, and several members of ExComm attack him because the deal would not include the dismantling of the missile sites already in place and nearing completion. Stevenson replies that the point would be to create a “standstill” and that “the inoperability of the sites already in Cuba…would be left for subsequent negotiation.” The hawks argue that the sites need to be dismantled before the quarantine can be lifted. Stevenson says the Soviets will want a “guarantee of the territorial integrity of Cuba” and may also want the U.S. to dismantle missile bases in Italy and Turkey in exchange for removing missiles from Cuba. The hawks view Stevenson as advocating appeasement.
Kennedy does not accept U Thant’s proposal. He again takes no steps to open negotiations with the Soviets about a Cuba-Turkey deal.
The lightness, or relief from heaviness, that came to me Thursday evening was still there on Friday. In Spanish my body was loose, my mind clear, and at the end of class I bounced up from my seat and made it out the door ahead of Rosa.
In the hall I didn’t have to wait long and when she appeared I went up to her and said hi. Rosa looked at me, wide eyed, lips slightly parted. She was wearing her long black hair in a braid, some wisps had come loose and brushed her temples. In that moment she was wildly attractive.
“Would you like to go out with me?” I heard myself say. “To a movie or something?” It was literally effortless, the words forming themselves. I’d been inhabited by a new self.
Rosa smiled and said, “I thought you’d never ask.”
Later in the day on Friday, Khrushchev privately communicates to Kennedy, sending a letter that offers, as Stevenson anticipated, to remove Soviet missiles from Cuba if the U.S. publicly commits not to invade the island.
Inexplicably, Khrushchev is willing to take Kennedy’s word, despite the pattern of deceit and deception on both sides. Inexplicably, Kennedy does not jump on the offer, instead waiting to discuss it with ExComm the next morning, extending the crisis at least one more night.
From school I went to the drugstore a block away at the corner of Wyoming and Curtis. Rosa and I had made a date for Saturday evening. I would have preferred Friday, but she said she couldn’t, and I didn’t press her. It meant that the world would have to endure another 24 hours, and if it didn’t it didn’t, but at least I had made this much progress, more than I would have thought possible. It also meant that there was more time to run this errand, but I had a busy day on Saturday, and anyway I was on a roll.
In the drugstore I combed the aisles but couldn’t find what I was looking for, and finally I went up to the man at the counter and asked where were the rubbers. I had first heard the word used with a sexual meaning in sixth grade when one of my more advanced friends told a joke—Why did a guy go into a drugstore and ask for a rubber and an aspirin? Because he had a fucking headache. I didn’t get it at the time and it took me a while to catch up, and even now, four years later, I didn’t know they were called anything else.
The guy gave me a long, piercing look and then said, “Rubbers?”
“What kind you want?”
Kind? Like different brands? I didn’t have a clue, so I just told him the truth. “I’m not sure.”
Finally, smirking, he reached under the counter and sold me a package of Trojans.
At 10:00 on Friday evening, according to Wikipedia, the U.S. Strategic Air Command raised the defense readiness condition (DEFCON) of its forces to level 2, one step before nuclear war. 145 intercontinental ballistic missiles were placed on alert. B-47 bombers in various locations were prepared to take off on 15 minutes’ notice. B-52 bombers “went on continuous airborne alert”; 23 of them, nuclear armed, “were sent to orbit points within striking distance of the Soviet Union.”
Saturday morning, October 27. Just as ExComm is going to start discussing Khrushchev’s Friday evening letter, they are informed that he has issued a new offer, this one made publicly on radio in Russia. Now, rather than withdrawing missiles conditioned on a U.S. promise not to invade Cuba, Khrushchev has said he will take the missiles out of Cuba in exchange for the U.S. taking its missiles out of Turkey. The quid pro quo, which Kennedy has been toying with and Stevenson suggested, has finally been put on the table by the Soviet leader.
“The reaction from ExComm,” writes Stern in his account of the secret tapes, “[is] one of shock, anger, and betrayal.” Somehow the President’s advisers, who have already demonized Khrushchev as a man who doesn’t keep his word and have characterized him in countless other ways as America’s arch geopolitical enemy, are now outraged that he has substituted one proposal for another. Bobby Kennedy calls it a double-cross. The committee, almost to a man, advises JFK to ignore the public offer and accept the private deal—missiles for non-invasion. We can’t abandon Turkey’s defense, they argue (willfully ignoring our nuclear-armed submarines in the Mediterranean that serve the same purpose). They warn that “even discussing Turkey would wreck NATO and destroy U.S. credibility.” Other than Secretary of State Dean Rusk and the President, they seem oblivious to the stakes of not discussing Turkey, the narrowing space standing between them and nuclear holocaust.
JFK pushes back. He contends that the U.S. can’t avoid responding to a publicly issued offer. He suggests that other governments, including U.S. allies, will view Khrushchev’s proposal for a quid pro quo as reasonable because it is in fact reasonable, and the U.S. would lose international support by rejecting the proposal. He again points out that the missiles in Turkey have little value, describing them as “not militarily useful.” Everyone understands that ultimately the decision is the President’s. But the morning meeting ends with no decision having been made.
Unknown to ExComm, according to Stern, on Saturday morning Fidel Castro wrote a letter to Khrushchev. Fearing that the “situation was deteriorating very rapidly” and the U.S. was on the verge of attacking Cuba, Castro asked Khrushchev to launch a preemptive nuclear strike on the U.S. Khrushchev said no—another reprieve. Calling Castro’s proposal “incorrect,” Khrushchev recognized that a supposedly preemptive strike would have started a thermonuclear war. “’It became clear to us,’ Khrushchev later wrote, ‘that Fidel totally failed to understand our purpose. We had installed the missiles not for the purpose of attacking the United States, but to keep the United States from attacking Cuba.’” Ironically, the original Soviet “deception”—their claim that military assistance to Cuba was defensive in nature—proved not so far from the truth.
While ExComm was debating Khrushchev’s latest offer and Khrushchev was declining Castro’s request to start World War III, my father and I were getting ready to go to Ann Arbor for the University of Michigan football game, an autumn ritual that was a vestige of my childhood. My friend Larry Goldberg was supposed to go with us, but an hour before it was time to leave, Larry called saying he’d come down with a bad cold and his mother was making him stay home. I tried phoning some of my other friends, but either they were out or already had plans. Then my father said he knew someone he thought might be interested, a student of his; he made one call and the problem of the extra ticket was solved.
His student was named Marie. My father said she was in graduate school, working on a doctorate in sociology, but when we picked her up she seemed younger than that, even to me. She wore her blond hair in pigtails, was ruddy cheeked and chatty and she giggled a lot. I wished Larry hadn’t gotten sick, but more than that I wished it was 6:30 and I was with on my date with Rosa.
Michigan had an unusually bad team in 1962—they lost to Minnesota 17 to 0 that day, and they would end up finishing last in the Big Ten—and my father was even less interested than usual in what was happening on the field, not because our team was playing so badly, but because he and Marie chattered away all through the game. He’d brought a thermos of coffee laced with brandy, which he always did, but it seemed to be affecting him more than other times, maybe because he had laced it more generously knowing that I would be driving home, or maybe because of his animated conversation with Marie. She was drinking too, and then Dad offered me some, which he hadn’t ever done before. I was pleased to be treated like a grown up, but the coffee was bitter and the brandy was strong, and I was thinking about needing to drive later, so one sip was all I had.
The Michigan stadium was a huge oval that seated 100,000 spectators. It was about two-thirds full that day, still a big crowd. I looked around and realized that it was just like in school, everyone acting as though it was a normal Saturday and the most important thing we had to worry about was whether this crappy team of ours would finally start getting their act together. Why weren’t all these people worrying about whether they would get home alive? Could they really not understand how much more was at stake today than a football game? Then it struck me that any of them looking at me might assume the same thing. We were all opaque. There we were, on what could be the last day of our lives, no one having any idea what was going on inside anyone else.
Back in the car at the end of the game, my father pulled out the rest of the brandy, a pint bottle still about half full. He handed it to Marie, who was sitting between the two of us in the front seat, she took a swig and gave it back to my father and then he reached in front of her to offer it to me. “I can’t, Dad, I’m driving,” I said with a quick shake of my head.
“Geez, Jake,” Marie said. “Your son has more sense than you do.”
“You’ve got a head on your shoulders,” my father said to me in a silly voice he used sometimes when he was meaning to be silly, and sometimes when he’d been drinking a lot.
The drive home turned out to be a nightmare. Normally it would have taken about 40 minutes to get from Ann Arbor to Detroit. I’d figured that the game would end at 4:00 and even allowing for traffic, I’d make it home by 5:30, eat a quick dinner and ride my bike to Rosa’s. She lived on Warrington near Seven Mile Road, which shouldn’t take me more than 15 minutes so I really didn’t think I was cutting things close. But it was homecoming weekend at Michigan and the streets of Ann Arbor were clogged, and I had a hard time figuring out how to get onto I-94, and then I missed the turn onto the Southfield expressway and ended up going all the way into downtown Detroit, and from there I got lost trying to find my way to the Lodge expressway. By then my father was very drunk and no help at all, he was entertaining himself singing “Avanti Popolo,” an Italian socialist anthem I’d heard him sing many times.
Bandiera rossa la trionferà
Bandiera rossa la trionferà
Bandiera rossa la trionferà, hey!
Evviva il socialismo e la libertà!
Marie wasn’t quite as drunk and was doing her best to help, and we did finally make it onto the Lodge, but now it was past 6:00. I had already given up on dinner, when we got home I was going to get straight on my bike, but even that wasn’t going to work. I was desperate. I was going to be late and I had no way of letting Rosa know and even if I could what would she think? The only thing in the world that mattered to me was slipping through my fingers—and then I knew what I had to do.
I tried to explain to Marie that I was going to drop myself off at someone’s house, that I had a date and needed to be there at 6:30, and she heard date and got animated again and started asking me questions that I fended off, because I needed her to understand that from Rosa’s house she would have to drive. Could she? Sure, she said. Of course, she said. My father was singing “Autumn Leaves” in French, beautifully.
At 4:00 on Saturday afternoon, ExComm reconvened and resumed the debate about how to respond to Khrushchev’s proposals. A few minutes before, Defense Secretary McNamara received a report that reconnaissance flights over Cuba had been fired on and a U-2 plane was missing. While the meeting was in progress, it was confirmed that a Soviet surface-to-air-missile (SAM) had shot down the missing plane, and the pilot had been killed. The position of Kennedy’s advisers, their opposition to the Cuba-Turkey deal, now blended into their recommendation for a quick, decisive response to the shooting down of the U.S. plane. Treasury Secretary Dillon, “summing up the nearly unanimous view in the room, pressed the president to avoid ‘a lot of talk’ and just take out a SAM site immediately as a reprisal for the loss of the U-2.”
Kennedy declined to order an immediate counter-strike. Instead he redirected the discussion to the missiles in Turkey.
On Saturday evening a different American U-2, heading for what history.com describes as a “routine reconnaissance mission near the North Pole,” veered off course because the pilot was unable to use “celestial navigation” due to a display of northern lights. The plane inadvertently crossed into Soviet air space. With “the situation in Cuba still rest[ing] on a knife-edge,” Soviet personnel believed the plane might be a U.S. nuclear bomber and deployed MiG fighter jets to destroy it. “The Air Force responded by dispatching two F-102 fighters armed with nuclear-tipped missiles…. Any confrontation between the two groups of aircraft could have potentially ended in all-out war….” Instead the U-2 pilot, his plane out of fuel, “glided…out of Soviet airspace before he could be intercepted.”
The Varsity Theater was at Livernois and Six Mile, about a mile from Rosa’s house. Their niche was artsy foreign films—Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, De Sica, Buñuel. But that weekend they were showing a 1959 American movie, On the Beach, about the aftermath of World War III. I wanted to believe the theater’s management was making a statement, but more likely it was a business calculation, the film most likely to draw a crowd during a nuclear crisis. Either way, it was at least an acknowledgment of what was going on.
It turned out that Rosa had read the book but hadn’t seen the film, while I had seen the film but hadn’t read the book. We tried to pool our knowledge so we could analyze whether the film had done justice to the book, but we gave up on it pretty quickly and proceeded, as we walked down Livernois toward the theater, to talk about other film adaptations. We got into naming Hemingway adaptations and came up with A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, The Sun Also Rises, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, To Have and Have Not. We wondered whether Snows was based on a novel or a short story (I wasn’t sure, Rosa swore it was a story); we compared notes on how much Hemingway we had actually read, whether he was overrated, why filmmakers were obsessed with him. Then we moved on to adaptations of books by other authors, and eventually Rosa, grinning, mentioned The Ten Commandments. I said that was based on the Bible, not a book, and she said what in the world did I think the Bible was if not a book? That led us to talking about religion. I told her I was a third-generation atheist, that I didn’t have a Bar Mitzvah, and she told me her family was observant but she had stopped believing in God.
“How could there be a God who would let the Holocaust happen?” she said.
“Or nuclear weapons,” I said. “Or most of the things that are happening on this planet.”
At the theater we sat near the back, shared a box of popcorn and watched the people of Australia, thus far unscathed by the nuclear war that had annihilated all the countries of the Northern Hemisphere, wait for wind currents to blow a huge cloud of radiation south and silently finish the job of exterminating the human race. Rosa, in whispers, kept up a running commentary about how all the major Australian characters were played by American actors; she allowed that Tony Perkins was cute and Ava Gardner was gorgeous, but she couldn’t get over Fred Astaire getting cast as an Australian scientist. “Fred Astaire?” she kept saying. “Why in the world?”
Toward the end of the film the Australian government has distributed suicide pills to those who prefer not to wait and die of radiation sickness. But in a climactic scene Astaire’s character, who as it happens is also a race car driver, wins the Australian Grand Prix and afterward, instead of taking a pill he sits in his Ferrari, engine running, in a closed garage. “Oh please,” Rosa snorted, I assumed reacting to the melodrama of his suicide, and then, in what by now was a stage whisper, “He’s going to do a song and dance. He’s going to get out of his car and do a song and dance!” She started to laugh and tried to stop and that got her going even harder, and then she was having a full fit of hysterics. I was in awe of her, being so unrestrained in a public setting, and at the same time I was afraid someone was going to yell at her to shut up. Instead a ripple of laughter washed through the theater.
While Rosa and I were sitting in the Varsity Theater, the President was convening a meeting in the Oval Office with eight ExComm members—Secretary of State Rusk, Under-Secretary of State George Ball, Defense Secretary McNamara, Deputy Defense Secretary Roswell Gilpatric, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, Ambassador-at-Large Llewellyn Thompson, Special Counsel and presidential speech writer Ted Sorensen, and JFK’s brother Bobby, the Attorney General. These men now constituted an inner-inner circle.
At the rump meeting, with JFK continuing to insist that Turkey should be included in the response to Khrushchev, the group agreed that the U.S. would make a secret offer to the Soviets to accept the quid pro quo and remove missiles from Turkey in exchange for the removal of missiles from Cuba. But the public version would be that Kennedy was accepting Khrushchev’s previous proposal and pledging not to invade Cuba in exchange for the Soviets removing the Cuban missiles. Bobby Kennedy was to be dispatched to meet with Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin with instructions to tell him that if the Soviets were to publicly reveal the secret Turkey trade, it would be “null and void.”
The President went further and swore the eight men in his office to secrecy, a pledge which they subsequently kept. It was a deal within a deal, complicity in the creation of a public myth which would foster the longstanding perception that the crisis ended with Khrushchev blinking and Kennedy prevailing.
An hour later the full ExComm reconvened. Half its members were unaware of the secret agreement Kennedy had offered Khrushchev. Among those unaware was Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, who 13 months later in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination would assume the presidency. Throughout his term as president, Johnson would never know the truth of how the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved. “Instead,” writes Sheldon Stern, “Johnson went to his grave in 1973 believing that his predecessor had threatened the use of U.S. military power to successfully force the Soviet Union to back down.”
Livernois is a major road, multi-laned and heavily used; Detroit, a sprawling city built for auto travel, is full of streets like that. It’s 9:30 on Saturday evening when Rosa and I get out of the movie, and as we start walking back toward her house the traffic on the street next to us is brisk.
I ask how she thinks the movie compared to the book, even though it’s kind of obvious what she’ll say. Instead she surprises me and doesn’t say anything. The quiet between us lingers, I’m not sure what’s happening or if I have somehow offended her, there is only the humming of cars passing by and all I can do is wait.
Then Rosa turns, meets my eyes and tells me, “My dad was in a camp.”
I feel it, the force of this coming out of the blue and at the same time it seems like part of a single conversation, as if the camps fired the first shots of World War III. “That must be—I’ve only read about the camps. What was it like for him?”
“I don’t know. He doesn’t talk about it.”
“My mother told me. But she hardly talks about it either. I think she only told me to try to make me understand about my dad.”
“Understand about him? What?”
“Why he’s so difficult. That’s the word she uses. I use a different word.”
“Hate. A lot of the time I just hate him. My mom doesn’t want me to, and I try not to, but I hate him anyway.”
“What does he do? To make you hate him?”
“It’s stuff I can’t really talk about. Josh, I’ve never told anyone about my father before.”
It strikes me, the distance I have traveled, in the five days since Kennedy went on TV; in the one day since I became a different person who could ask Rosa out. Now here she is next to me and we’re having a real conversation, she’s confiding these things about her father that are special and I can barely grasp. My old self would be wondering—why me? Why on a first date is she telling me things she hasn’t told anyone else? But my new self has known right along this wouldn’t be a normal first date.
“Hey,” Rosa says softly. “What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking how much I like being with you.”
With that her mood lifts and in a suddenly perky, playful voice she says, “Okay, your turn. Now you tell me a secret.”
I tell her the first thing that comes to my head, I’m worried my father might be an alcoholic. Doesn’t count, she says, her father drinks too and everyone’s father seems to be an alcoholic. What else? So I tell her that my mother is planning to leave my father after I finish high school. She asks how I know. I say my mother told me. She’s surprised. I ask if this one counts, and she says it does but she wants to hear one more. I tell her I think the world is going to blow up this weekend. She laughs and says, “That’s your secret?”
“It feels like my secret,” I say. “No one is talking about it.”
Rosa doesn’t answer, but she slips her hand in mine, just like in my fantasy.
When we got back to Rosa’s house, we stood in front on the sidewalk. The street was quiet, everything muted in the dim light from the streetlamps. The houses stood on the big lots you find everywhere in Detroit, with large front lawns and back lawns and driveways leading to garages in back, and the houses themselves were imposing two-story brick structures. She wasn’t making any move to go inside, with me or without me, and so we stood there and followed a trail of conversation about the weirdness of not knowing if we would survive the crisis, whether we would live another 60 minutes or 60 years, how our lives would be changed forever if we did survive.
I knew I had reached a moment of truth. I asked if I could tell her one more secret. She nodded.
“All week I’ve been thinking about dying a virgin. Aren’t you—don’t you want to have sex at least once before you get blown up?”
She didn’t answer right away, and in the dim light I thought her face looked severe. Lots of things were running through my head; but I was still anchored in my new self, and all I had done was to speak the truth.
Then Rosa said, “What makes you think I’ve never had sex?”
As Saturday night wore on, no one knew what was going to happen. Kennedy and his co-conspirators could only wait to see whether Khrushchev would accept the secret deal; it was hardly a forgone conclusion. The rest of ExComm, the outer half of the inner circle, believed that JFK had come around, taken Turkey off the table, and was toughing it out—a posture Kennedy reinforced by calling up 14,000 air reservists, activating 300 troop carrier transports, and discussing whom to install in power in Cuba after Castro was defeated. The rest of the world only knew that Khrushchev had made a public offer to which Kennedy had not publicly responded, that U.S. troops were massing in Florida, and war seemed more imminent than ever.
Rosa took me by the hand to her back yard, left me there and went into her house through the back door. In the yard it was cool and still and very quiet. A single tree stood there like a skeleton. I waited. I thought it’s happening, and then it occurred to me she might not come back, but she did come back, emerging from the same door she’d gone in, carrying a stack of things which proved to be a camping pad, blanket and pillow.
She led me into the garage. My eyes had adjusted to the dark, and inside the garage I could make out against one wall a bicycle, step ladder, rake, some garden tools. The rest of it seemed bare. Rosa spread out the pad and blanket on the floor. She motioned to me and I helped her roll down the garage door, very slowly so it made hardly any noise. It stopped moving a few inches from the bottom, I kept trying to push it shut until, whispering, she told me that was as far as it went.
She pulled a small flashlight out of her pocket, and we went back to where the pad was. She said, “Wait. Don’t lie down yet.” She got the ladder, positioned it against the wall near the corner, climbed up until she could reach onto a high shelf, took down a bag, and when she got off the ladder she pulled out a big bottle of vodka.
“It’s my dad’s. If we only drink a little he won’t notice anything’s gone.”
We each took two swigs. Rosa went to put it away on the shelf, and by the time she got back I was floating. She grinned at me and said, “It feels good, doesn’t it?” Popcorn was the only thing I’d eaten for hours, since a hotdog at the football game. The football game seemed like a different lifetime. I had heard about alcohol going to a person’s head on an empty stomach and it did, I was lightheaded but I was also lightbodied. I felt like I could melt into Rosa. At the edge of my brain I wondered if this was how it was for my father, getting drunk.
Rosa methodically unbraided her hair, her fingers beautifully nimble, and when her hair was loose she shook it out so it fell in waves over her shoulders and back. We lay down, our bodies pressed close on the narrow pad, and Rosa took my face in both hands and kissed me on the lips. I was happy all the way to the center of my being, and there at my center I had a sudden, urgent need to be honest with her so she would know who I really was and I pulled my face away and said, “I’ve never done this before.”
“Not just having sex. All of it.”
“I know,” Rosa said in my ear. “It’s okay.”
We kissed for a very long time, just that, and then Rosa unbuttoned her own shirt and put my hand on her breast. I felt like a surfer riding a wave. I just needed to keep my balance.
A sudden flash. I think that’s it and wait for the blast of heat that never comes. Instead I hear the soft hum of an engine and Rosa says, “Oh shit, my dad. Shit!”
She’s on her feet faster than I can think. “Come on, Josh,” she says from above me. I look up and can barely see her but I feel her presence and she seems huge, or I seem very small, like a little boy. “You have to get up!” She bends down, finds my hand in the dark and tugs and together we somehow get me upright. But the pad and blanket lying on the floor; Rosa’s hair, loose and wild; the strange boy next to her, unsteady on his feet—could it be more blatant, what has been going on in this garage? The door starts to roll up, and as it does the glare of headlights pierces the space, broken by the outline of a man.
He steps forward. The light is behind him, he can see everything. I try to shield my eyes and focus but there is only the blur of his face, the imposing frame of his body. “Dad,” Rosa says, and then he is right in front of us and before she can get anything else out he says, “Well well, what have we here? A twosome, yes? Shall we make it a threesome?”
“I’m joking, I’m joking.”
“It’s not funny.”
“No? You think this is funny?” He motions his hand toward the two of us.
Rosa doesn’t answer. She bends down, quickly folds up the pad and blanket, picks them up. Finally it occurs to me—her shirt, and then I register that she has her jacket on over it, zipped all the way up. Where is my jacket? I manage to spot it, reach over and put it on. Rosa takes a step toward the door.
“Where do you think you’re going,” her father said.
“To my room.”
“The hell you are.”
His hand clamped down on her arm. Their eyes locked and held. The things she had been holding, our makeshift bed, slipped from her hands.
“You’re hurting me, Daddy.” Rosa’s voice streams out in a hiss.
At first he doesn’t speak. He looks down at his hand, her arm, then slowly back up at her eyes. His face, finally in focus, is clenched, fierce, and then shifts, as if he were gazing in a mirror and deciding to cover his feelings with a mask. “Right, sure, I’m the bad guy. Always me. Such a terrible father, he hurts his daughter, who is relieved of all responsibility, yes?, because always it’s her father’s fault.”
Rosa stands there and waits, suffering the force of her father’s hand, emanating rage and now I can see, feel the hatred she told me about before, until finally her father loosens his grip and she jerks her arm free and strides out of the garage, leaving the things that had fallen on the floor. After a half dozen steps she remembered me and turned, her cheeks glistening in the harsh light. “I’m sorry Josh. I am so so sorry.” She turned again, walked to the house, disappeared through the door.
My decisive new self was in pieces. I couldn’t tell if Rosa was apologizing for herself or her father. I wanted to follow her and knew it was impossible. Then Mr. Weiss put his hand on my arm, not roughly, and guided me out of the garage to the passenger side of his car.
“Get in,” he said. I did what he said. In my disoriented state I thought he was going to drive me home. He went to the other side and sat behind the wheel. “What’s your name, son?”
“That’s how you pronounce it, steen, not stine?”
“Your people, they came to this country—when?”
“The turn of the century.”
“Ah, before the big commotion. From where?”
“Weinstein? From Russia? They must have moved around, your people. Well, we all moved around. A Jew’s a Jew wherever he lives, am I right?”
I nod. The car is still in front of the garage, engine idling, going nowhere.
“Am I right?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Well, Joshua Weinstein. I’m George Weiss.” He twists his body, extends his hand, and we shake. I feel myself tense, expecting the vice grip he put on Rosa’s arm, but it’s the opposite, his hand is clammy and almost limp and he lets go quickly. “Mr. Joshua Weinsteen, third generation Russian Jew. Nu? Did you fuck my daughter?”
I feel something shoot through my body and come out in a shiver. “No. Mr. Weiss, I didn’t.”
“But you wanted to.”
How could I explain to him that I’d started out wanting to fuck Rosa and ended up wanting to make love to her? I could barely explain it to myself.
He wasn’t expecting me to answer anyway, he only paused for effect and then he said, “Sure you wanted to, you and half the boys in that school of yours. What’s it called?”
Almost casually he puts the car into gear now, as if this were the obvious moment to do it, and instead of backing out the driveway as I had expected, he inches forward into the garage. When we’re all the way in he stops and puts the car back into park but leaves the headlights on and turns on the interior light. I see that he has thinning white hair, a creased face, a thick middle under his coat. I realize, even though it has been apparent all along, that he has been speaking with an accent so faint that if I hadn’t known he was European I might have thought he was from a different part of the States.
“Wait right there,” he said and got out of the car. The engine was still running and I had a crazy urge to slide over to the steering wheel and drive away. The sensible thing would have been to bolt and run like hell. But I didn’t move.
When he got back in he was holding the bottle of vodka. “I see that you and my daughter have been helping yourselves to my alcohol.” He seemed to be saying it mildly, as if he were amused. “She told you I wouldn’t notice. Am I right?”
I try to make the slightest movement of my head, which might or might not be construed as a nod.
“Am I right, Mr. Weinstein?”
I don’t know what to say.
“I see, you don’t want to lie and you don’t want to incriminate my daughter, you think she’s in enough trouble already. Well, you don’t have to worry about that. Here, Mr. Weinstein, have a drink.” He extends the bottle toward me.
The effects of the vodka I already drank had begun to wear off, but not enough, and the last thing I wanted was to get drunk again, this time with Rosa’s father. “No thanks, Mr. Weiss.”
“I insist, Mr. Weinstein.” He waves the bottle in front of my face. “Take it, go ahead, be my guest.”
I accepted the bottle, raised it to my mouth, and took the smallest sip I could manage. Then I tried to give it back to Mr. Weiss.
He wouldn’t take it. “You call that a drink? For this I invite you into my car, offer you my alcohol, to see you drink like a little girl? What is it you boys call it, being a pussy? Take a slug of it, Mr. Weinstein! Do me the decency. Drink like a man.”
He can’t make me do it. Somehow my head cleared enough for that simple truth to come to me—or maybe the arrival of the truth cleared my head. I looked at him and what I saw was an aging tortured man who had no idea what do to with himself, his life, his daughter, me. He was all bluster, and underneath the bluster—I didn’t know how to finish the thought, but it was something terrible.
“No thanks, Mr. Weiss,” I said in an even voice. “I really don’t want to drink any more.”
“I see,” he says. “You drink with my daughter but not with me. I’m not good enough for Mr. Joshua Weinstein to drink with.”
I didn’t say anything.
I was still holding the bottle out to him, and now with a jerky movement of his hand he grabs it and starts to guzzle the vodka, one gulp after another. When he finally stops he says in an impossibly clear voice, “That is how a real man drinks. Mr. Weinstein.”
“I need to go, Mr. Weiss. It’s really late. I have to get home.” I reach for the handle to the door and feel his hand come down on my arm, hard this time, like with Rosa, his terrible strength. In order to grab me he moved over on the seat and I can feel the presence of his sizable body, not quite touching mine but very close. No one has ever touched me like this.
“Before you leave, Mr. Weinstein, something you must know. What I told you before, the name—it was false. Yes, I lied, to you, to everyone. Georg Weiss”—he pronounced it Vice—“that is my real name. No one knows who I am. Except you, Herr Vineshtine.”
“Thanks for telling me, Mr. Vice.”
“Right. Herr Vice.”
“And you are Herr Vineshtine.”
What now? As I wait to find out, what flashes through my mind is the image of Fred Astaire in the movie, sitting in his Ferrari with the engine running, Rosa in hysterics and suddenly I know with cold certainty what’s going to happen. I thought I understood what Mr. Weiss was doing, only bluster, but I was using the wrong lens and now I have the right lens and a truer picture has come into focus. He’s going to get out and close the garage door. The running engine, his hand clamped on my arm, the immense amount of alcohol he has just consumed, the unknown man who has no life, everything fits together.
All week I’d been waiting for nuclear warheads to detonate, and now this, the unbearable irony of being the victim of a suicide/murder by the unhinged father of the girl I had fallen in love with. Through an enormous act of will I controlled my bowel.
I was stone sober. His was still holding me in place. He seemed at a loss, for words anyway, but more, he didn’t know yet what I knew, was waiting for the sudden impulse that would carry him out of the car and to the garage door. I remembered the gap at the bottom of that door, a few inches. Enough to keep me alive? I wasn’t going to bet on it.
My one consolation was that as long as he was hanging onto me, he wasn’t getting out of the car and fresh air would keep diluting the carbon monoxide. A reprieve. The pain in my arm, his iron grip, this absurd embrace—these were the things standing between me and death.
He had shifted himself even closer, the side of his big body now pressed against my ribs, his face hovering above mine, and something moved him to start talking again. “Missiles, Herr Vineshtine. The whole world is talking about missiles, Kennedy, Khrushchev. The world will go kaboom, that’s what has them shitting their pants. You think a nuclear war is the worst thing that could happen? You have no idea, Herr Vineshtine.”
“I’m sure I don’t.” It sounds stupid coming out of my mouth. What am I supposed to say?
“You are how old? Fifteen?”
“Yes. Fifteen, the same age as her. I had a sister, you know, no you don’t know. A sister, she was called—it doesn’t matter. She was your age, Herr V. I was her big brother. I was…much older. Her name…she was, what do you call it, the apple of my eye. Her name—I say this to no one, Herr V., only you. Her name—the truth, Herr V. Her name was Rosa.”
For one bizarre second I’m sure he’s going to kiss me.
“May you never have a daughter, Herr Vineshtine.”
Just before he lets go, I feel tremors shaking his fingers. Then he wrenches himself, all the terrible weight of his body, to the left and reaches up for the switch to the overhead light. He’s off me. I feel air rush into my lungs. The car goes dark, but not before I see the tears streaming down his face.
When I got home it was hours past midnight, but the light was on in the living room. I found my father there, lying on the couch, his mouth hanging open, snoring in sharp irregular grunts.
All through the long walk from Rosa’s house, I kept looking at the buildings, stores on Livernois and houses on Curtis, and imagined them reduced to rubble and ash. On Livernois, even this late, there was still traffic, but Curtis was quiet except for the occasional stray car. No one was out walking, only me.
At home I bent down next to my father. When he was awake and sober, my father’s appearance was impeccable, always. But lying there asleep in his clothes, his hair was sticking out, his shirt rumpled and half untucked, his glasses had slipped down his nose. He seemed frozen in place, like a snapshot of a man caught in the midst of a struggle that was too much for him.
I jostled his shoulder, said “Dad” a few times, but he didn’t stir. Carefully I lifted the glasses off his face and set them down on the small table next to the couch. Up in my room, I pulled one of the blankets off my bed, took it back down, spread it over him, and kissed him on the forehead. Then I turned off the light.
A little before 9:00 A.M. on Sunday, October 28, the headquarters of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) received a report from a New Jersey radar facility that nuclear missiles had been launched from Cuba and were expected to strike near Tampa, Florida at 9:02. The radar operators had not been told, according the the Union of Concerned Scientists, “that a test tape simulating a missile launch from Cuba was being run….” As it happened, coinciding with the test tape, a real satellite came into view, “confusing the operators,” who should have been informed that a satellite would be appearing but weren’t “because the facility that would normally provide that notice had been assigned to other work during the crisis.” Normally additional radars would have been operating “to confirm the appearance of missiles,” but they weren’t. It was almost a perfect storm.
NORAD went onto alert, but before any action could be taken, 9:02 passed and they determined that no missiles had actually struck Florida. The storm blew over.
At almost the same time, Khrushchev accepted Kennedy’s secret terms, and the Cuban Missile Crisis came to an end.
I don’t believe in miracles, but if I did, I’d put the human race surviving the twentieth century at the top of my list. The crisis of October 1962 was the five-star episode, but it was only one of many events that sent the world to the cusp of nuclear war. The Union of Concerned Scientists says that “many dozens of incidents involving nuclear warheads are known to have occurred in the United States—and likely many more that have not been made public….There is presumably a similar list of Soviet and Russian incidents, only a few of which have been made public.”
There were “numerous accidents” in the 1950s and ’60s in which nuclear armed U.S. bombers crashed or dropped bombs by mistake. “Several close calls nearly resulted in nuclear explosions….” In 1961, a U.S. bomber accidentally dropped two nuclear bombs onto the ground in North Carolina; five of six safety devices failed, and if two wires had crossed in the sixth device, one of the bombs would have detonated. A crash in Greenland in 1968 involved a plane carrying four nuclear bombs and resulted in plutonium contamination of the area surrounding the crash site. In 1979 a technician by mistake played a training tape simulating a massive Soviet attack, and U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile crews were placed on “highest alert.” In 1983 Soviet satellites “mistook sunlight reflecting off the tops of clouds for missile launches,” and a Soviet Lieutenant Colonel responsible for recommending a counter-attack, rather than following established procedures, guessed correctly that there had been a false alarm. He was later called “the man who saved the world.” During a similar incident in 1995, Russian President Yeltsin activated the device used to order a nuclear strike.
Then there was the proliferation of nuclear weapons to nations involved in regional conflicts and wars. China became a nuclear power in 1964. In 1969, a border conflict between China and the Soviet Union erupted into active fighting for seven months; border tensions persisted for more than 20 years. China invaded Vietnam in 1979, and the world held its breath as the Soviet Union threatened to intervene and then thought better of it. In May 1998, India and Pakistan each conducted multiple nuclear tests; the following year the two countries fought a brief border war which might have escalated but didn’t. Israel, at the epicenter of the most prolonged regional conflict of the post-World War II era, is widely believed to have had nuclear weapons since the 1960s, though its government has never officially acknowledged its nuclear capability.
Was it just by blind luck that this long string of accidents and conflicts did not produce a nuclear incident? Or did our survival instinct show up to save us from ourselves? Or something else, presumably hopeful, about human nature? Or was it only an extended series of reprieves?
Sheldon Stern portrays JFK as the hero of the secret tapes. I take his point—resisting the advice of an “all but unanimous” ExComm to reject the Turkey deal and stand tough against the Soviets, with many of its members exhorting him at numerous points to bomb or invade Cuba or both, Kennedy charted a course that in the end did manage to avert a nuclear war.
But to view Kennedy as having been heroic in October 1962, you would have to assume that a hero is someone who could embark on a campaign to assassinate the leader of another government; who could fail to realistically assess the cause and effect between American aggression against Cuba and Soviet counter-measures; who was aware that missiles in Cuba did not add to the military threat already posed to the U.S. by nuclear-armed Soviet submarines; who nevertheless brought the world to the brink of nuclear war over what amounted to moves in a geopolitical chess match; who until the very end eschewed opportunities for quiet diplomacy to prevent or resolve the crisis; who lied to the American public and the world.
It’s more accurate, I think, to describe Kennedy as only relatively less reckless than his assembled group of wildly dangerous advisers who, collectively standing at the pinnacle of power, brought the world to within a hair of nuclear war. Benjamin Schwarz puts it a little more charitably: “JFK’s actions in resolving…a crisis he had largely created were reasonable, responsible, and courageous.”
I have a fantasy of President Kennedy addressing the nation on Monday, October 29, 1962. “My fellow citizens,” he would say. “Yesterday Chairman Khrushchev announced that the Soviet Union will dismantle and remove all missiles from Cuba. The manner in which the crisis ended has created the appearance that the Soviet Union backed down after being confronted by U.S. military force and resolve, and I intended it to so appear. However, this appearance is false.
“I speak to you this evening to inform you and the rest of the world of facts that were not disclosed yesterday when Mr. Khrushchev stated his intention to withdraw missiles from Cuba. After a sleepless night and a day of soul searching, I have concluded that the interests of our great nation and of all nations are better served by a full and truthful accounting of our choices and actions than by smokescreens designed to create a perception of victory which is in fact illusory.
“Last year I ordered the deployment of nuclear-armed Jupiter ballistic missiles in Turkey and Italy. These intermediate-range missiles are capable of striking targets in the entire western zone of the Soviet Union, including Moscow and Leningrad. It is now clear to me that my decision to deploy these missiles was a serious error in judgment:
“First, because the deployment of the missiles could be and was taken by the Soviet Union as a threatening and hostile act. Second, because these missiles added nothing of significance to the nuclear capability of our submarines in the Mediterranean, as well as U.S. bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking targets throughout the Soviet Union. And third, because the addition of land based missiles close to the Soviet border, despite their military insignificance, could be viewed by Soviet leaders as signaling an intention on our part to use nuclear weapons offensively, thus altering the global balance of power.
“When I spoke to you a week ago, I said that if we allowed the Soviet initiative in Cuba to continue, it would upset the precarious balance of world power that restrains the use of nuclear weapons. That statement was false. By placing missiles in Cuba, the Soviet Union was attempting to restore the precarious balance that we ourselves had upset when we deployed missiles in Turkey and Italy.
“On Saturday, October 27, Chairman Khrushchev publicly issued a proposal to resolve the crisis through the removal of missiles from both Cuba and Turkey. I believed, and still believe, that this was a fair and reasonable offer, one that could restore the balance that existed previous to the placement of U.S. missiles in Turkey, could achieve our nation’s interests in preventing the deployment of Soviet missiles on Western Hemisphere soil, and could more broadly help to reduce tensions between the two superpowers. I accepted Mr. Khrushchev’s proposal in a private message conveyed to the Soviet ambassador to Washington on Saturday evening. However, I placed a condition of secrecy on my acceptance.
“For the last two days, the public position of this administration has been that the only assurance given to Mr. Khrushchev was a guarantee that the United States will respect the territorial integrity of the nation of Cuba. Such an assurance was given but was only one part of a larger agreement. Our allies, members of Congress, many of my closest advisers, and the Vice-President of the United States have been kept uninformed of the secret deal I reached with Khrushchev. In separate conversations with former Presidents Eisenhower, Truman, and Hoover, I stated that I had not entered into negotiations with Mr. Khrushchev for an exchange of missiles from Cuba and Turkey. Those statements also were also false.
“I hoped that keeping the deal secret would bolster the position of the United States among the nations of the world by reinforcing perceptions of our strength and power. I have now reached the conclusion that strength based on deception is illusory, and the pursuit of power at all costs is what brought us in the last week to the brink of nuclear holocaust.
“I was also motivated by domestic political considerations. I feared that by acknowledging an even exchange with the Soviet Union, I would appear soft on communism, jeopardizing my party’s prospects in the upcoming midterm elections and damaging my own chances of re-election in two years. But there are moments when the political fortunes of one man and one party ought to take a back seat to the interests of the nation and the integrity of its leadership. I have concluded that this is such a moment.
“One week ago, sitting here and speaking to the nation, I said that we would never choose the path of surrender or submission. But in a nuclear age, we must also reject the path of arrogance, self-righteousness, deception, and the blind pursuit of power. There is a third path, one of wisdom, restraint, and mutual understanding.
“God bless America, and God bless all the nations of the world.”