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By Gregory Viens
I was not able to get anything in for this Veterans Day, but I will be able to get in something for a veteran and a president whom most of us knew.
I was a 12-year-old boy in Mrs. Picket's fourth-grade class on a sunny November day. It was just about 2 p.m. when the other teachers, Mrs. Howard and Mrs. Barton, came to see Mrs. Picket.
She in turn told our class that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas. We were all heartbroken but hoped he would live. About 15 minutes later, Mrs. Stafford came and told us that President Kennedy was dead. All of our hearts sank in despair. Mrs. Picket had just led us in the Lord's Prayer for our president so that he would live. She was catholic, as was the president and my family.
My thoughts were on our president and I remembered how during his campaign and after his election some people said they wished he was dead or that he was shot. I thought how awfully disturbing those people were to say such a thing. But all of that changed in October 1962 when the missiles of October, as Kennedy put it, hung over all of us like the sword of Damocles.
The first few weeks into October 1962, U.S. U2 spy planes had taken pictures of new Russian missile launch bases going up here and there on the island of Cuba. Once this was verified that there were Russian missiles about to be installed and operational and ready to launch at a good part of the U.S., our worst fears had come true.
The president and his chief of staff talked about what to do as he went on TV to tell everyone in the U.S., Canada and Europe of what the Russians had helped Fidel Castro do. The United Nations General Assembly was called and our ambassador there told of this cold war threat to the whole world. We here in Vermont were worried sick. We had Plattsburgh Air Force Base, which was a really big base that launches B52 bombers on a constant daily basis. The base was put on alert which was a wise move since chances were we were headed for a nuclear war with the Soviets, which was called the USSR.
I remember going to a meeting at the old Number 9 Fayston School to talk about what to do to survive a nuclear attack and the radiation fallout. It was October and winter was coming on and we only had our old farmhouse cellar, not a new house with a bomb shelter. The talk didn't sound good at what it would take to survive a nuclear war and the fallout. It was not going to be good for most of us with no time and no money.
Meanwhile, President Kennedy put a naval blockade all around Cuba, while the general staff was trying to talk Kennedy into attacking and invading Cuba right after one of our U2 spy planes was shot down. What we didn't know until the fall of the Soviet Union was that some of the launch bases were operational and ready to launch. Also, the Soviet sub that was under our blockade ships had nuclear torpedoes and had orders to defend themselves if they felt threatened to the tipping point.
President Kennedy controlled the general staff, who were chomping at the war bit to attack, by telling them he was in charge and that not any of them were to break the peace with any rogue actions. Finally, Kennedy was able to get in contact with the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. He had been a general under Stalin during World War II. They talked about the carnage of that war for the world and what a nuclear war would do.
President Kennedy agreed not to attack and invade Cuba and to pull missiles out of Turkey, and Khrushchev agreed to pull all of the missiles out of Cuba. These two old World War II veterans saw the truth that no one would win and survive an all-out nuclear war. Thank God for them talking, especially President Kennedy.
After that, President Kennedy had one more year to live. In that week in 1962, he did what no other president ever had to do. Washington and Lincoln were great in their time on earth, but the wars back then would not destroy a world like a nuclear war would. We came just short of the skins of our teeth from blowing ourselves off the face of this planet and blowing us back to the Stone Age. It was that close.
At that time, from 1961 to 1964, we lived in an old trailer in a trailer lot beside Kenyon's old farm just outside of The Valley Reporter in the right lane of the now blacktopped entrance. As I watched the scene of Kennedy's funeral play out for days, it rained up here during that whole time as if the tears of heaven above wept for our slain 35th president. I wept too as I was young and innocent.
If Kennedy had lived a lot of things would have been different. There probably would have been no Vietnam and the loss of all that war brought to us. Now it's 50 years after and the world sure has changed, most of it not for the better. Thank God for Kennedy. That one scary event in October 1962 was almost the deadliest war on earth that did not happen because John F. Kennedy was our president for 1,000 days.
Gregory Viens lives in North Fayston.