From Cuba to Corona

CURRENT AFFAIRS DID NOT interest me when I was a child. I did not read newspapers nor did I listen to the news broadcasts on the radio (we did not have TV at home).The first news item that I can remember hearing my parents talking about was something to do with Cuba. Now, I realise that they must have been discussing the Cuban Missile Crisis that occurred in October 1962 when I was a few months over ten years old. For those who cannot remember this event, it was a dangerous moment for the world because the Soviet Union had placed ballistic missiles in bases on the island of Cuba, which is dangerously close to the USA. These missiles could have been used to drop nuclear weapons on the US. Had that happened, most of us would have been wiped out in a nuclear Armageddon. Luckily, the missiles were removed and a showdown avoided.   

 

BLOG BOMB handbook wiki

 

Almost a year later, we lived in Chicago for three months because my father was a visiting academic at the University of Chicago at the end of 1963.  One of my memories of the USA during that time was the preponderance of yellow and black coloured signs indicating the entrances to nuclear bomb (fall out) shelters. The university gave us a flat to live in. This contained a booklet, which fascinated me. It was filled with advice on how to survive a nuclear bomb attack. Two things in that booklet stick in my mind. One was to make sure that you removed your watch if it had a luminescent dial, one which glowed green-ishly in the dark. The other was to crouch under a strong kitchen table. I am not certain how either of these actions would have significantly improved one’s chances of survival.

After we had spent three months living in Chicago, we spent Christmas in New York City. One evening, we visited Steve Rousseas (1921-2012), an economist whom my father knew. He lived in Greenwich Village and was, incidentally, one of the few people who bought any of my mother’s sculptures. As we walked with Steve to a restaurant, he chatted to me. He told me something that made a great impression on my young mind. And, that was if a neutron bomb exploded, most lifeforms would be exterminated, but buildings and other man-made structures would remain intact. I found that idea very eery and quite frightening.

Many years later, I watched a documentary film that graphically portrayed the effects of a nuclear blast. Several aspects of this terrifying film impressed me. First, is that following a blast, there would be a great, powerful wind, which would carry a cloud filled with lethal splinters of glass from windows that had been shattered by the explosion. Secondly, the blast would most probably disable electricity generation and supplies. Thirdly, several species, being relatively insensitive to radiation, would survive the effects of intense radioactivity. These included cockroaches and other vermin.

By 1987, I was well-established in my house in Gillingham, Kent. One night in October of that year, I awoke in the early hours of the morning. It was dark but there was a great noise outside. There was a wild wind blowing. It was so strong that my house swayed slightly as the tempest buffeted against its walls.  I tried to turn on my bedside lamp to see what time it was, but there was no electricity. Then, remembering the documentary, I feared the worst. Was Gillingham being blown by the wind that I had learned from the film would follow a nuclear blast? The failure of the electricity supply confirmed that fear. I lifted the receiver from the telephone by my bed and, to my great relief, I heard a dialling tone. The electricity had gone, but the ‘phone line was still functional. The wind was not due to a nuclear bomb blast but was a fierce storm that devastated many of the trees in the south-east of England. Next morning, I rang my father, who lived sixty miles away in London, and asked him whether his area had been affected by the storm. He asked me:

“What storm?”

When I looked out of my window that overlooked my garden and those of the neighbours, I noticed that all of the greenhouses in my neighbours’ gardens had been flattened by the wind, but not mine. The reason was that my greenhouse had many missing panes of glass, which I had not bothered to replace. So, the wind blew through my green house rather than against it and that left it standing. Another thing I noticed was that the wooden pole in the street from which overhead telephone cables radiated to the surrounding houses had resisted being toppled by the storm. This was not the case for many thousands of lovely old trees all over Kent.  As for the electricity, that returned very soon where I was living but not at the dental surgery where I worked. As a result, the devastating storm provided me with an unexpected day’s holiday.

Now, let us move to the present and the scary pandemic that is affecting the whole world. During, the so-called ‘lockdown’, London became eerily silent. There were few people to be seen out and about and even the main roads were devoid of traffic. One day during a telephone call to a cousin, I was speaking about this weird situation when I suddenly remembered what Steve Rousseas told me long ago one December evening in Greenwich village. The corona virus, as invisible as the neutrons produced by a neutron bomb and almost as lethal, had temporarily rendered London almost devoid of visible human presence. I never would have believed that I would live to experience something like that. Now that the lockdown is easing, London has become noisier and the thoroughfares busier. With good luck and by exercising great caution, we can hope that the virus might well be less successful than neutron bombs in depopulating our world.

It is a long time since the Cubans hosted Soviet missiles. Since then, and especially lately during the pandemic and the Brexit brouhaha that preceded it, from being uninterested in news bulletins I am worried about becoming obsessed by them. As some people say, infuriatingly:

“Such is life” and “these things happen.”

 

Picture from Wikipedia

Illinois Central

A TRAM RIDE IN the northern Portuguese city of Porto (Oporto), home of the drink ‘port’, evoked memories of Chicago in Illinois.

In Porto, we travelled along the riverbank towards the seaside in a very old tram. Most of its seats had reversible backrests so that a passenger was able to choose to sit facing the direction of travel or face the opposite direction. These seats had a mechanism beneath each of them that allowed the seat backs to be shifted manually. On close examination I noticed that the mechanisms had been manufactured in the USA.

Seeing these seats in 2010 reminded me of Chicago in autumn 1963. My father had been invited to spend three months at the University of Chicago. We sailed across the Atlantic in the then almost new SS France (launched 1962). Sadly, this wonderful ship no longer exists. It was sold to be turned into scrap metal by shipbreakers at Alang in Saurashtra (Gujarat, India) a few years ago in 2008.

We had high hopes of Chicago, naively expecting to be put up in ‘swish’ accommodation. The first floor (American 2nd floor) flat we were lent was far from swish. There was nothing wrong with it, but we were expecting something more up to date and in harmony with our preconceptions about America being at the ‘cutting edge’ of living standards. 5608 South Blackstone Avenue was a dowdy two storey house with a highly dubious looking wooden fire escape, which would have been the first thing to go up in flames had the house caught fire. I have recently learnt that our temporary home and its neighbours have been replaced by newer buildings.

At night, the air was filled with the sound of police car sirens almost continuousl and the occasional lengthy rumble of long freight trains passing close by on the railway that followed the shoreline of Lake Michigan.

This railway line near our home was used not only used by freight trains but also by passenger trains, both inter-city and local.

Our nearest station, a few minute walk from our flat was named ‘55th-56th-57th Streets’ and was both close to a superb Science Museum and served by the suburban trains of the Illinois Central Railroad. These rather antiquated trains carried us to the then terminus, Van Buren Street in downtown Chicago. The trains were electrically powered receiving current from overhead wires.
Often whilst waiting on the platform at our local station, trains heading towards or from Indiana, operated by the Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railroad, would hurtle past us.

What interested me then, aged 11 years old, were the backs of the seats in the train carriages. They were reversible just like those on the trams in Porto, which I was to see about 37 years later in Porto.

It is curious the way that seeing one thing can trigger old memories to come to the forefront of one’s mind.

Picture of reversible tram seats in Porto from TripAdvisor

Catching up with the past: Chicago

chicago theatre

 

During the last three months of 1963, while my father was a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, I attended the university’s high school, the Lab School. While we were in Chicago, President John F Kennedy was assassinated.

I was put in the PreFreshman class with pupils who were one or two years older than me. Everyone was very kind and friendly towards me, and a bit curious about having a boy from England amongst them.

I remember being asked about some green plant that the British loved to eat. I had no idea what the questioner was talking about until I realised that he was referring to watercress. Another of my fellow students was surprised that the word ‘bloody’ was a swear word in British English.

I left the Lab School in December 1963 and, sadly, lost all contact with my lovely new school friends. In 1963, there was no Internet and international telephone calls were quite expensive. Hence, keeping up with people living far away was much more difficult than it is today.

Fifty six years later, in 2019, I made contact (via social media) with Steve, who remembered me from my brief stay at the Lab School. He remembered that I had introduced him to the hobby of train spotting. I do not recall that, but many years have passed since then.

A few days ago, Steve came to have dinner with us. I am not certain that either of us recognised each other after over half a century of separation, but that did not matter as Steve turned out to be a very congenial guest and we engaged in interesting conversations. We reminisced briefly about Chicago, but spent most of the evening discussing other topics.

Although, as already mentioned, I did not recognise Steve and barely recollected him, I felt a wave of pleasure catching up with the ever so distant past.

 

 

Photo by Leon Macapagal on Pexels.com

A fateful Friday

If you were alive then, what were YOU doing on Friday, the twenty-second of November in the year 1963 ???

My father was a visiting academic in the Economics Department at the University of Chicago during the last three months of 1963. Between September and December of that year, we lived in a flat in a two-storey house with a wooden fire escape near the university. Our address was 5608 South Blackstone Avenue. My sister and I (aged 11) attended the nearby University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (the ‘Lab School’).

I was excited to discover that our rented flat had a television, albeit one which was defective. The image it produced was double. One could see what was being broadcast but everything had a shadow, which made the image seem out of focus. Whichever way one fiddled with the indoor aerial, the image never improved. None of this mattered much to me because in London, where we lived usually, we had no television at all.

In addition to attending the Lab School, I had to keep up with the work that I was missing because I was not at school in London. Soon after returning from the USA, I had important examinations to sit. So, getting time to watch TV was difficult. I decided that the only way I could get a decent long session in front of the TV was to be sufficiently unwell for my parents to allow me to miss school.

I bought a copy of the weekly voluminous TV Guide for the Chicago area. It was the issue that covered Friday 22nd November 1963. I do not remember how I persuaded my parents that I was too unwell for school that day, but I did. My sister, aged 7, was deposited at the Lab School by my father on his way to the university. Much later that morning, my mother, a sculptress, set off for the studio where she worked during the day. I was left at home alone, ready to spend several hours watching the TV programmes I had selected from the TV Guide.

JFK

You can imagine my disappointment when the TV set had warmed up after I had switched it on. Instead of the TV programmes that I was looking forward to watching, there were non-stop news programmes on every channel. President John F Kennedy (‘JFK’) had just been shot in Dallas, Texas. Not only had one of America’s most charismatic presidents been assassinated, but also my day of uninterrupted TV viewing had been wrecked.

My sister returned from school in the mid-afternoon. She told us that her class had been led out of the classroom to the school’s assembly room. There, they saluted the US flag before being told of the tragedy in Dallas.

On the Saturday morning, while I was struggling with my Latin assignment from London, my sister and some guests who were staying with us, the art historian Leo Ettlinger and his wife, were watching our TV in another room. Suddenly, my sister came running into the room where I was trying to study, and my mother was doing something domestic. She announced that while she was watching TV, she saw Jack Ruby shooting dead the prime assassination suspect Lee Harvey Oswald. My mother and I rushed to the TV. We were just in time to see the footage of Oswald’s murder being replayed.

Although, as an 11-year-old, I had negligible interest in politics or news in general, JFK’s demise made me feel depressed. I am not sure why. Maybe, it was because his death had significantly dampened the mood of Americans in general.

Years later in the mid-1970s I visited some American friends, fellow graduate students, who lived in Pill, a suburb of Bristol in Somerset. One evening, we went to a theatre in the centre of the city. I do not recall the name of the play, but I can remember what it was about. The people on stage, actors, related what the characters, who they were portraying, recounted about what they were doing at the moment they learnt of JFK’s assassination.

Now, you, dear reader, know what I was doing on that fateful day.

[Image source: wikipedia]