Unforgettable: A Guest Post by Gayle Rosengren
It's ironic really; I've written a book about an historic event from my childhood that I can't forget, only to discover that for most people born after 1955, it's just a phrase they hear occasionally on news or history programs. "The Cuban Missile Crisis." They have no idea of the way this one week in history impacted not just Americans and Soviets but the entire world. So the light my book shines on this week in our past is, for me, a happy bonus.
I was twelve when President Kennedy made his special announcement on the evening of Monday, October 22nd, 1962. At the time, I was annoyed that regularly scheduled programming was cancelled. I wanted to watch Broken Arrow.
Like Joanna, the main character in Cold War on Maplewood Street, I waited impatiently for the end of what was sure to be a boring speech. But it turned out not to be so boring. It turned out to be downright scary. President Kennedy was talking about nuclear weapons being built in nearby Cuba by the Russians--weapons that could travel to Washington DC and other east coast and southern cities in a matter of two short minutes. Still others would reach deeper into our country given a few minutes more. These weapons posed a direct threat to the United States and had to be removed, Kennedy declared. And then he set about listing the things we were going to do to make sure that happened. His conclusion, however, was chilling:
"My fellow citizens: let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out. No one can foresee precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred…But the greatest danger of all would be to do nothing…"
I had brothers in the Navy and the Air Force. I had only my mother and grandmother with me at home. They said there was nothing to worry about, but their nervous flutters and frowns belied their words. They were frightened.
The next morning, the school yard was much emptier than usual and unnaturally quiet. We older kids huddled together talking about the president's speech and repeating the reassurances of our parents. But the air raid drill we had later that day was hushed and eerie instead of the usual lighthearted escape from class. We knew the next time might not be a drill.
Throughout that week, the news grew increasingly ominous. On Friday evening there was news footage showing riots outside of American embassies around the world. But the tension reached its terrifying peak on Sunday morning, October 28th, when an American pilot was shot down over Cuba. Churches over-flowed. People held their breath, waiting to see what would happen next. Thankfully, a few hours later, newscasters announced that the Soviet Union had agreed to remove its weapons from Cuba. The crisis was over. But the world never felt as safe again.
Like my main character, Joanna, before the missile crisis, I'd thought of war as something terrible that only happened in far away places. Being suddenly forced to realize that war could come to my own country, city, and neighborhood made a deep, and clearly lasting, impression on me. By setting my story against the backdrop of that long ago week in October, I hoped to take an indirect path to addressing concerns my readers might have about their own lives, present and future.
I want young people to realize that when they're afraid or facing some seemingly insurmountable problem, sharing their worries with someone they trust and respect--a mom, a dad, a teacher--will almost certainly help. Their concerns don't have to be about enormous threats like war, either. They can be about anything that's gnawing away at their happiness and sense of well-being. To underscore this point, I layered everyday fears and problems into Joanna's story--fear of being alone in her basement apartment at night; frustration that her mother won't allow her to attend the first boy-girl party in her class; envy of her best friend Pamela's seemingly perfect family; missing her adored older brother, Sam, who recently joined the Navy.
Joanna finds her own way to deal with each of these problems in the course of the story. But the big one--fear of a nuclear war--is only eased by confiding first in her teacher and then in her mother. They can't dismiss her anxiety; indeed they share it. But just knowing this provides a strange sort of comfort, and Joanna is able to face the coming days with more hope than fear.
Put simply, my book's message to young readers is: Speak up! My message to the adults in their lives is: Be prepared to listen.
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