The first time I remember seeing Nike missiles, part of the U.S. defense system, poised to fire in Cleveland, I asked my father how they would be used.
"They are to shoot down any enemy airplanes which would come to bomb our city," Dad said in a matter-of-fact voice. That was enough to scare me. I was not quite old enough to fully grasp the enormity of the Cold War stance which existed between the United States and the Soviet Union. But I quickly learned the Soviets wanted to destroy the American way of life and the U.S. was prepared to shoot down any enemy bombers coming our way.
Cleveland's Cold War
It was the years of the Cold War which began in the early 1950s and ran for more about three decades. My memories include soldiers training around Nike missiles which were in place in eight different locations in the Cleveland area. There were 265 such missile bases around the nation. They were all designed to take out any Soviet bombers which would fly over our nation.
"Cleveland was strategic because we were a production facility and fully expected if war broke out, Soviet bombers would come over us," said John Grabowski, a historian at the Cleveland History Center of the Western Reserve Historical Society.
Grabowski and I were children during the 1950s and 60s when the Nike missile bases were in place throughout the country. We talked of the visibility of the missiles in several locations throughout the area.
"Any attack would come from the polar area," said Grabowski, noting the shortest route from the Soviet Union would be over the North Pole, through Canada, across Lake Erie and into the city which is built on the lake shoreline.
Reflecting on those days, I remember them as frightening. In my Cleveland elementary school, we kids went through "duck and cover" practices where we would shelter ourselves under our desks or march into a school hallway, face the wall, and cover our heads with our arms. Teachers told us these actions were to protect us in the event of falling bombs. That idea in itself was frightening for me.
But one teacher instructed if there had been a real emergency, we were to not "look at the light." The light to which my teacher mentioned would have been the brilliance of an atomic bomb blast! When I coupled that thought with the Nike missiles I actually saw in the suburban community of Bratenahl, less than a mile from my house, I shuddered even more.
During this same period, kids in school were given metal dog tag which carried our names and addresses. We were to wear them around our necks (I still have mine). Teachers never told us specifically why we needed them, but I was to eventually find out the identification tags were to identify our bodies had we been killed in an enemy attack!
Grabowski and I compared notes on how we took this information. The historian said there was a general awareness of the possibility of war with the Soviets because our families had histories which were still fresh of the carnage of World War II and the Korean War. The men in our families had gone to battle in those conflicts and images of the death brought in wartime was fresh in their memories.
For me, at the age of 8 and 9, to hear the grown folks in my family talking of their experiences in the wars in which they fought just a few years before caused my mind to race. Add in the Nike missiles, the "duck and cover" practices in school, and the dog tags I wore around my neck, it seemed war was imminent.
Television shows and popular movies of the day addressed subjects of the Cold War and all of the political intrigues which surrounded the times.
However, through the years, the nervousness of it all began to dissipate although I also grew to understand the threat was still there. I grew up with the A-bomb, the H-bomb, and missile technologies. I grew up wary of the Soviet Union and its then-leader Nikita Kruschev who in 1956 spoke of capitalist nations.
"Whether you like it or not, history is on our side," Kruschev said. "We will bury you."
At one point, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. seemed on the brink of war during the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962 when the Soviets installed intercontinental ballistic missiles in Cuba, only 90 miles from Florida. Historians said the two nations were near war when the Soviets, under heavy pressure from the U.S., pulled out the missiles.
'What might happen if war came not only to my country but to my neighborhood'
In the 1960s, the Nike missile bases were dismantled. The eight bases in Cleveland and its suburbs were taken apart as new military technologies made that generation of American missiles outdated. The land was turned over for commercial use. Most people drive by or walk on the lands now, unaware of what had been there decades before.
However, in Bratenahl, near my old neighborhood, the U.S. Department of Defense still is on the land. The department's contract management agency is housed in the buildings which once were barracks for soldiers who manned the Nike missiles I saw as a youth.
The barbed wire still surrounds the facility as does a chain link fence which I can see through. Every time I drive by the old site, mentally I picture the old missiles and the soldiers who I saw operate them in maneuvers. I could see some of the actions often because I played sandlot baseball within sight of the Nike base.
The place was a part of my life and is still in my memory as one corner of the Cold War when I was a kid worried about what might happen if war came not only to my country but to my neighborhood.