Cuban Missile Crisis: Paula Dunning

U.S. President John F. Kennedy during his national address on Oct. 22, 1962, announcing a naval blockade of Cuba until Soviet nuclear missiles are removed. (AP Photo)

U.S. President John F. Kennedy during his national address on Oct. 22, 1962, announcing a naval blockade of Cuba until Soviet nuclear missiles are removed. (AP Photo)

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It's difficult to overstate the fear the Cuban Missile Crisis set off across North America 50 years ago this month.

Paula Dunning was a teenager growing up south of the border, who learned a difficult ... but necessary lesson ... about the limits of parental reassurances.


It's October 25, 1962. The whole world is on pins and needles, watching the showdown off the shores of Cuba.

I hear the tension in the voices on the radio and in the murmur of my parents' voices just beyond earshot. The language of war: blockade, nuclear missiles, retaliation.

I saw it and heard it all day, at school, in the faces and the voices of friends and teachers. The language of fear: nervous laughter, shallow reassurances. Adolescent voices singing Where have all the flowers gone? When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?

Now, fear has taken up residence in the dim evening of my own bedroom, pushing aside the comfort of the familiar wooden desk cluttered with schoolwork, the shabby easy chair strewn with yesterday's clothes, the metal bookshelf, crowded with university catalogues. For next year. Would there be one?

An October wind brushes the dying elm leaves against my window. I lie on my bed, staring into emptiness, trying to imagine how it would be. Would we rush terrified into the dark basement? Would we all die at once? Would there be weeks and months of pain and sickness? If I looked out these windows afterward, what would I see?

My eyes fall on a round black button attached by its pin to the border of my mirror--an inch across with a white line through the middle and an inverted arrow over the bottom third of the line. Ban the Bomb. A feeble badge of protest in a world turned against itself--the only world I've known.

I raise myself heavily to my feet, pass my younger brothers squabbling in their room--they are oblivious, I think--and walk downstairs. I cross the short hallway, past my mom, knitting and listening to the radio in the living room, and knock on my dad's study door. We always knock; it's a rule. And he always says, "Come in." He swivels in his wooden desk chair, takes off his reading glasses, rubs the bridge of his nose, and smiles at me.

"How are you, Paula?" He already knows.

I sit on the settee across from him and stare glumly at the revolving bookshelf holding the volumes that occupy his mind on better days. The eyes of his mother look down on him from a portrait hanging above his desk. Is she protecting him? Will he protect me?

"Dad, I'm scared," I choke, and suddenly the tears spill. "I'm not even seventeen. I want a chance to grow up." Then, the ultimate adolescent lament: "It's not fair."

Dad's not a demonstrative man. I don't expect a hug. But I wait for the verbal reassurance I'm sure will come. "It will be fine, Paula. They're working it out now. Relax."

But it doesn't come.  Instead, my dad shakes his head and closes his eyes. When he looks up, his eyes are moist behind his glasses.

"No, it's not fair." His face assumes an expression I have never seen before. Pain. He can't fix this for me. We sit a long time in silence.

Two days later, the world heaved a sigh of relief as it backed away from nuclear war.  Christmas came and went with its usual festivities. I finished my last year of high school and prepared to go away to university. The elm tree outside my window turned green again in the spring. And I did grow up, after all.

But I have never forgotten the look in my father's eyes when they met mine that October day and we learned together that--although a parent's love may be limitless--its power to protect is not.

Dad didn't forget either. Many years later, when he was facing his own personal crisis, he handed me a loosely-bound volume of letters.

"All youth is insecure," he wrote in 1964, "but to all other insecurity, this generation has had something completely new: They are the first generation to grow up literally not being sure that an adult world would be waiting for them...During one of the international crises a few years ago, my daughter... came down to my study from her bedroom one night. She was crying.  She knew the facts. What solace could I honestly give her?"

Solace and honesty. At that moment fifty years ago, when the world courted catastrophe, Dad chose honesty. It's a gift I treasure. Not because it made my life easier -- it didn't -- but because, in that dark moment, he invited me into a world -- a world where understanding the facts -- however frightening -- offers more protection than empty reassurances: the grown-up world.


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