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'62 Cuban missile crisis brought fear closer to home

Preston Truman remembers well the dark day in 1962 when his mother picked him up after school at tiny Enterprise Elementary in southwest Utah and tearfully told him something was wrong.

"She was very upset about it, and she said the president was going to be on TV in a few hours," Truman said last week in recollecting how a nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union terrified inhabitants of his small home town 35 years ago Tuesday.On the Sunday afternoon of Oct. 14, 1962, an Air Force U-2 reconnaissance plane photographed medium-range Soviet missiles installed near San Cristobal, Cuba, just 90 miles from American soil. The siting triggered two weeks of thrust and parry between Washington and Moscow that nearly caused a nuclear war. It became known as the Cuban missile crisis.

Well over half Utah's 2 million residents weren't even born in 1962, but for many older Utahns the incident lingers as if it happened only yesterday, still as vivid a generation gone by as a handful of other select and traumatic events in modern U.S. history that include the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, and, later, Watergate.

Truman was 11 years old when the world's two superpowers toyed for several days with Armageddon, bringing civilization to the brink of holocaust while his father and uncles were out of town and out of touch on their annual autumn deer hunt.

The sixth-grader was man of the house for the moment, and for his age he had by national standards an unusual awareness of nuclear fallout. His family's house was only 100 miles from the Nevada test site where the federal government by 1962 had tested hundreds of atomic explosions.

"Leukemia deaths had started to happen," said Truman, who grew up to become an activist with Downwinders, where he works now in a high-profile role as a watchdog for the fallout-victims' advocacy group.

His education in the atomic ways of the world was perhaps only typical of many who were raised in a state that felt much of the brunt of the U.S. government's arms race with the Soviet Union.

"One of my earliest memories I have is of sitting on my dad's knee in our front yard down there and watching the sky light up with an A-bomb," Truman said.

By 1962, certain suspicions had begun to occur to Utahns who lived with fallout that - by all government accounts - was supposed to be harmless. Years later, proof of nuclear poisoning would surface widely, but residents of small communities such as Truman's were already attuned to nuclear winds and the political forces that spawned them.

The Cold War was on, waged in power centers such as Washington, Moscow and Berlin, but felt in backwaters, too, such as Truman's native Washington County and in Iron County to the north. There 14-year-old Fred Esplin had a sudden epiphany during the missile crisis that the end of the world might be nigh.

"You have to bear in mind there was an amalgam of related things going on," said Esplin, general manager of KUED, the public-television affiliate in Salt Lake City. "The missile crisis was just a spike on an already high meter. What you had then was nuclear testing in your own back yard, and you knew about it. And in the late '50s you had McCarthyism and this threat of worldwide domination by communism. . .the John Birch Society was very, very active in Iron and Washington counties, so you were already worked up over communism and the very real perception that they were out to get you and that it was only a matter of time."

Fear manifested itself nationally in a frenzy of bomb-shelter building and survivalist storage of food and water, a trend that happened to dovetail with lingering frontier Mormon beliefs that dictated that every family should be equipped anyway for long periods of emergency.

"Nobody said from the pulpit the words `nuclear war,' " but my dad and I dug out a basement room and put cinder blocks in and we had a lot of food storage," said Esplin.

"In fact, we were one of the families called on extemporaneously on Sunday (by local LDS Church leaders) not to go to the store for two weeks."

The drill was designed to heighten a sense of preparedness, and Esplin said his family made it through easily enough, though it might've been tough to duplicate under post-apocalypse conditions.

"We had a big garden and a milk cow, so it worked OK," Esplin said.

If such stories sound bizarre today, it's because the timbre of our times is fundamentally different, said Bill Siska, a film historian at the University of Utah.

Siska said that as a child reared on the south side of Chicago he took part in nuclear-bomb drills in which he hid under his desk and then later looked out his classroom window toward the city's downtown, where he imagined a mushroom cloud leveling its skyscrapers.

Such fantasies aren't as easy to summon today, he said, "because we've lived with the nuclear threat so long we don't even think about it."

When Americans do now, he said, it's usually on a fictional plane, as portrayed in the current hit movie "Peacekeeper," in which Nicole Kidman and George Clooney narrowly thwart a terrorist nuclear strike in the heart of New York City.

"It's not real for the people watching it," Siska said. "It's just another adventure story that gives them thrills."

Not so the events of 1962 and the geopolitical mileu against which they occurred.

"There was a real hysteria," even in her small, central-Utah town of Salina, said Claire Geddes, who eventually moved to Salt Lake City, where today she is a third-party political activist.

"I think we had an abnormal fear, it was exaggerated," said Geddes, who added nonetheless that she held John F. Kennedy in high regard afterwards for his handling of the showdown.

"Kennedy's cool head saved us," said Geddes.

LeRoy Hooton Jr., the Salt Lake City public works director who was a water-treatment plant manager at the time, remembers losing sleep over how to best protect his young family.

"There was just a steady drumbeat on television about the missile gap, the Russians being ahead, Sputnik and so on," Hooton said. "And Japan - the bombings there - were still close enough in people's mind that it was real."

Though the missiles the Russians had installed in Cuba were too far away to have struck Utah, Hooton said there was still a clear understanding that Salt Lake City wasn't exempt in the event of a major exchange of intercontinental rockets.

"There would've been nothing left in the valley," said Hooton, who one evening wedged himself into the tiny gap between his house and the dirt below to ponder building a shelter.

"I remember going into that little crawl space and looking at it and saying, "There's no way I could build it here.' "

"It was an amazing time," said U.S. Rep. Chris Cannon, who remembers a spate of advertisements for prefabricated, torpedo-shaped bunkers sold to a nervous public in the Southern California of his youth.

Similarly, Ted Stewart, director of the state's Department of Natural Resources, said he would lie awake at nights in his family's house in the San Fernando Valley next to a factory owned by Rocketdyne, the military missile maker.

"During their rocket tests I remember thinking that if the Russians attacked, they'd drop a bomb right here."

Later, the Stewarts moved to the Cache Valley where it dips north from Utah into Idaho, a place Stewart said was less worrisome and, by comparison, "a happy little land."

Salt Lake Mayor Deedee Corradini found no such comfort on campus at Drew University in New Jersey, where she was a sophomore in October 1962.

"We were horrified," said Corradini, who grew up the daughter of American educators in the already tumultuous Middle East of the Cold War, in Syria and Lebanon.

"During the missile crisis, we would go to the student union and just be glued to the television," said Corradini, noting that Drew had no evacuation plans to speak of and little in the way of emergency drills.

"It was very somber and we really felt the end was near . . . we hadn't really lived yet and we were about to die."

Likewise, Don Gomes, program director at Park City public radio station KPCW/KCPW, was attending Santa Clara University in California, where "audible and silent gasps" greeted details of the first television broadcasts of the standoff.

"The fact that this was 90 miles away (from U.S. soil) was terrifying," said Gomes.

"It just triggered a whole renewal of the bomb scares of the '50s because for most people things like the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was over there, it was someplace distant. This was the first military threat to the U.S. of any potential actuality since the Civil War."

Stewart said the lessons of such history don't seem particularly well known today, especially among young people.

"I jokingly called one of my kids a communist once, just in jest, and they looked at me like, `What are you talking about?' " Stewart said.

The times have changed in other respects as well.

Cannon, the congressman, noted that capitalism has long since established its resounding defeat over communism, and that today technology makes crises like the one 35 years ago less likely.

Corradini, however, said she worries a peacetime lull might lead to blackmarket trade in nuclear weapons and their subsequent use by terrorists.

Siska, the film professor, said part of the upshot of the missile crisis and the Cold War is a two-edged result: greater freedom of expression, but more distrust of government and its intentions.

"We were more easily led then, less skeptical . . . people who were skeptical kept it to themselves for fear they would be hauled before the tribunal," he said.