Introduction: This is one of the stories about growing up in Itasca, Illinois, a peaceful, tiny town of 1,800 surrounded by soy bean and corn fields, and situated twenty miles west of Chicago. My generation, known as the Baby Boomers and comprised of the slug of children conceived by the millions of soldiers who had recently returned home from fighting in World War II, grew up during the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and the ever present threat of an all out, game over, nuclear war.

We’re On the Eve of Destruction

The eastern world, it is exploding
Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’
You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’
You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin’
And even the Jordan River has bodies floatin’

But you tell me
Over and over and over again, my friend
Ah, you don’t believe
We’re on the eve of destruction.

Don’t you understand what I’m tryin’ to say
Can’t you feel the fears I’m feelin’ today?
If the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away
There’ll be no one to save, with the world in a grave
[Take a look around ya boy, it’s bound to scare ya boy]

Fallout Shelter, My Ass

By Casey Gauntt

“It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”

President John F. Kennedy delivered this message during a live nationally televised broadcast to the American public, and anyone else tuning in, on October 22, 1962 at the absolute zenith of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Since before the end of World War II, the Soviet Union and United States had been engaged in a Cold War; a period of extraordinary growth of power, entrenchment of diverse political and social ideologies (capitalism/democracy vs. socialism/communism), and escalating distrust and tension. The two super-powers had developed enormous stockpiles of nuclear weapons deployed in missile silos, submarines, and airplane bombers poised all over the world within quick striking distance upon the push of a button.  The lethal potential of these weapons was measured by kilotons of energy as well as the number of times the entire population of the United States or the Soviet Union could be wiped out.  I guess once would not be nearly sufficient.  There was no secret about this.  The Cold War was very, very public and the triggermen took every opportunity to make it crystal clear that “If you launch your weapons, we will launch ours.”

Nikita Khrushchev was the fiery president of the Soviet Union, a stocky, bull-necked, ruddy faced, hairless man, whose shortness in stature greatly exceeded the length of his fuse.  I will never forget watching a televised speech of his at the United Nations in New York in October of 1960.  At one point he got so mad he took off one of his shoes, banged it on the lectern and screamed at the U.S. Ambassador, spittle flying out of his grotesque mouth, “We will bury you!”  I was ten years old and quickly concluded “This man is insane.  We are so fucked.”

Nikita Khrushchev with Harvey Slocum at the Bhakra Dam, India, 1955

I wasn’t the only one terrified of what was happening.  In October 2009, my wife and I visited the Greenbriar Hotel near Lewisburg, West Virginia, a two-hour train ride from Washington D.C., and took a tour of The Bunker.  In 1956 then President Dwight D. Eisenhower, with the silent nod from Congress, initiated the ultra-top-secret design and construction of a massive fall-out shelter sixty feet beneath the Hotel and large enough to house the entire United States Senate, House of Representatives and their staffs in the event of a nuclear attack on our nation’s capital.  The Bunker was completed in 1961 and remained a secret until 1992, eight years after the so-called end to the Cold War.

My generation grew up with the Cold War lurking all around us.  In grade school we had nuclear attack drills at least twice a year.  We would sit under our desks as far away as we could get from the windows and put our heads between our legs—some comedian would later add ” and kiss our ass goodbye.”  This of course was utterly useless and absurd.  We had watched, over and over, the film clips of atomic bomb tests on television and Super 8 movies in class—the fake towns in the desert, with mannequin moms working in the kitchen, mannequin kids playing in the yards, and mannequin dads watering the lawns or driving their Chevrolet convertibles with the tops down.  The bomb, usually placed in a fake water tower in the center of town, would explode and instantly disintegrate everything within a five-mile radius into dust and vapor sucked up into an enormous mushroom cloud rising into the thinnest layers of our atmosphere.  Our puny formica desks would be no match for that.

As kids, we knew all about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, and the horrific damage and death caused by the real A-Bombs “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” dropped by the U.S. Air Force on those cities in August of 1945.  Those weapons were firecrackers compared to the behemoth “Nukes” that were loaded in the arsenals 16 years later.

Not surprisingly, I had a recurring nightmare in my pre-pubescent years.  I’m playing baseball on one of the fields next to Washington School in Itasca, a small, boring suburb of Chicago.  It’s a bright, sunny day and I’m in the outfield looking up for the fly ball hit by one of my buddies.  In the sky, eclipsing the sun, are one hundred Soviet bombers readily identifiable by the Red Star on their tail sections.  I drop my glove and start to run—I have to get home and into our fallout shelter—but I can’t move my legs.  It is as though they are buried in quicksand.  I pull my legs as hard as I can, but I can’t free them.  I can’t move! I fall to my stomach and try to pull myself along the ground with only my arms.  I make a measly yard or two.  Then I’d wake up, panting, a sheen of icy sweat clinging to my forehead.  My first thought was always

“What a joke!  We don’t have a fucking fallout shelter in our house.”

This had become a very real concern of mine.  At that time, you could pick up practically any magazine or comic book in Mr. Lund’s barber shop and find an article or an advertisement of “How to build your own fall-out shelter;” or “Are you prepared in case of a nuclear attack?”  No!  I am not.  My family is pathetically unprepared.  What made matters all the more perplexing was that my father was in the foundation, hole digging, business, for God sakes!  We had a big backyard.  How tough could it be for him to get some of his equipment and men over to the house, dig a hole, and construct a proper fall-out shelter? The magazines said we needed enough food and water to last the two weeks it would take for the radiation from the bombs to fall-out and dissipate.  We had a tiny five by seven storage room in our basement, and my father pronounced “That’s good enough.” Oh, really?  One problem right off the bat was it had a window.  Even I knew that glass can’t stop radiation.  I politely suggested that we brick the window up, but my idea fell on deaf ears.  One didn’t press my father on matters involving war.  My mother stocked this room with an inadequate amount of canned vegetables and fruits and tossed in a bottle of water.  Those “provisions” wouldn’t last two days.
I was very, very frustrated and I was also angry.  The Lyons family owned the Itasca Country Club and Lyons Musical Instruments from whom many of us kids rented gear for our music lessons.
It was common knowledge that when the Lyons built their new house in 1961 several doors down from us they installed a large fall-out shelter.  I thought, “Now, here are some folks who are smart and prepared!  They are doing what it takes to save themselves and their skinny red-haired spoiled brats.”  I often fantasized when the attack came riding my bike down to their house and begging to be let into their shelter or breaking in by force if need be—but I knew there was no way I’d leave my folks.  Instead, we’d cram in the closet and watch the radiation melt the window and seep into our grave.  What was I worried about?  We would only need provisions for a couple of minutes.

My mother finally stamped down upon my incessant protestations.  “Look here!” she said.  “If there’s an attack your father is going to be at work or off in Timbuktu or wherever, and you and your brother will be at school.  So, it’s going to be me and your sister in the basement in this pathetic little room your father thinks is a fallout shelter.  We’re the ones who need to be worried, not you!”  Comforting, I guess.  At least I wasn’t the only one freaked about it, and she was probably right.  When the bombs did begin to fall, I’d be under my desk with all of my scared shit-less friends and teachers with our heads between our legs.

Duck and Cover

I’m glad they kept secret The Bunker at the Greenbriar.  That knowledge could have very well pushed me over the edge.

Nuclear war wasn’t just hypothetical—it was a very real possibility.  This wasn’t going to be a matter of sending men overseas in boats with guns, knives and tanks to fight the enemy at close range while the mothers and children were safe at home.  This wouldn’t be the kind of war, the nightmare, my father and his generation fought only seventeen years earlier. The atomic bomb was a game-changer.

Now, in the early 1960s, all it would take was for someone to lose his cool, take off a shoe and push a button, and the world as we knew it would be over and the populations of the United States, Europe and Soviet Union would be reduced to Middle-Ages digits.  Maybe that’s one of the reasons my father wasn’t too fixated on a fallout shelter.  This was our life.  This is what we grew up with as children.  Do we really need the psychiatrists or doctors of sociology to tell us why so many of our generation dropped out, got into drugs, and became depressed?
Beginning in the late 1950s the USSR and Fidel Castro’s communist Cuba
became allies. It was the perfect partnership—the Soviets embraced Cuba for its strategic location ninety miles off the coast of Florida and as a steppingstone for the spread of communism throughout Latin America.  Castro feared an invasion by U.S. forces to put Cuba back in the hands of leaders more friendly to the United States and welcomed the protection of a big-brother.  We had backed some coup attempts including one in April 1961 when a band of Cuban exiles supported by the CIA and undercover U.S. forces invaded southern Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.  Within three days Castro’s forces completely overran and killed or captured the invaders.  It was a humiliating defeat and the singular tipping point in the Cold War with the Soviets.
Fearing another invasion by the United States, in September of 1962 the Soviets began to deliver and install nuclear tipped ballistic missiles at several launch sites on Cuba.  On October 7 Cuba’s President, a Castro puppet, spoke at the United Nations and disclosed that his country had “inevitable weapons and sufficient means to defend ourselves.”
American intelligence officers were skeptical until a few days later when a U.S. reconnaissance plane took photographs of the missiles and the teams of Russians swarming around the newly dug installations. This was a big goddamn deal!  The United States defense forces went on the highest alert status.  Over the next two weeks, the U.S. and Soviets were locked in a diplomatic battle of poker with the highest possible stakes at risk.  U.S. Navy war vessels established a blockade/quarantine around Cuba and on October 22, 1962 President Kennedy gave his first public comments and laid down America’s ultimatum.
As one might imagine, the media coverage of this crisis was pervasive.  For a twelve-year-old like me it was frightening and suffocating.  Our family literally camped out in front of our little black and white T.V. to watch this thing unfold.  There were so many ways this crisis could end badly.  If we invaded Cuba, the Soviets would launch the missiles from Cuba upon us, we’d launch ours on the Soviet Union, and then they’d launch their nukes upon us and Western Europe.  I couldn’t get the image out of my mind of Khrushchev pounding his shoe on the table at the United Nations and the T.V stations were only too accommodating to reinforce it by replaying that clip over and over.
The Soviets announced their intention to ignore the blockade and that any attempt to interfere with their ships would be deemed an act of war. The U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC) went on Defcon 2 alert status for the only confirmed time in history.  This was basically the “Get ready to launch, ’cause this thing is going down” alert to the troops. As you know (because you are reading this) the crisis was ultimately defused and there was no launch of nuclear weapons.
As a result of intense high-level negotiations that included face-to-face meetings between President Kennedy’s 37-year-old brother, Robert (Bobby), who was serving as U.S. Attorney General, and Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet Ambassador to the United States, and several letters exchanged between President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev, on October 28 a deal was struck.  The Soviets agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba and the United States ended the blockade and provided assurances it would not invade Cuba.

The “Threat” was Everywhere! ~ Even For Us Kids…

[The Twilight Zone’s “The Shelter” AIRED: Friday, September 29, 1961-Find and rent it sometime.   Humankind at their worse in a crisis.]

The Cuban Missile Crisis is unequivocally remembered as the moment the Cold War came closest to becoming an all-out nuclear Armageddon.  You won’t get any disagreement from me.  We dodged a bullet; a big one.

And life went on in our quiet little town of Itasca. The U.S. was safe, for now.  Everyone, for the most part, appeared civilized and seemed to have retained their sanity— back to work, back to school, back to the daily routine.  Yet “it” was always right there, conveniently out of sight, but never out of mind.  We got too close, and our family didn’t need the fallout shelter after all—at least not for that near disaster.

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Author Bios

Write Me Something Beautiful Authors - Casey and Jimmy Gauntt

Casey Gauntt

is a retired attorney and former senior executive of a major San Diego real estate company. He lives in Solana Beach, California, with his wife, Hilary. Casey grew up in Itasca, Illinois, graduated Lake Park High School in 1968, and received B.S., JD and MBA degrees from the University of Southern California.

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Jimmy Gauntt

was born and raised in Solana Beach and graduated from Torrey Pines High School in 2002.   A prestigious Trustee Scholar at the University of Southern California, he majored in English and Spanish. He authored six plays, five screenplays, and a multitude of poems and short stories. Beginning in 2010, the USC English Department annually bestows the Jimmy Gauntt Memorial Award—aka “The Jimmy”—to the top graduates in English.  Jimmy passed over to the other side in 2008 at age 24.

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