As I prepare to celebrate – well, perhaps acknowledge would be a better word – my 56th birthday today, one of the memories that keeps coming up is that of my 7th birthday, almost 50 years ago. It was one of the few times that I actually had a birthday party, and I remember it as being one of my best birthdays ever.
My parents were neither big party-throwers nor party-goers. Running their own real estate agency and raising three kids probably took all of their energy. But that year, 1962 of all years, they threw me a party. Years later I realized – probably while I was watching the Kevin Costner movie Thirteen Days – that this party of mine took place smack dab in the middle of the Cuban missile crisis.
For you youngsters, the crisis was triggered when a U.S. reconnaissance plane discovered evidence of the Soviet Union building missile sites in Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida. The U.S. Navy set up a blockade to keep Soviet ships from delivering more equipment to Cuba. This became the hottest the Cold War ever got. In fact, on the actual day of my birthday, Wednesday, October 24, 1962, the U.S. went to DEFCON 2, the highest defense condition it had ever reached.
By Saturday, the day of my party, the crisis had reached its peak. The day before, Kennedy had admitted he wasn’t confident that the blockade alone would force the Soviets to remove their missiles, and the CIA reported that not only was construction continuing, but the Soviets were now working harder to camouflage the missile sites.
Meanwhile, in the backyard of a pleasant ranch house in suburban Palo Alto, there was birthday cake and games and presents and festivities, and no memory of my parents being particularly nervous about throwing a party when the end of the world loomed. My mother passed away several years ago, so I can’t ask her, and neither my father nor my much-older sisters have any memory of this party. It’s possible that the invitations had gone out long before the reconnaissance plane was shot down. It would have been extreme to cancel just because of tensions on the other side of the country. But there was no Silicon Valley at that time – our economic engine before computers was the defense industry. If missiles started flying, we wouldn’t have been spared. We were probably a bigger target then than we are now.
It was only the following day, Sunday, that tensions eased when President Kennedy famously told the country, “The other guy blinked.”
When I mention this odd juxtaposition of events to friends with kids, they scoff at my childless cluelessness. “Of course you go ahead with the party,” one said. Even at a time like that – especially at a time like that – you focus on your children.
And today, of course, we are lucky enough to scoff anew. Duck-and-cover drills, bomb shelters, and civil defense sirens have become as antiquated as crank cars and prop planes. The Berlin Wall has come down, the Soviet Union has dismantled, and before long Cuba may become a tourist destination. What seemed like the end of the world then was just a nightmare that dissipated with time.
I am grateful that only the memory of a terrific birthday party remains.