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Cuban missile crisis 47 years ago this month

Prospect of nuclear war brought a cryptic comment from dad about heading for West Virginia

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Posted: Tuesday, October 6, 2009 12:00 am

October marks the 47th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was a significant point in American history — the closest we have ever come to full-scale nuclear war.

In 1962, the Soviet Union secretly placed intermediate-range missiles in Castro's Cuba. The U.S. discovered the threat on Oct. 15, via a U-2 reconnaissance flight. President Kennedy and his staff were deeply concerned. Weapons located so close to American shores would provide little warning in case of a nuclear attack.

On Tuesday, Oct. 23, I was sitting in my high school senior English class when an announcement came over the loudspeaker: "Students: The Army and Marine recruiters are here to discuss your plans after graduation. Meet in the cafeteria at 10 a.m., if interested."

At the time, I lived in Bethesda, Md. — a suburb of Washington, D.C. The day before, the president had made an announcement to the world that the U.S. would not tolerate Soviet aggression.

We were all worried that the "big one" was right on our doorstep. The slightest provocation or incompetent diplomatic move could end in our incineration. It was doubtful that the nation's capitol would be spared.

The cafeteria was filled with young men full of vitality. Most were spouting off about "joining up" and sending Castro and his Russian buddies to their graves. It didn't take much insight to look beyond the faAade and see the concern that bold bravado was attempting to hide.

The draft was still a reality. Most my age were planning on a college education and hoped that a 2-S classification would delay their military service for another four years. But today, things were obviously different. The military reps told us if we signed up now, we could be "guaranteed" a job that was not on the front lines. One asked me what I liked doing? I replied that singing in the school choir was a pretty soft gig, and did the Army have anything like that? After a brief bout of laughter in the room, he said: "Sure! Sign up this week and I can get you in."

I was excited. My father was very late coming home that night from his job as chief of the Oral Pathology Division at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. I've never seen such a worried look on his face. I told him about my day's adventure and what the recruiter had promised me. Suddenly, his worrisome look changed to an encompassing smile. "No, son. We're not buying that one," he said with a laugh. "You are going to finish your education. If things boil over, we'll be heading for West Virginia."

I didn't know what he meant by that, and he was not going to elaborate. By Oct. 28, Premier Khrushchev had backed down. The Soviet Union had struck a secret diplomatic deal with the United States. Soon, life returned to normal.

Years later, I discovered what "heading for West Virginia" really meant. The government had built a top-secret bunker under the famous Greenbrier resort.

It was reserved for House and Senate members, along with some support staff.

That included medical personnel, and my father would have been one.

What he didn't know at the time was that family members were not welcomed. They would have been locked outside. It's hard to imagine how 535 congressmen could have been so cold as to say to their families: "So long. It's been nice knowing you." Apparently, that was the plan.

The location was kept secret until 1992, when a Washington Post story exposed it. A note on local history: Lodi resident Gayle Ishii's father helped construct the covert bunker, which is now open to the public. According to Mrs. Ishii, "Everyone in town knew about it." The people of White Sulfur Springs had obviously been quite competent at keeping the hideaway a secret for many years from the outside world.

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed back in 1962. As a result, world catastrophe was avoided.

Now the question for all of us is: Will we be so lucky the next time?

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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