My memory of childhood events is generally hit or miss, and I am always curious to discover why certain events are so much more vivid than others. Why can I return to some as though they were still happening while others are now totally obscure?
I was just looking at the dates for the Cuban Missile Crisis, which began on October 14th and ended on October 28th of 1962. (Others date it from the 15th or 16th to the 27th.) What I had not really thought about before was the length of the crisis, which was roughly two weeks, in relation to my somewhat peculiar psychology as an eight-year-old. Like many kids with the beginnings of an artistic orientation, I was what you would describe as “over-imaginative,” although I don’t know that this really describes my degree of suggestibility and my sense that physical reality was not a closed system.
For example, that same year, I had an odd experience with my friend Francis S. (Francis was three years older than I was, and he would later go on to become a career criminal.) One day, at around 3:00 PM, Francis and I were climbing a long cement stairway with several landings that wound up a hillside behind a neighbor’s house. Halfway up, Francis grabbed my arm, stared into my eyes, and announced that I would never be allowed to leave the landing where we stood. “If you ever take even one step off this landing,” he said, “you will be immediately cut to pieces by ghosts.” I have no idea why I would have believed him, but I stayed on the landing for about two and one half hours. Hunger finally got the better of me, and I summoned up the courage to head home for supper.
Given my sometimes dangerous naiveté, I can only imagine the effect that the threat of imminent planetary destruction might have had on me. Even at the beginning of the crisis, my experience of this threat was visceral, and my sense of its full reality then had two weeks to sink in. I suspect, as I say at the beginning of the piece, that this experience changed my whole way of looking at the world. The two-week time period also gave me an adequate chance to visualize and process the possibility of my own death. The peaceful fall of the autumn leaves at the end of piece, which signals a kind of bittersweet embrace of the possibility of my own and the planet’s annihilation, now strikes me as even more of a literal memory than I had thought.
Read "Autumnal Fallout" at
Illustration: Brian George, Autumnal Leaf-Head, 2004