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A THANKSGIVING TALE YOU WILL NEVER FORGET
                                                                By Diana McLeod                                              

       This is not a travel story. We just celebrated Thanksgiving, and I realized afterwards that I forgot to raise my glass to the man I should be thanking the most. So I'm doing it now, here, in this blog. The passing, this week, of Fidel Castro brought it all right back to me.

       I recently found out that I owe my life to Vasili Arkhipov. And you also probably owe your life to him. If it wasn't for him, the world today would probably be nothing like the world we know. All of my happy life, all of my travels, are thanks to him. I feel compelled to retell his story, now that I know it. I know that this is not a travel tale, but this is a story that will chill you to the bone, when you realize what might have happened to us all...

       I first heard of Vasili Arkhipov on a PBS special, on the series "Secrets of the Dead," in the episode called "The Man who Saved the World," which aired last fall on Vermont Public TV. It affected me strongly because of my own memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

       They told us about nuclear weapons in 1962, when I was just eight years old. My sister was only four. The Soviets were putting nukes in Cuba, and they could wipe out the Eastern Seaboard in fifteen minutes. We all learned about "Mutual Assured Destruction." We practiced drills in school, and we were taught to hide under our desks. Even at that tender age, I realized what a ludicrous notion that was!

       We knew, because my parents had told us the true facts. Our New Hampshire home was within the blast zone for two strategic targets: Pease Air Force Base, which was a Strategic Air Command base, and Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, home to at least one nuclear sub. Both would be on the top target list for Soviet nuclear-tipped Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. We were trying to decide, during the tense days of the nuclear stand-off, whether or not to build a family bomb shelter. Our neighbors had already built one. It was very fancy and very expensive. For us, this was a huge decision, because it would mean throwing all of my family's resources into the project.

       My parents gave us a say in the matter. I remember taking it very seriously, and I read all of their news magazines on the subject. I realized that we might be able to survive the initial blast inside a concrete bunker. But the aftermath was another story. We would almost undoubtedly die of radiation poisoning. After reading about the gruesome consequences, I voted no. I decided that I would rather go outdoors, watch the mushroom cloud, go blind from the flash, and then die about a minute later in the blast. That would be better than a slow, tortured death underground.

       We decided not to bother with the shelter. As Kennedy threatened war, if the Soviets did not remove the missiles, we held our breaths and prayed. A flotilla of American warships and nuclear subs surrounded Cuba in a massive blockade. Both sides were armed and placed on high alert.

       Meanwhile, the Kremlin ordered a group of subs to go to Cuba. Each one was given a nuclear tipped missile, capable of reaching a distant target. Each captain was given the launch codes, and he and his first officer were given the launch keys. One man was in charge of the entire mission, and his name was Vasili Arkipov. He was given the final say.

       The Russian submarines were out of radio contact with their homeland for weeks. They had no way of knowing what was happening in the world above the waves. The submarine which carried the fleet commander was in terrible straits. It lost contact with the other subs. Food and water were running out. The temperature that the men had to live and work in was over a hundred degrees, due to inadequate cooling systems. Oxygen was also running low. American ships detected the sub, and started laying out a circle of depth charges to force the Russians to the surface.

       Below, the Russian captain was convinced that he was under attack. Desperate, and sure that they were about to die, he and his first officer ordered the launch of their nuclear missile, aiming it at the U.S. Vasili Archipov was on board that particular submarine, and he refused to let them launch.

       Vasili had already been involved in a nuclear accident, earlier that year. He had seen firsthand the terrible results of radiation poisoning. He decided to surrender, rather than risk nuclear war. His refusal probably saved the world.

       The submarine surfaced and the Russians were taken prisoner. Vasili was sent home in disgrace, humiliated by the Americans and scorned by the Russian military. He eventually died from the slow effects of the radiation poisoning from the earlier accident. His widow remembered him with pride, saying "Not every wife can say that my husband saved the world, but I can."

       If that missile had landed on U.S soil, the U.S. military would have responded with an all-out counterstrike. The Russians would have retaliated. Mutual Assured Destruction. The nightmare scenario.

       Vasili Archipov, I raise my glass to you. I owe you many Thanksgivings and many Christmases, and so does the rest of the world.

        I wish a happy and safe year to everyone around our planet! Thanks for reading, Diana McLeod


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