Posted by: donnatallman | May 29, 2012

Lighting Up – the Cuban Missile Crisis

(Today’s post is dedicated to all the other military Brats who were serving during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The names in this story have been fictionalized, while the content and conversations are based on interviews of those present in Homestead, Florida.)

The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What will man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:6)

 Homestead Air Force Base, Florida – 1962

 “I don’t like what I’m seeing,” Maj. Simpson whispers to my father.

“What’s your take?” Dad asks.

“Catastrophic, absolutely catastrophic. I’ve never seen the likes of the medical supplies anywhere.”

Capt. Jameson, a pilot and one of Dad’s friends, joins the sidewalk briefing echoing the doctor’s feelings as well.

The doctor’s shaking hand reaches up to his breast pocket for an unopened pack of cigarettes. He fumbles through his assortment of other pockets in a frantic search for a match.

“Here,” interrupts my father, as he tries to alleviate the doctor’s mounting anxiety. Dad produces a matchbook and lights a match for the major.

“Didn’t know you smoked,” my father says.

“I don’t,” he murmurs.

Maj. Simpson tries to aim his shaking hands to the lit match my father holds out for him, but can’t stop his own trembling. My father reaches out, stills the tremor, and lights Maj. Simpson’s cigarette.

“You should leave now and get your family out of here,” the major warns Dad.

“I just flew a planeload of Generals up to Strategic Air Command (SAC) at Omaha,” chimes in Capt. Jameson. “Cuba’s going to explode. Since you’ve already got your transfer orders to Omaha, you should get out while you can.”

Capt. Jameson should know. Not only does he fly generals around the country when they need him to, Capt. Jameson also participates in Operation Looking Glass launched from Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska.

Looking Glass is a Cold War Era operation that flies an entire replica of ground level security and communications around United States airspace twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. This “mirror” command center in the sky stays aloft all the time in case of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union or any other foreign enemy. The planes even refuel in midair when they need to. The captain knows his stuff.

“Don, you’ve only got a small window of time before Castro strikes. The way I see it, I’d want my family to be somewhere else besides Homestead,” Capt. Jameson exhorts my father.

“Anywhere else!” agrees Maj. Simpson.

“You think it’ll come to that?” wonders my father.

“It has come to that!” erupts Capt. Jameson. “The Cubans are only ninety miles away, and those missiles could blow Florida right off the map!”

“I’ve never seen so much on-hand supply in my life,” reports the doctor as he chokes on his own cigarette smoke. “There are cots stacked up and down the corridors, enough plasma arriving for three cities, and the commissary has more food on hand than the base could eat in two years.”

“I don’t like it at all. We have to be here, but you’re already cleared for transfer,” reminds Jameson. “If I were you, I’d get your family out of Florida a-sap. You can always come back alone if we need you.”

With that, my father says goodbye to the men who have been his friends at Homestead. He returns to our temporary living quarters where the family is already packed for relocation to Nebraska. As Dad enters the room, President Kennedy is on television updating the nation on the Cuban Missile Crisis. By nightfall we are feverishly loading the car, and by dawn’s early light we are leaving the base to make our way north.

“Why are we going in such a hurry?” Randy asks.

My father says nothing.

“Is it a hurricane?” Sandi wonders.

Silence is her only answer. In the military, information is dispensed on a “need to know” basis and that applies to our family as well. Right now calm is needed, so Dad goes mute. As we drive through the exit gate on base, the American flag hangs limp in October’s apprehensive hush.

October’s Hush
Photo by Donna Tallman

Sixty miles later near Ft. Lauderdale, Dad stops at a gas station. The heater has gone out in the car, so Dad asks for help from the mechanic on duty. The mechanic finds the problem and fixes it immediately. When Dad holds out his money to pay, the mechanic replies, “No, sir, we’ll get this one for you.” He points to the Homestead Air Force Base sticker mounted in the left front windshield of the car.

“Thanks,” my father replies.

“No, Sir, thank you. Y’all be safe.”

The mechanic waves us on into daybreak with a silent salute.

Despite my inability to understand the events around me because I’m only three years old, I am learning. I’m learning like most three year-olds do, through absorption. While I have no context for the chaos confronting us, I do pick up on the emotions of those around me.

My parents burst with unsettling questions that they periodically pass back and forth across the front seat like a game of hot potato. Are we in immediate danger? Who can help us? What about the kids? Will Omaha be far enough? Will it be safe? Should we take the kids to West Virginia instead?

And the one question no one really wants to ask or know the answer to: What if?

What if Cuba actually deploys those missiles?

What if?

Their questions limply hang in the early morning air like the American flag on base, desperately waiting for the all clear. Quiet descends in the car. One by one we give into the fatigue of our frantic departure, leaving my father to wrestle with the impact his military duty is having on his young family.

I wonder what he hears in his heart as he drives mile after endless mile toward Omaha.

*     *     *     *     *

The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What will man do to me?”

What will man do to me?

Are you kidding?

In 1962, “man” was threatening to launch nuclear missiles from Cuba to destroy Americans. Any quick swipe of history reveals that mankind is capable of perpetrating all kinds of atrocities against itself. The world is full of people with evil intentions. Just say the name Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin and evil on a grandiose scale quickly comes into view. Humanity also lashes out at itself in “local,” or more personal ways. News stations report daily on children suffering at the hands of abusive parents, husbands cheating on wives, financially strapped employees embezzling funds from their employers, greed run amok on Wall Street, and politicians abusing the sacred power entrusted to them.

In light of evil’s presence throughout history and society, how can Hebrews 13:6 honestly ask, “What will man do to me?”

The temptation to drink from the spigot of fear was present in almost every headline coming across the news wires in October 1962. We were military, so international events that seemed far away to others, often camped right on my family’s doorstep. They drew me into a vortex of anxiety about my father’s duty and my family’s safety. Each news story was a private invitation to annihilation by whatever “rooster” was preening his feathers and fluffing his stuff on the rooftop at the moment. Swirling fear was all around us and it etched its imprint deep into my impressionable heart.

My parents, however, stayed focused on the power source in the passage. “The Lord is my helper.” God must be our focus, they told my sister, brother, and me; not a Cuban dictator, Soviet leader, President of the United States, Secretary of the Air Force, or fear itself. Dad knew that God would see us through any fall-out of fear, so he was not distracted by humanity’s horrid threats. Instead, Dad kept his eyes on who God was and what were his “strike capabilities.”

What will man do?

Nothing that God doesn’t allow.

Well, there you have it, the million-dollar assumption!

The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What will man do to me?”

The verse assumed that I knew who “the Lord” was, but I didn’t. I didn’t have a clue who he was, or that he had any power or influence over human events. The Lord being my helper meant nothing.

Instead of absorbing the faith of my parents during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, I absorbed something else altogether. I adopted a paradigm of fear. I could see fear, I could sense it, and I understood it. I heard it in Mom’s shushes of Sandi, Randy, and me when President Kennedy was on TV, and I saw it on Dad’s face when he loaded the car at night. Fear I got; it was tangible.

God? I couldn’t see God.

I didn’t get God.

(To be continued….)

© Copyright, 2012 by Donna Tallman.




  1. I, too, was a brat at the base during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was 11 at the time. My fear of Russians was born there. Barbara

    • I have a friend who was part of the Peter Pan airlift of Cuban children fleeing to safety before the Crisis…I always wondered why I fear international events so much and I do believe it’s because they are personal when you’re in the military. Thanks for commenting, Barbara.

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