It was either very late October 25th, 1962 or very early October 26th, 1962. Our 1953 pale-blue ford was parked in line with about 100 cars, most back seats loaded with clothing and food. My mother and I stood like all the others along a chain-linked fence separating us from the long runway, its configuration outlined by red lights. To our right about a half mile away stood the control tower for Castle Air Force Base, Merced, California.
My mother, leaning against the car, was shaking badly. Her cigarettes were lit from the stub of the previous one, only to let an ash an inch long drop away, unnoticed. She recently married airman second class James Watts. The last time she had seen him was on October 22. Together, They watched President Kennedy draw a red line in the sand. The Russians were found to be building missile sites all over Cuba, the missiles themselves were in route to Cuba by ship. The US military, especially SAC ( Strategic Air Command ) went from DEFCON 1 to DEFCON 2, a special alert.
A black woman from the car ahead of us saw my mother’s distress and with her son walked back to calm and console us. Her husband was on navigation officer on one of the nuclear-equipped B-52s due to take off at any moment if war was evident. Their task was to fly to the arctic circle and stay on station until the Russians turned their transport ships back or to attack Russia with nuclear bombs if not, initiating a nuclear war.
The black kid, about two years older, obviously idolized his father and knew much about the situation.
” My dad says that if the group lifts off tonight, they shouldn’t be expected back here. Castle would be a missile target, that’s why the cars are loaded. To get the hell out of here if the bombers go.”
Everyday at school, drills were run, hiding under desks or rushing to bomb shelters if available.
“Oh, My God,” cried the mother. One set of giant engines. then two, then five started roaring. “They’re gonna go, God, they’re gonna go!”
An explosion of noise and lights near the hangers, Then a huge monster blanked out the lights behind it. The dark wings, the blinking red wing-tip lights and its dark form like out of a science fiction movie.
“Look at that! Do you know that the width of a football field is 53 yards,” The kid shouted into my ear. “The wingspan of a B52 is 61 yards. Just look at that.”
My mother’s eyes were wide and afraid. her hand tightly gripped her new friend’s arm, the behemoth shook the ground as it moved forward.
The boy nearly at attention, his face proud of his father’s task, “90 tons! See that, 90 tons!”
Somewhere, in the back of one of those planes rode a step-father I barely knew. At three minute intervals, the silver giants left the ground disappearing into the darkness. Jimmy told me before he left,” If we go, it will be right at Russia, turning back only if we are told to.”
Thirty minutes after the last plane flew from sight, we sat in the car, exhausted. My mother had her cry and I thought of the crews, a one way mission if the Russian transports don’t turn their ships around, and still these brave airmen fly through the night.
Slowly, cars began to pull out of the parking line and head somewhere else. Jimmy had given us a map to Oakdale, a cowboy town near the foothills.The radioactive dust cloud from a nuclear bomb on Castle Air base would drift south of Oakdale. My mother never left the cabin for the two days we were there. She sat glued to the black-and-white tv.
Would Khrushchev and the Russians blink knowing American missiles were standing by and B52s from five different bases were already on route?
They did and the missile sites were shuttered.
Relieved, my mother had another cry. For a few days that year, I had been in the cold war, mostly afraid for me and afraid for the men who would have to fly to the edge of eternity.