DC at Night

DC at Night

Sunday, October 28, 2012

13 Days to the Destruction That Wasn't

 In October, 1962, artist Judy Jashinsky was a freshman in high school. Her social studies teacher was one of her favorite instructors. She made her students check the newspaper everyday and also read The Weekly Reader. In the Reader, Jashinsky remembers the color red spreading across the surface of the Earth. America was in a Cold War against the real red Communists of Russia, whom it believed were on the march to take over the world. Fearing the worst, her school, like most others across the country, had been regularly holding drills in a "duck and cover" routine.  On October 22, President John Kennedy went on national TV, telling Americans in a chilling 17-minute speech that the Russians had installed nuclear missiles on the tiny  island of Cuba, just 90 miles off the Florida coast. Launching those missiles would bring destruction to America. It could also start a worldwide Armageddon. Kennedy was clear. The Russians had to dismantle the missiles or face the consequences. As the world held its collective breath, the president and his Soviet counterpart Nikita Khruschev frantically worked to come up with a solution to avoid taking the 1st step to the end of the world.

Back in Wisconsin, the teenage Jashinsky had her own thoughts. "I had seen the images of nuclear bombs and knew there was no way that we could be safe," she says. "But my mother would reassure my brothers and me that there was no reason to attack our small Wisconsin town. Little did we know that an Air Force base called Volk Field near us was under alert on Friday, Oct. 26. An alarm had been transmitted and pilots were preparing for a Russian attack. The F-106 planes were fully armed nuclear interceptors. But the alarm proved false. However, communications were so primitive that a jeep had to race down the runway to stop the first plane after receiving the message to cancel the sabotage alert."

Jashinsky, like so many others who lived through that terrifying month, never forgot her deep fears. This year, the 50th commemoration of the crisis,  Jashinsky decided to put together a creative exhibition entitled 13 Days + 13 Nights, 1962: The Cuban Missile Crisis which is now on display at the Civilian Arts Project Gallery in downtown DC.

The centerpiece of the show is a small TV set, painted in a bright mint green that was so popular in the 60s. On the screen is displayed a movie created by Jashinsky that captures the essence of each of the 13 days of the crisis. She mixes historical footage with snippets of TV shows and commercials. In a word, the juxtaposition of the cheerful images of time with the dramatic news footage is chilling.

On one wall, Jashinsky has displayed paintings of prominent scenes and people from the crisis including Kennedy, Khruschev and Cuban leader Fidel Castro. On another wall, she has hung likenesses of both famous and regular people coupled with their thoughts on those 13 days. Finally, a 3rd wall features a Cuban sea and 13 phases of the moon, each phase representing one day of the crisis. The moon imagery also appears in her film.

But perhaps the dominating feature of the exhibit is the steadily ticking clock sound which is part of the movie soundtrack. It reminds us that while the Cuban Missile Crisis ended well, time moves on and we still live in a world of hatred and war. In 1962, the countdown was silenced. But the ticking could resume at any time. And if it ever begins again, we can only hope that the outcome is the same. Any other outcome could leave us with no one alive to hear the ticking.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Like Jashinsky, I lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was 10 at the time and in 4th grade. I don't recall all of Kennedy's speech, but I knew from the tone and what I had previously read and seen on TV that the situation was ominous.  Now, I really don't think I could fully understand death. What 10-year-old can? But even then I was aware that the silly drills we were going though to supposedly protect us were meaningless. We practiced 2 types. In one, we marched single file out into the hallway away from the windows, put our arms against the walls in front of us, and placed our head on our arms. The 2nd drill made even less sense. We were asked to crawl under our wooden desks and remain there until an all-clear was sounded. My biggest concern at the time centered around my Mother and Father. They worked in a city about 15 miles from my school. I determined I wasn't going to let the world end and not be with them. So I came up with a plan. My teacher was Mrs. Dorothy Robinson. She drove an Oldsmobile. She always put her car keys in her large purse. She put her purse on the floor on the right side of  her desk. This was my plan. At the signal for any attack, I would dash from my chair, grab her keys, bolt to her car, and drive to be with my parents. Of course, there was a problem. I had never driven a car before. But I was convinced I could do it. Finally, on Oct. 26th it was reported that the Soviet Union had backed down. They would remove the missiles. For now, the world was safe. I didn't have to learn to drive during unimaginable destruction. Seven years later, I did get my license. And one year later, I found myself in college, learning academic ways to support my deep belief that peace is always better than war. I made a life-long commitment to trying to be a person of peace. I had many reasons for that decision, but none was better than this one - a wooden desk can't keep you safe and a 10-year old is way too young to drive a car.

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