Missile Crises: Belfast, Havana and Kyiv…

‘The October drills of ‘62 were crazy,’ Elena said. ‘As if tables or desks would have saved us.’

As we walked, I’d already told her that one morning in my Primary school, our teacher told us in that Keep Calm and Carry On manner that World War 111 might break out any day. And that if the sirens went off, we must all get down quickly on our knees and hunch under our desks. Then she warned us to expect a bright flash, to cover our eyes and stay still until she said it was safe.

But that wasn’t fair as our shiny new desks were flimsier than the thick old oak versions scattered throughout the school.

Miss then explained that not us but far away Derry might be a target because of its naval base.

Then, when I got home, the radio said that The Bomb’s bright sun blast would blind anyone who saw it up to eighty miles away. Something that sent me searching for an atlas to check the mileage from Botanic to Lough Foyle. Only seventy. Far too close.

The following morning I asked if our classroom windows faced north? With a puzzled look, she shooed me away. And, of course, never said that Belfast itself might have been a target, as there were more than enough warheads to go around. An excess of supply over demand.

But for Elena, the fear was much more intense – of American missiles mere minutes away. From her Cuban classroom.

We’d met that morning on a Camino path out of Logrono, wending through Rioja’s rich red earth. Our shared stories shortening the miles for two recent retirees as conversation and memories flowed back to childhood. Where though continents apart, in Belfast and Havana, we rehearsed the same down-and-under, duck-and-cover drills.

Until – luckily, on the thirteenth day of the missile crisis, on the 29th of October, Russia’s heavy-laden missile resupply ships turned for home.

‘How fortunate we were then,’ I said, ‘that it was Kennedy in the White House.’

The right man was in the right place at the right time to restrain his generals as they eagerly flicked through the launch code folders. Whilst he stood back, reading both room and runes, war gaming scenarios, balancing the risks, carefully calibrating the language of response. Before drawing what he’d call a quarantine rather than a blockade line in the Ocean – as a blockade was an act of war.

‘And lucky also that Kruschev backed down,’ Elena reminded me.

‘But I wasn’t a fan of Fidel,’ she said. ‘My father was more of a socialist than communist and a vocal critic of Castro. So for most of my childhood, he was in jail.’

Then three years later, her family reunited – they joined others in a perilous exodus. Of twenty-six Cubans clambering aboard a too-small boat to spend three days adrift, with little to eat or drink, until rescue by the US Coastguard.

Impounded for three months, then eventually released into the custody of an uncle in New York, where a new life for Elena began – through high school, college, and then University to become a doctor.

Her vocally anti-clerical and anti-Francoist grandfather hailed from Galicia – until civil war forced his flight first to Portugal, then to Cuba, where he met her grandmother. This walk her return in memoria.

A few hours later, she’d completed her kilometre count for the day whilst I walked on and filed away again memory’s Cold War folders.

Until this February, when other missiles were released to fall onto Kyiv, Zaporizhia, Mykolaiv. Another crisis causing children to crouch again but this time in shelters. And as if that wasn’t enough, the threats came of October escalation from the strangely named conventional response to one nuclear.

With guilty relief, I recalled how fortunate we were sixty years ago to walk away unscathed, unlike these children.

‘The closest we’ve come to Armageddon since ’62,’ mused another American President off-mike, someone also in the right place at the right time. Someone who’d already drawn his own line of deterrence, communicating clear consequences if crossed. Even as Kyiv pleaded for the closure of this real, not confected ‘missile gap’.

Then I remembered that though Elena had abandoned The Church, she’d found another belief. In Karma.

And wouldn’t most of us wish that if Karma existed, it might this once come home to work out its payback logic on a certain diminutive septuagenarian mass murderer, seated himself alone at the head of his absurd, giant table; snarling, burning with resentment over lost empire. Assigning blame. Always elsewhere.

One amongst many (but today the most dangerous) in the lengthening list of sack-rat klepto, pluto and autocrats. All the ‘crats’ in their differing shapes and sizes united only through mutual loathing and utter rejection of one banned prefix: demo.

In an age when the revived Soviet doctrine of Maskirovka became available for export. As a blueprint for deception and denial, the manipulation of The Facts of a situation to achieve strategic or national goals. Plus ca change …

Until lies became no longer means but an end – as a settled governing principle, and all delivered without apology for Katyn, occupation, the post-war Stasi States of Eastern Europe, nor the stamp of Orwellian boots on the face of freedom.

But, we now see overreach and hear the sudden creak of tables turning, bringing a sense of possibility that skies might be one day unshadowed again.

For somehow, we in ‘The West’ had lapsed into forgetfulness of the immense price paid by the greatest generation, the Second World War citizen soldiers who forged something better out of chaos.

Until we were reminded of that same spirit sweeping across the black earth, the swayed wheatfields of the Ukrainian plain again stained red for the right to be, through lines drawn and stands taken.

As Timothy Snyder has said, we should indeed be grateful that Ukraine’s response has bought us time – to shore up the defences of Liberal Democracy and remember the lessons of World War 2: that international law is essential, that we need less, not more, fascism in the world and that democracies need not be weak in the face of what is also a struggle between ideas of empire or integration.

Something to do with the deep well that is the idea of Europe. One that longs for a future where children need no more cower underground. Something that shrinks the integrity of other quarrels.

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