Submitted by Charles Gallagher, Captain USN, ret.

Thirteen Days in October

The scientist/poet/philosopher, Loren Eiseley described October as a time when "pumpkins lie like moons among the corn." To me that's what October has always been, a time of the harvest moon and cool winds finally breaking the siege of summer. A time of leaves losing their green and setting the hillsides on fire, dusk falling earlier each evening and geese migrating in their ancient pathways in the air, honking a cacophony that awakens something similar in the human listener, a call to migrate, to gather food, to delve into the mystery of the season of spirits, to huddle by the fire and tell old tales.

Human endeavor has lent October another meaning though, one less ancient but more ominous. Let me tell you a story. It begins on a Monday night in Norfolk, Virginia, in a second floor, one-bedroom flat at Bondale Apartments. A girl lives there. She is nineteen and mother of a three-month old son. On this particular evening, the baby is lying on a blanket in the middle on the living room. The girl has a teddy bear and is making it walk and talk for him. Her baby boy laughs from his belly and waves his tiny hands in delight. He has just recently learned to laugh. She thinks it is the most beautiful sound she's ever heard.

She starts to call out to her husband. Then she remembers. The USS Charles P. Cecil, a destroyer, left port two days ago in such a frantic rush that the officers on duty ran up and down the piers borrowing crew from other ships, leaving half her own behind. Her husband, though, had the duty, was on board when the call came and so he left with his ship. He could not tell her where they were going. No one could tell her when they would be back. Just like the Navy, she had thought at the time.

The phone rings. It is a friend, the wife of one of the other officers on the Cecil. "Turn on the TV," her friend says. She switches on the set and finds the President addressing the nation. Within a few minutes, she knows where her husband has gone. President Kennedy, in words that would chill her bone-deep, has just told her. Afterwards she would remember only bits and pieces of the speech, phrases like "90 miles off our shore" and "capable of striking Washington, D.C." and "medium-range ballistic missiles." She scoops up the baby son and holds him close, wonders when her husband will come home or if they will be here to greet him.

That was October 22, 1962. We all know the outcome of the Cuban missile crisis now. The U.S. enforced "a strict quarantine of all offensive military equipment in shipment to Cuba." Two days after President Kennedy's speech, the Russians continued to work feverishly on the missile sites in Cuba and 25 Russian ships held their course toward our naval blockade of the island. At the last minute, though, the majority of the ships stopped dead in the water just shy of the quarantine line and some turned back. Ultimately, 13 days after it began, and after much cloak and dagger nonsense, Khrushchev, faced with a possible U.S. invasion of Cuba and the chance of precipitating a global nuclear conflict, accepted President Kennedy's proposals, agreed to remove the bases from Cuba and nuclear disaster was narrowly averted. Finis. Now it is just another page in our kids' history books, right? Maybe not. Let me tell you the rest of my story.

A couple of days after the girl watched President Kennedy's speech, her young husband, a lieutenant in charge of the sonar team of the Cecil, found himself tracking a Russian submarine in the waters east of Cuba. For 34 hours they followed the sub until finally it was forced to surface for air. Three other subs were similarly located and turned back by other ships in the blockade. Forty years later, the young officer, now a retired captain, learned that each of the subs was armed with one nuclear torpedo, each capable of effectively atomizing an aircraft carrier. And apparently, no one on our side knew this at the time, not the young officer, not his ship's captain, not President Kennedy. So yes, history tells us that we came dangerously close to committing racial suicide via nuclear weapons a generation ago, but until now, it hasn't told us how close.

This month, my parents are attending a 40-year reunion of the 1962 crew of the USS Charles P. Cecil. What struck me most about their story was their youth. They were nineteen and twenty-two and in only the second year of their marriage, they spent what I've always considered the most beautiful month of the year, apart and facing a global crisis of harrowing proportions. It strikes me as ironic that at the fortieth anniversary of this crisis in which two of the most powerful nations on earth scrambled to avoid war, our current president uses his bully-pulpit to urge us toward it. I can only hope that for my family, October will remain a time of camping and carving pumpkins, collecting leaves and sewing costumes for our little boys for Halloween. And if we watch the skies, I hope we will be looking for migrating geese or the harvest moon and not for missiles.