‘Keep the heid!’: Dad and the Cuban missile crisis

May you live in interesting times. These ‘interesting times’ we find ourselves in are frightening, doubtless. My ‘boomer’ mother admitted the restrictive measures are definitely ‘weird’, even in her lifetime. I am forced to turn to memories of my father, who better remembered far darker times.

He was born around the time of the great depression, and died around the time of our great recession. It was a life marred by personal tragedy, one in which he had, I believe, almost always felt a powerless observer. He rarely spoke of being a young boy at the edges of the blitzed area of Greater Glasgow area. He only told me of seeing an effigy of Hitler burning in the local park in Halfway. Nor would he speak much of the loss of his older sister Annie, to tuberculosis, nor his mother, to cancer, during that war. Striking memories, grudgingly imparted, from one of the ‘Silent Generation’.

Many others could not be taken so seriously, for my dad knew how to tell a story. It was difficult to separate real from apocryphal. Somehow, he maintained the mystery of how he lost his hand for most of his life. The story varied depending on the age and disposition of the listener, ranging from a tiger having bitten it off (for little ones), through the rather more mundane vehicle accident (for the sceptical), with every manner of bloody dismemberment imaginable peppered in between.

His retelling of ‘where he was’ during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 stands out as amongst his very best semi-apocryphal legends. He was captivating a pair of small children in the late 90’s. My father made no secret of his struggles with mental health. He knew it would perhaps be relevant information, having seen others in our family struggle. His manic behaviour peaked during the crisis. Although his reaction was perhaps extreme, it was understandable.

The Soviet Union threatened to supply Cuba with nuclear warheads. The launch sites – built in secret – had been exposed. Such a prospect was inconceivable. President Kennedy would never allow it. If Soviet ships crossed the US naval blockade, all out nuclear war between the world’s two great superpowers seemed inevitable.

He painted a vivid picture of every day terror. In Cambuslang, not far from a recent and controversial shared nuclear weapons site, he felt he and his young family were prime targets for, at the least, agonising fallout. His sister lived in Shetland. With no sign of Khrushchev blinking, he packed up the car and drove north. Upon his arrival at their destination, he would delay the story. Build suspense. He described the type of eerie atmosphere that has covered the world in the last few days… A quiet little town, almost deserted. My father suddenly noticed activity. Men, all donned military fatigues. The roar of military vehicles. A sense of dread. What the hell was going on?

He went to ask one of the military men what was going on. Had he just arrived from Mars?! They were in heightened response. This was one of the most northern points from which to strike the Soviets. My father had driven them from the insecurity of Cambuslang straight to another most likely target, should war break out.

It was the great punch line of his self-deprecating joke. He drove his family home. To watch and wait with the rest of the world. Hopelessly disempowered. But with it came a more important lesson: there are some things that are simply beyond our control. This attitude may well inform what many of Generation X through (Millennial to) Z seem to believe is a flippant response from their Boomer parents and grandparents to coronavirus, today. I disagree. Theirs may be a spirited approach, but it is not baseless. There is experience there too. Perhaps not always direct, but informed by truly dark, interesting times. As we find ourselves cursing that proverb, wishing for a return to even the relative normality of scrutinising a bonkers Brexit, we should remember the moral of my father’s story, and one of his favourite refrains:

Keep the heid! Some things are just out of our – thoroughly washed – hands.

* Johnny McDermott is a Glasgow University Law graduate who is studying for his Masters with a focus on moral and political philosophy.

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  • Yes ,bonkers Brexit. The genius’es bring us out of the EU emergency medical fund system etc. Put up barriers to the just in time system which effects food supplies just as much as other things. We only supply 40/45% of our food ,if their is a lock down what will happen? That is just off the top of my head ,no doubt others will have other thoughts

  • Johnny McDermott 16th Mar '20 - 1:48pm

    Was intended as a moral booster rather than a Brexit basher – though perhaps that would be a good way to boost moral! We are seeing the moral and practical case for a greater sense of having a common bond between all peoples, leading to a renewed case for governance at a greater than state level. It makes a nice change from Trump’s norm destruction and inward-looking Brexit Britain.
    I’m going to be looking into this ‘normative case for liberal cosmopolitanism’ for my dissertation, which translated roughly means making a positive argument for working closely in a number of areas at that global level (climate change especially, but tax/ capital flight, peace and security and now this), but in such a way that sort of starts from scratch and owns the argument better. This avoids the political divide that remains between liberals/ internationalists (us, many only realising what we had when we lost EU membership) and populist nationalists/ traditional sovereign state models. That last lot represent Brexit. I think we need to make positive cases for governance beyond the democratic state (but that remains authorised by the people). Coronavirus (on top of Brexit madness you highlight) is making one heck of a case for it, both morally and practically.

  • If this was going down pre-election both the Liberal and Socialist agenda would have had much more resonance with the populace…

  • I well remember the Cuban missile crisis. I was in the sixth form and I chaired the Current Affairs Society so we eagerly followed the news and debated what would happen.
    Most of us believed that we would not survive beyond 30, because nuclear war seemed inevitable, if not over Cuba then over some other row between the superpowers.
    In fact, the angst of the current generation of school pupils over climate change is very reminiscent of what we were going through then and our support for CND.

  • Johnny McDermott 16th Mar '20 - 3:03pm

    Thank you Mary. I was asking my mum, though her recollection was vague, of people on the streets reading newspapers, and an incomprhensible fear. It’s sometimes easy to forget that it persists, the nuclear threat, and could resurge. It threatened to with the withdrawal/ expiry of the groundbreaking 1980s reduction/ cap treaty.
    As for the climate crisis, I’ve taken to calling the difference in response to similarly grave crises where time is essential the ‘urgency gap’. It has not gone unnoticed by those campaigners, though Greta herself wisely counselled now was not the time to press the claim. Many hypocrisies – such as the fear for cruise passengers, yet not refugees in stuck aboard rescue ships in the Med – have been exposed in the past few days. But we can highlight that in a constructive way, rather than some of the more negative efforts I’m sure we’ve all seen on twitter (#Boristhebutcher?! Awful stuff).
    A global effort will be required to bring this under control. We should remind everyone how much we can achieve together. Indiscriminate enemies, like pandemics or the climate crisis, can cultivate unity. Or fear can overwhelm us, and cultivate the (wholly preventable) sense of dread you grew up with. Can’t take anything for granted. And think Greta was wise, shouldn’t appear to utilise or weaponise this crisis for political gain. But can and must continue to hold them to account, and scrutinise the response.
    I want to go back to the false end of history I spent a happy childhood in… it’s wishful thinking, and maybe futile. But we must try. If we can cope with this crisis, we can cultivate that solidarity and preserve the impetus to act together in other global issues, and a more peaceful environment generally.

  • @ Mary Reid “I well remember the Cuban missile crisis.”

    So do I, Mary, though I guess I’m a year or so older than you. At least we had a competent liberal in the White House then who inspired confidence, whereas now there’s a demi-wit who thinks he can buy anything and is entirely unpredictable.

    I started work at Party HQ shortly after the Cuban thing and remember an apocryphal (?) story going round, that when our Leader Jo G. was asked what he would do should nuclear war break out, the magisterial answer – with a twinkle – was, “I will return immediately to my constituency”.

    The Northern Isles was as safe as anywhere then, (six virus cases in Shetland now – none yet in Orkney) but in those days Jo still talked about the nonsense of the “so called independent nuclear deterrent”.

  • Phil Beesley 16th Mar '20 - 4:21pm

    Thanks for some interesting thoughts, Johnny. I appreciate that it is in Orkney rather than Shetland, but had your father forgotten about Scapa Flow?

    I’m guessing that you were just starting school when ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ by Francis Fukuyama was published. Fukuyama argued that history was an evolutionary process and that liberal democracy had out survived the alternatives. The Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992 but sadly it is one of few occurrences that year to support Fukuyama’s thesis.

    I think that Millennial/Gen X and older people need a common perspective. To garble even further Donald Rumsfeld’s famous quotation: There are things which we don’t know that we don’t know we don’t know.

  • I remember the Asian flu pandemic in 1957 but don’t recall any great panic. By December a total of some 3,550 deaths had been reported in England and Wales.

  • At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis I lived in great fear of nuclear war. The other great fear was of cancer. Having cancer was a death sentence in those days.

  • Johnny McDermott 17th Mar '20 - 12:37am

    David Raw:
    Despite being a proper leftie (he made some grand gesture of resigning the East Mains labour party for movie to the centre, though came around to Blair), Dad much admired JFK. In a bizarre twist of “where were you?” fate, the great man was murdered on my dad’s 35th birthday. The fact the office was held by a more competent man did not make the very real threat and terror you all felt any less real. There are differences that cannot be compared, and you were there, a jolt of ‘egg-sucking’ going through me there as I try to defend, of all people, the influence of Trump. It has undoubtedly left us feeling adrift. We have no great anchor to rely upon, anywhere. Macron is beset by troubles, Merkel a fading force, Trump seemingly sedated and in autopilot, watching it all crash around him and hoping for the best. Johnson seems to stand alone as calm, though not unaware of how much rides of his response. Our dislike of him should not colour our response to this crisis, or our ultimate assessment of the job he has done. So far? I reckon, anyway, so good. We should thoroughly discourage eugenics narratives.

    I know you didn’t really bring any of that up, David, sorry! Trump comment sent me on a tangent. Wanted to excuse it on stress, but I’m forever rambling.

    I appreciate your memory, apocryphal or not (they’re all based on something!). It’s the type of story/ event-memory I’m trying to record more of in context of family geneology. Seemed we always have dates but no details.

    I spotted a BBC article detailing Glasgow City Councils’, in the end abandoned, evacuation plan. It seems my father jumped the gun, but in doing so, realised what the council did. There were few safe havens. In this globalised world, I reckon even Orkney will see this strife before long. Though I hope not. Be interested to hear more on ‘independent nuclear deterrent’? Cursory Google glance doesn’t offer easy access to details at certain times (as I found researching the locations of bases, fact checking dad!)

  • Johnny McDermott 17th Mar '20 - 5:06am

    Phil Beesley – your comment has floored me a little (in a positive way!). Entirely agree with need for commonality amongst my individualist generation (and those around it, X and Z). I’m putting that book on the priority to-read list, because I think we need to relaunch cosmopolitanism in that vein, and I having only mentioned that concept (end of history) in passing, it’s one I need to investigate and, I think debunk with more of a realist take of cosmopolitanism. Knowing our limits, and that the moral arc is *very* long…

    Then the mention of Orkney. Do you mean you think that was his eventual destination? Looking at a map it makes more sense. My dad’s story is caveated as ‘semi-apocryphal’ (not just for his excellent and exaggerated story telling abilities!) as my uncertainty turns on the destination! I’m slightly embarrassed that my father’s family (via several sisters, so not McDermotts or McDermids anymore) likely lives there still (wherever there is), but I have yet to contact them in my recent genealogical endeavours. A little part of me hopes they are Lib Dems (in those relative strongholds) and might see this. I was going to excuse it by the difficulty tracing Irish ancestry, but it is really nothing of the sort, as my father’s was the second generation that were settled around Cambuslang. I should really go and request the opinions and memories of those who remain, before it is too late. That sentiment has driven this piece, having read non-consequential stories about the day-to-day lives of my coal-mining maternal ancestors (Clarks of the Leadhills), of which much more is written. But even then, too much is dates and deaths. No detail and memory. The internet will act as a permanent memory of our inner most thoughts, any encryptions we believe guard them just one more Rosetta Stone to be deciphered. We must collect the ‘lived experience’ memories of our recent ancestors before their experiences and those maxims are forgotten and lost.

  • Johnny McDermott 17th Mar '20 - 5:48am

    Joseph Bourke does a far more thorough job of cataloguing my father’s ‘interesting times’ than I was able. That list, full of dread, I have considered, and it astounded me. Even more the kind of list his father, Patrick, may have written. He met his wife, Margaret, by way of the horrors of WWI, her losing a brother, John, for whom dad was named, at the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915. Dad told me Patrick declared being shot and wounded was ‘the best thing that ever happened to me; I got to go home.’ The bizarre thought anyone would ever be pleased to be shot stays with me.

    Ultimately, I do not believe the proverb – oft-falsely believed to be of Chinese origin. Somewhat appropriate, as President Trump pathetically seeks to weasel his way out of an increasingly likely doom for his dismissive response to this crisis by laying blame on those (as far as we know) first Wuhan victims of this virus. Any rational being knows they are not culpable. Rather, the proverb is wise. Perhaps not in a positive sense, but in an ambivalent, accepting sort of way.

    We always lament *boringness*! Until it is a happy memory, fading into the past. I love those *glorious* tales of my grandfather and all of his fallen and wounded brothers. But he was a miserable, likely-PTSD afflicted terror to my father, and his mother. Many of us believed that sort of great transformation from ‘normal’ to ‘abnormal’ had just occurred in our comparatively cushioned lives in modernity, with the election of Trump and the outcome of the Brexit referendum. I suspect many of us wish for even *that* level of ‘interesting’ – yet undeniably disturbing – time, now.

    That’s the thing about even the best times. There is no way to know you are living in them until they are gone, and a worse state of affairs by which to compare them against comes into existence, or resurges – ‘perhaps you forgot! It can *always* be worse’, that voice taunts. So with even the most grim, ‘interesting’ times, we mustn’t forget there is always another level of hell to descend down into… but in a vigilant manner, not one wracked with fear. We hope for the best, but expect the worst.

  • Johnny McDermott 17th Mar '20 - 5:50am

    Manfarang makes a good point: there are many ills that plague us daily. There is an ‘urgency gap’ between those dangers that threaten immediate and indiscriminate harm to all, and those that, by genetics or chance, ‘only’ afflict the individual. When counted properly, those figures would no doubt dwarf even this terrible threat.

  • Johnny McDermott 17th Mar '20 - 6:19am

    Didn’t mean to ignore Frank West’s point.
    Not sure we could ever really know that. Johnson’s response has appeared ‘strong and stable’, whatever qualms those scrutinising it more closely than the general public or his opponents may find. It seems we should absolutely hold them to account. This isn’t carte blanche for bonkers policy or a poorly led or coordinated response. But our party – and activists – should be careful not to ‘politicise’ this tragedy.
    What counts as ‘politicisation’? You’ll know. Trust that instinct. Don’t do it. We gain nothing from it; only lose our integrity.

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