HOMESTEAD — As I traipsed through the tall grass during a tour of the long-closed missile base in Everglades National Park, chatting with other baby boomers who were kids when our nightmares included a mushroom cloud, I suddenly remembered my dad's dilapidated orange crate.
In October 1962, he hauled the crate from the carport into the bedroom as we prepared for the coming nuclear war. My mother filled it with canned Beef-a-Roni, tomato soup, deviled ham, saltines — and, of course, her prayer book and rosary.
It felt like the end of the world was at hand.
"Where are we going to go?'' my mother asked.
"Under the house, I guess,'' my dad answered. If the civil defense sirens began to blow, we'd cower in the crawl space among the palmetto bugs, the scorpions and the black widows.
In Miami, the Cold War wasn't just cold. It was freezing. The Soviets had installed missiles in Cuba, John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev were engaged in a nuclear chess game and the nuns at my school were holding end-of-the-world prayer vigils.
I was 13, old enough to be terrified.
• • •
At my Catholic school, we had a rule. Once the sirens sounded, you couldn't go home. In the back of my mind, I'd never see my parents again, much less eat deviled ham in the crawl space. At school, we ducked and covered beneath our desks.
South Florida's first missile installations were temporary affairs, manned by soldiers who slept in tents next to the portable launchers. Construction soon began on permanent bases, including the one in Everglades National Park. It remained in operation until 1979 and afterward became a storage place for park equipment. Only recently was the public allowed to tour the abandoned buildings, high weeds and bunkers.
I don't know why, exactly — perhaps morbid curiosity, perhaps a desire to put some ghosts to rest — but I wanted to take the tour.
Other baby boomers did, too. The tours, by reservation only, began last month on Saturday afternoons. They proved to be so popular the park now offers a Sunday tour as well. I lucked into a last-minute Thursday tour with 20 other gray-haired folks.
Gregg Halpin, tour guide, greeted us outside what the U.S. Army called Nike Hercules Missile Base HM-69.
The 40-acre site near Homestead was probably the most seriously deadly place in South Florida. Hercules missiles, 41 feet long and capable of traveling at nearly 3,000 mph, carried nuclear warheads. Military policemen, armed to the teeth, stood guard along multiple fences, with orders to shoot intruders on sight. Beyond the first fences were secondary barriers, including one patrolled by attack dogs.
"These weren't dogs that lived with the soldiers,'' Halpin said. "These were dangerous dogs that would attack any human — in uniform or not — on sight no matter the circumstances. They were serious dogs.''
• • •
I hated school, but had a wonderful childhood anyway. I wore shoes only when necessary. I built treehouses and rafts. I caught snakes and bugs. I fished for snook under the Sixth Avenue Bridge. My dad helped me build model airplanes. I read the Hardy Boys and Tarzan novels. I was a baseball nut. In October 1962, I rooted for the Giants over the Yankees in the World Series. I can feel my disappointment when Bobby Richardson snared Willie McCovey's liner for the last out in Game 7.
I can also see that ominous orange crate on my dad's dresser. It represented the end of my innocence.
Gregg Halpin, our tour guide, grew up in South Carolina. He was 11 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His dad, in the Navy, gathered the children around the TV as President Kennedy addressed the nation:
"It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union."
In Gregg's house, his dad looked at his mother. "There was fear in the room,'' Halpin said almost five decades later.
At my house, I cried in bed.
• • •
At Everglades National Park, the five radar installations long ago were dismantled. But in the distance you can see the three barns where the missiles were stored. We drove to the place where the launchers took aim. Surrounding us were earthen bunkers, including one where technicians were supposed to huddle before they fired their missiles.
I swatted a mosquito. Then another. They weren't bad. I've seen them worse in the Everglades and so, it turned out, had a gray-haired man on the tour, Willie Brown-Martinez, a missile base mechanic at the time. "The mosquitoes were so bad, I had an assistant who brushed them off my back with a towel,'' he said. "I think I still have scars on my back from the mosquito bites.''
At least he avoided the rattlesnakes. They were everywhere. During the day, soldiers shot them for fun. At night, the snakes reclaimed their advantage, lying on the pavement in the dark to get warm. Soldiers on guard duty carried flashlights and stayed alert for movement on the ground.
Not every soldier, of course. Some watched the skies for a different kind of terror.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8727.