October Skies

October 19, 2011


By:  Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham

The month of October can be simply breathtaking.  The waning sun shining brightly through a kaleidoscope of color underneath an azure sky.  Shirt sleeve days and cool evenings.  Falling leaves and golden pumpkins.

It is magnificent.

And within my lifetime, it came terribly close to being the last month of this earth.

October, 1962.

During those last ten days of October, almost forty years ago, the Soviet Union and the United States came terrifyingly close to a nuclear holocaust and the end of the world as we know it.

In the fall of that year, the Soviet Union had started the installation of nuclear ballistic missiles in Cuba, just ninety miles from our shores.  Once completed, they would have been in range of the major cities of the eastern United States.  These missile sites were discovered in October of 1962.  Immediately, President John F. Kennedy and his advisors recognized the perilous brinkmanship they would have to practice in order to bring us out on the other side alive.

In those closing days of October, 1962, President Kennedy and a small group of trusted advisors and high ranking officials sweated through hours of deliberations and diplomatic exchanges with Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev.  Several options were considered, including an open invasion of Cuba and the forceful removal of the missiles. But this possibility would have risked the immediate ignition of the Russian nuclear warheads against our continent.  This is not to mention the untold number of American lives that would surely be lost on the beaches of Fidel Castro’s tiny island.

Other possibilities were discussed, but the young President opted for a blockade of the island for the purpose of stopping any further shipments of weaponry to Cuba by Russian vessels. Coincidental with that was the demand for the Soviet Union to disassemble the existing missiles and remove them from that country.

Khrushchev’s first response was to reject the offer unless the United States agreed not to invade Cuba and remove NATO’s missiles from Turkey.  It was here, close to Halloween, that the United States of America and the Soviet Union came within an eyelash of nuclear war. It was a standoff between the two world leaders—President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

A misstep by either one of these leaders at that critical time would have been cataclysmic.  Khrushchev, beneath all the bluster of an aging grandfather, was not suicidal. Kennedy, the father of two young children, knew that the plight of all future generations depended upon his decisions.

Khrushchev blinked.  He recognized the grave danger of the situation for the whole world and agreed to withdraw the missiles if the United States would agree not to invade Cuba.  Off the record, the American leaders assured him that, as part of the bargain, the missiles would be removed from Turkey within a reasonable time. This was a shrewd bargaining ploy on Kennedy’s part.  Those NATO missiles in Turkey were obsolete, already scheduled to be shortly replaced by submarine launched Polaris missiles. It provided a critical face-saving device for Khrushchev without conceding anything substantial on our part.  Furthermore, the Soviet Premier received assurance from us that we would not invade Cuba.

During those last days of October, 1962, as the crisis unfolded, the President and those involved in the tense negotiations tried to portray a semblance of normalcy to the American people.  They continued to go about their lives without any indication that the fate of the world hung in the balance.  They made quick trips home to their families and carried on the regular routine of American life.  Football games, fall festivals, marching bands, and the riotous season of fall went on as usual without a hint of the danger.

All the gaiety that comes with the fall colors took place under crystalline blue skies and sunshine, lighting up the foliage in Washington, D.C.  Inside the war room, however, they glumly considered how many of the 92 million people living within the 1,100 mile range of the Cuban missiles would survive a nuclear attack.  Thankfully, cool heads, calm nerves and masterful negotiations prevailed to bring us safely to the other side of the nuclear abyss.

These serious men of October—most of them now dead and gone—served us well and did us great good.  So I think of them still, especially on one of those brilliant October afternoons when I enjoy the beauty of this great land and the blessings of liberty; when I see golden school buses full of young children—who would never have been born had things gone otherwise—moving down peaceful country roads; when I see the replenished splendor of yellow, red and gold; when I hear the smoothing sound of the World Series being broadcast on the radio; when I see American life with all of its gusto and warmth bustling about under the wonderfully clear, blue, and nuclear free October sky.

Never does the wonderful month of October pass that I do not remember with profound appreciation that time and those men.

Back to School

October 15, 2011

“Back to School”

By:  Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham

It is an annual sentimental journey for me.  That is the perusing of the late summer “back to school” edition of the local newspapers.  This always takes me back to the time when our house was packed with school kids and their wonderful mother was ready to send them back to the teachers.  At the same time, it was a harried time for her, getting all of the five young students ready for that big first day back at the salt mines—I mean school. 

After many sultry weeks of chaos and crazy baseball schedules, late night suppers, dirty uniforms, and soppy swim wear; after long months of every kid in town traipsing through the kitchen and refrigerator with muddy hands and feet; after frantic last minute shopping for school clothes and supplies for five rambunctious boys—that evening would finally come.  

When all the school wares were laid out in their rooms and all the sweet little urchins were bedded down, their bedraggled mother and my Wonder Woman wife would collapse in bed.  Pulling the covers up to her chin, she would stare at the ceiling and in a voice barely audible—maybe to me, maybe to God— utter, “I made it.”  She had made it through another summer with her sanity.  The next day, the “golden angel” would come and haul them away.  That was what my wife called the school bus. 

Now our children are all gone and some have kids of their own.  They are going through the same frantic back to school activity.  So, I smugly look through the newspapers at all the back to school fanfare and think of all the “fun” Paula and I are missing.  Then, in one local paper, I see something I had not noticed before— a listing of all the fees parents have to pay for their kids to take certain classes.  

The following are just a few of those fees for high school: “textbook rental $46; computer fee $10; agriculture $20; photography $25; art $25; business class $20; blueprint reading $40; chemistry $15.”  And on and on they go.  I haven’t even mentioned the fees for primary, intermediate, elementary, and middle schools. 

I have four grandchildren in this school system.  My wife and I do the math.  It’s gonna cost ’em some change, but they will make it.  But some won’t.  I don’t know about you, but I remember a time when 20 bucks was not to be sneezed at.  I’m thinking of the single mom with three kids in school trying to make ends meet working a second shift at Hardees, the father thousands of dollars behind in child support. Lunch money for these youngsters is a huge challenge for her.  Wearily, late at night, she goes through the avalanche of paper work sent home from school.  She looks at the cost of giving her kids a decent education and has to make choices.  So the next morning, bleary eyed and fatigued, she sighs: “Sorry, Christy, you can’t take art if your brother takes ag.  Can’t afford both.”

I haven’t even mentioned school supplies.  I recently read this letter written to the editor of a Frankfort newspaper.  “I am a disabled grandmother raising three grandchildren, all of whom are school age.  I recently shopped for school supplies for just one of the kids who is in middle school.  His school supplies came to over $100.”

There is help available.  Most, if not all, of our schools have family resource centers which stand ready to assist those parents in financial need.  They will provide school supplies for needy children.  Also, they will coordinate with local charities, including, in some communities, the Masons, in making certain those in need receive help with their school fees.  However, many of the needy are too proud to ask.  Also, most moms and dads in need are not aware of these services.  And in the torrent of day to day activities of busy parents trying desperately to hold the ship together, they remain unknowing.  They lack the aptitude to learn about these services.  In addition, sometimes even this aid is inadequate.  Said the lamenting grandmother in her letter: “We got the free backpack, but the supplies did not meet the list of things he needed.” 

There is no telling how much money our underpaid teachers shell out of their own pockets each year to cover some of these fees for their indigent students.  As a matter of fairness, why should any parent, regardless of financial means, be called upon to subsidize our public school systems?  The struggling parent of today does not need this extra burden.  Local school administrators—principals and superintendents—are doing the best they can with heavy strings attached to their monies.  One west Kentucky principal informs me that 73% of his students are below the established poverty level.

Our political and educational leaders in Frankfort and Washington posture under the grand old banner of “no child left behind” with wonderful platitudes and boasts about rising test scores.  We consolidate schools at an epidemic rate and build magnificent cathedrals of brick, steel, and glass to the gods of education.  

Maybe some political candidate will take up the cause to take this burdensome levy off the parents of our school children.  Meanwhile, Johnny can’t afford to take photography if his sister Lisa is in the band.