My Part in the Cuban Missile Crisis
Miami, Florida, October, 1962

By John Troesser
I’ll admit right here that my role in what is now known as The Cuban Missile Crisis was actually quite small. I think the movie industry uses the term “uncredited.” We all know who the main players were but while they were in Washington, Moscow and Havana, I, on the other hand, was there where “the rubber was meeting the road.” Like Gertrude Stein’s Oakland, in the CMC there really was no there there, but I was as close to a there as one could get if there had been an actual there.

If the crisis was a board game, I was standing in the shadow of one of the game’s tokens. I was no more than 500 feet from at least four ground to ground ICBMs. The only thing between them and me was a one-acre field of wild castor-bean plants – my boyhood playground.
Railroad Cannon

It was a bit like this - but much bigger and with a nuclear warhead
Wikimedia Commons

My father ran a small hotel in an industrial section of Miami right next to a railroad spur. The tenants were all working class men in middle age or older. The hotel was seventy-one blocks from downtown Miami and we were reminded of that fact every time we looked up at the sign that said 71st Street. In front of the hotel was a motley group of lawn chairs and a well-read “library” of paperback books, magazines and newspapers.

The quality of the reading material might surprise people today. There were books by Eric Hoffer, Vance Packard, Robert Ruark, Harry Golden, Alexander King and a copy of Alas, Babylon, the best-selling novel about nuclear war and its aftermath. I also remember On the Beach, another nuclear thriller but Alas, Babylon had a Florida setting and that’s why it was in three pieces while On the Beach remained intact.

There were also plenty of “men’s magazines” too – with titles like Argosy, Saga and True. Usually these were filled with tales from WWII. The lurid covers showed scantily clad native women (that looked like well-toned Hedy Lamarr) helping US servicemen hide from Japanese patrols or else they were bandaging the man’s wounds with cloth torn from their skirts. The war had ended less than 20 years before and stories were still surfacing (and being embellished). The women depicted on the covers bore no resemblance to the grainy actual photographs inside that would sometimes show a reunion photo between the serviceman and his rescuer. The women inside the magazine looked more like their sisters in National Geographic than Hedy Lamarr. They were also modestly dressed in what appeared to be hand-me-downs from Missionary wives.

Now there was talk of a new war – with bigger weapons and more devastating consequences. Being in Florida increased the anxiety due to its proximity to Cuba – the potential flashpoint of a war – just like it was in 1898.

It wasn’t hard to meet someone from Cuba in 1950s Miami. Especially if you owned a Chevy. My father had a ‘54 Chevrolet sedan and a week wouldn’t pass without a “scout” from Cuba offering to buy it so it could be shipped to Havana. It got so bad that my father had to put a handmade “Not for Sale” sign in the window of the car. I liked the scouts. They wore suits and hats and most of them had those little mustaches like older men wore on Perry Mason. They were also extremely polite and talked like Desi Arnez or Gilbert Roland. The hotel’s tenants were less polished and looked more like Ernest Borgnine or an unshaven Lee Marvin.

The “media outlets” of South Florida liked to say that Cuba was “only 90 miles from US soil” although that was the distance from Key West to Havana. Everybody in Miami knew that. Key West hadn’t really been “discovered” at that time and there were people in Miami in the 50s who may have been surprised to learn that it was even populated. Most people imagined the keys to be a chain of those cartoon islands – with sand and a lone coconut tree and nothing else.

Still, Cuba was close enough to Miami for someone to enjoy an Espresso and guava paste / cracker breakfast in Havana and eat a corned-beef sandwich for lunch at Wolfies in Miami Beach – if the drawbridges on the causeways stayed down.

Just after the man the Cubans now refer to as “The Beard” took over Cuba, there was great speculation over his intentions. A local television station (one of three) ran a three part series called “Is Cuba Going Red?” That’s the way they talked back then. The answer to that blunt question wasn’t long in coming. Had there been a fourth part to the series, it would’ve been called “Yep, Cuba Turned Red.”

Living in an industrial part of town had its disadvantages – not the least of which was playing host to one of several air raid sirens distributed around the city. To people in Miami Shores it would’ve been a “distant siren.” With us, it was “in our face.” Come to think of it, we might have coined that expression.

Air raid siren

Photo courtesy Historymiamiarchives.com

One of several Miami Air raid sirens
To hear the eeire "voice" of the Cold War as it was (multiple sirens) you can visit this youtube clip:

The siren was mounted atop a five or six story furniture warehouse called Woodruff’s. Although the Woodruff building had rounded corners, there was nothing round about the piercing wail of the panel truck-sized, fire-engine red siren that cranked up every other Saturday at noon.

This siren, built by the Chrysler Corporation was to small town noon whistles like a contrabass saxophone is to a kazoo. Thankfully, it rotated, so you had time to grab some cotton balls or grass or anything handy to stanch the flow of blood from your ears before it came around for a coup de grâce. I knew its purpose, but even at my age, I saw folly in its rigid never-changing schedule. If the Russians were to attack Miami – all they would have to do is schedule it for an alternate Saturday at noon.

There was a short warm-up as the beast growled into life. The normal reaction of residents was either “Oh, no!” or “Has it been two weeks already?!” It was close enough to us that we could see the service technician with his five gallon jerry can of fuel. He wore no hearing protectors, so everyone assumed he was stone deaf – like people who traditionally worked in newspaper pressrooms.

At that time, public service announcements on radio and television were telling us to “Sleep well, tonight. Your National Guard is awake.” Again, I found fault with the premise. If the Guard was up all night, they’d still be sleeping at noon – just when the Russians would attack. My strategic acumen came from watching Errol Flynn Theater (Sundays on Channel Seven). Flynn had battled Nazis, pirates, Arabs and even the Sheriff of Nottingham. If he hadn’t died in 1959, he surely would’ve been pressed into service to spoil Soviet plans in this hemisphere.

Eighteen months earlier, after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, when “El Commandante” was ransoming his captured prisoners for tractors, a delegation from the Cuban army came to Miami to negotiate. Although the more important negotiators stayed downtown at an expensive hotel, two of the men came down to my father’s place and rented two rooms for $2 a day – pocketing the per diem allowance Cuba had given them for more expensive digs. We hardly ever saw them for the week they were there, but when they departed they left behind three uniform shirts with red / black Cuban insignia (and a lot of fruity-smelling pomade stains on the pillowcases and towels).

Now, at age fifteen, with the first report cards of the semester due out, I had more important things to worry about than nuclear war. Yet even I, with my self-centered teenage preoccupation knew something big was up. Everyone (and I mean everyone) was walking around with transistor radios up to their ears or remaining within earshot of a radio.

The railroad spur next to the hotel was actually two sets of tracks and the assembling or dismantling of a train was a noisy, all-night process. But like most close-to-the-track dwellers will tell you, the noise soon becomes a heavy-metal lullaby. But one night in early October, things were different. Olive drab, nearly windowless railroad cars were hauled in and parked. Instead of the normal clanging and the revving of the switching engine’s diesels, it was dead quiet. The silence itself was ominous.

Hawk Missiles in Everglades National

Hawk Missiles in Everglades National Park 1963
Photo courtesy Historymiamiarchives.com

We instantly knew they were missiles although no one had ever seen one in real life. The cars were oversized in that the roofline was taller than typical passenger cars. They had a sinister look to them. There were armed sentries at either end of each car and although I was tempted to tease them into smiling like tourists did at Buckingham Palace, what I saw was grim determination and fear on their faces and I decided against it.

The lone phone booth in front of the hotel actually had a line of people waiting to use it – the only time that ever happened. Several times I heard men say: ”Well, I better go now, there’s other people are waiting to use the phone” and I heard each of them say “I love you” – words that I had never before heard spoken by these crusty, mostly bitter “old” men. Who was on the other end of the line? Daughters? Sons? Ex-wives? The men at the hotel seldom spoke of family.

It was a tense time, to be sure, but after three days, we were getting used to it. The tenants were split – half saying it would never happen and the other half saying it would. There was talk of Russian submarines being seen off the Bahamas. The rumor-mill was working three shifts.

The crisis peaked one night when the warheads were raised by hydraulic rams and the cars emitted some sort of gaseous cloud that came and went at intervals. It reminded me of the scene from The Day the Earth Stood Still where everyone was awaiting the opening of the spaceship door.

The missile-laden Russian ship was approaching Cuban waters. Some people even marked its progress on the hurricane tracking charts that were seasonally imprinted on our paper grocery bags.

The tenants, who normally sat outside to escape the heat of their un-air conditioned rooms, had gone back inside, possibly to write letters home or to make out their wills and last testaments. I eventually fell asleep but periodically checked out the missiles through the screen of my bedroom window. I didn’t want to miss the launch, should there be one.

When I awoke, the missiles were gone along with the guards and the train that brought them. The relief was palpable. Feuding tenants were suddenly best friends again and people actually smiled at one another. In a way, this behavior was nearly as creepy as the threat of war – but three days later things were back to normal.

August 10, 2014 Column
© John Troesser
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