Imagination Makes Life Bearable

Posted: October 12, 2012

Rural Pen

My world was near-perfect until the Cuban missile crisis.

In Blue Point, N.Y., I could ride my bicycle anywhere and nobody questioned whether it was okay for a seven-year-old to wander so far from home. Well, not so far — less than a half-mile.

People were moving out from the city, but my town had not yet been littered with the housing developments that would end up defining Long Island. My parents had grown up in Blue Point. My grandpa owned the town’s only grocery store.

Fifty years ago this month, the adults began to gather nightly on each other’s lawns. They talked about Fidel Castro, the communist in charge of Cuba, and how he had missiles pointed straight at us.

I overheard their talk. I felt the panic and anger in their voices. As a child, I did not understand any of it, except that it was a real threat.

My research shows that the U.S. had missiles installed in the U.K., Italy and Turkey, all with the potential to obliterate Moscow with nuclear warheads. This countermove was not unreasonable, as these things go. It was the first documented instance of MAD: mutual assured destruction.

That school year, I was in Miss Adams’ third-grade class, terrifying in itself. The previous year, my second-grade teacher had not taught cursive writing, but the other students in Miss Adams’ class had been in a different class where they had learned it. Miss Adams made it clear when school began we were not to print anything.

To form the letters during quizzes, I looked to the green cardboard cursive alphabet posted along the top of the blackboard. Every day (in my memory, at least), Miss Adams would wave my paper around and yell about how it was a terrible example of penmanship.

Then there were my parents’ fights. My mom wanted to be a Jehovah’s Witness, but my father believed otherwise. She invited J.W. leaders to our house to convince him, but it didn’t work. So they fought, my father yelling and belittling, my mother responding with quiet digs.

There was terror at home, terror at school and now terror out in the world. My fears were not unfounded. Some believe the Cuban Missile Crisis, which occurred over 14 days, was the closest the world has come to nuclear war.

There are many versions of the incident. A map shows missile installations all over the island of Cuba. A week after the discovery, President John Kennedy announced it to the public on Oct. 22. He demanded that the Soviets remove all their offensive weapons.

While the adults discussed the issue and dealt with the ongoing dramas in each of their homes, we children found our own ways to cope.

I organized the neighborhood kids into staging circuses, variety shows and plays, which we performed for each other in a garage. I discovered Bobbsey Twins books, full of everyday children having great adventures. I spent most of my waking hours outdoors.

As a child, my “resilience” enabled me to transform fear through imagination, to make it into something beautiful and good. Although the Cuban Missile Crisis ended, the world never regained its former state of perfection. Thenceforth, I would always be aware of its tensions.
As adults, we still have the capacity to live joyfully in an imperfect world … through the magic of imagination.

Luanne Austin lives in Mount Sidney. Contact her at

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