Our fallout shelter was under the house. When we heard the warning siren, that's where we'd go. We'd take our canned goods and water and radio and hide in the crawl space under my parents' bedroom. Maybe we could survive The Bomb.
That's what they called it in the fall of 1962. Most Americans worried about The Bomb, but Miamians were obsessed by it. Cuba was only 90 miles away from Florida's southern shores. Fidel was a Red, and the Soviets, who had The Bomb, were his friends.
At 12, I was old enough to be scared. The thought of The Bomb was more frightening than even a hurricane, and every thinking person in South Florida, then as now, feared hurricanes.
I've been thinking about The Bomb and about hurricanes for obvious reasons. The Cuban Missile Crisis, 30 years ago this month, brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Those of us who lived in Miami, so close to the action, experienced a special dread never forgotten. And now Hurricane Andrew. I look at the pictures of the devastation and wonder: Could The Bomb have done much worse?
Roofs gone. Houses leveled. Great trees snapped off like little twigs. Stories about families hiding in bathtubs while the walls come down around them. And not a mushroom cloud in sight. Andrew was just your once-in-a-hundred years natural holocaust. Thirty years from now, South Floridians still will be talking about it, just as we old-timers talk about 1962.
In 1962, we were talking about the end of the world.
Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, had threatened to bury the United States. The Soviets were testing nuclear weapons. So was the United States. The civil defense siren a mile from my house wailed for practice once a week. At the Catholic school where I was in seventh grade, we prayed the rosary on our knees.
It seems so long ago now, longer than even three decades, because the world has changed so much. The Soviet Union is no more. Communism isn't dead, but it may be on its last legs. Castro, no longer helped by his friends, barely hangs on. Two presidential candidates are talking about cutting the defense budget.
Our worries about The Bomb, at least for now, wait in hibernation. We have other things to fear, including economic catastrophe, crime and another hurricane like Andrew.
But it was different in 1962. Khrushchev and Kennedy argued and blustered. The afternoon newspaper I delivered to neighborhood front porches carried features on how to build your own fallout shelter. Somewhere, someplace, we all knew, sweating fingers were poised over buttons that would launch the missiles of our nightmares.
At school, we were given comic books that imagined American life under a communist regime: Children would spy on their parents and teachers would beat students who dared ask about the Almighty.
"There is no God!" thundered the comic strip teacher, preparing to paddle a cowering child. It may seem funny now, but it was terrifying then.
Throughout the early fall, daily newspaper stories encouraged the siege mentality. The Soviets tested another A-bomb successfully. The Soviets were in Cuba. The United States tested a nuclear device the size of the atom bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. The Soviets were in Havana.
Only 90 miles away.
On Oct. 3, Kennedy announced that all American ports would be closed to ships engaged in arms trade with Cuba. On Oct. 20, the Pentagon announced that all those troops, ships and airplanes massing in Homestead and Key West were preparing for a military exercise and had nothing to do with Cuba. South Floridians feared otherwise.
Then, on Oct. 22, our clocks ticked faster toward Doomsday.
President Kennedy appeared on television and told us our worst fears were true. The Soviets had installed offensive missiles in Cuba. He was ordering a military blockade and had told the Soviets to remove or destroy their missiles _ or we would do it for them.
. We regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba," the president said, "as an attack by the Soviet Union upon the United States and requiring full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union."
My grandmother paced the living room and prayed in German. Lots of people prayed during the next week. At school, we lined up at the confessionals and attended special Masses. We also prepared for The Bomb. If the air-raid siren wailed twice, we'd have an hour until the attack and could go home. If the siren wailed continuously, an attack was imminent and we'd hide under our desks.
At night, I cried, worried that I might go to school and never see my parents and brother again. My dad said it was normal to be scared. When he was stationed in London during World War II, the constant bombings frightened even him.
The Dade County manager spoke on the radio and encouraged South Floridians to stock a two-week supply of canned goods _ and urged us to head for the nearest fallout shelter when the time came. A million people lived in Dade County in 1962; there were places for only 100,000 at designated shelters.
We prepared for the end of the world pretty much the way we prepared for hurricanes. My dad placed a box on his bedroom dresser. Into it we put canned meats, beans and milk. We put in two transistor radios, batteries, flashlights, blankets and jugs of water. We didn't bother boarding windows. We'd seek shelter from the nuclear storm under the house with the huntsman spiders and the cockroaches.
At the community recreation center, where I played baseball with Manuel, Domingo and Jesus, we watched passing trains loaded with troops and equipment headed south. Fighter jets roared across the skies. In the Keys, along U.S. 1, portable missile launchers pointed their weapons toward Cuba.
On Oct. 28, the Cuban Missile Crisis ended in a compromise. Kennedy assured Khrushchev that the United States would never invade Cuba, and Khrushchev promised to remove his missiles. The world dared breathe again.
At my school, we said a prayer of thanks and had a special Mass. At my house, we put away the canned goods and batteries and water. We would save them for the next hurricane, or for the end of the world, whichever came first.
The hurricane came first.
Recently, I called an old friend to reminisce about the Cuban Missile Crisis and learned that he had survived Hurricane Andrew in a closet. The windows shattered and the roof collapsed and he and his son held shut the closet door for two hours against the horrific wind.
I asked how it was.
"So terrible," he said. "Words can't describe it."
It must have felt like the end of the world.
Jeff Klinkenberg, 43, a staff writer for the St. Petersburg Times, grew up in Miami. He now lives in St. Petersburg.