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Just over a half century ago, the world was poised to go to nuclear war. Today’s Writer’s Almanac reminded me that this is the anniversary of the day in October, 1962, that President John Kennedy appeared on television to announce the presence of nuclear armed missiles in Cuba, pointed toward US cities. It was the day before my 12th birthday, and I recall looking at the reconnaissance photos of hard to interpret evidence on the small black and white screen, and the young and serious president at his podium, and being afraid.

Just three years prior, Pat Frank had published his apocalyptic and completely believable nuclear war novel, Alas Babylon. As my family gathered in front of the TV, it seemed entirely possible that we would soon be seeing the white flash and the mushroom cloud over one of the nearby military bases that surrounded our small city and slowly feel the effects of invisible radiation raining down silently out of the sky.

My father was in the Navy then, and we lived in Key West, which soon became an armed camp. Though I did not realize it until much later, the troops who rolled in day after day along Roosevelt Blvd and camped beyond the barbed wire that now surrounded our high school football field were preparing for the invasion of Cuba, ninety miles away. If they had invaded as planned, Castro and his Soviet advisers were prepared to launch ballistic missiles, which could reach anywhere in the continental US, and 100 nuclear armed tactical missiles, which could have at least wiped out most of South Florida.

Just over twelve years ago, the entire country was frightened out of our wits by nineteen stateless terrorists flying planes into the World Trade Center. Not to diminish that terrifying day, but in this week in October fifty-one years ago, we were a hair’s breadth away from the deaths of an estimated 100 million Americans, and the complete destruction of the Soviet Union. There is no comparison between the two events, except in the way we reacted to them.

I reread Alas Babylon every few years, because it remains one of the best stories of its kind, but also because I don’t want to forget how fragile our existence really is. We were one step away from the edge of an abyss, and some in our government were calling for us to step out. Times have not changed so much.

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