We want to share stories from people who spent time at Shades Cahaba. A slice of life to give you an idea of what other’s experiences have been. This story is about one student’s time at Shades Cahaba during the Cuban missile crisis. This story is the first of what I hope is a series. This one is from Cindy Reneau Wise. She attended Shades Cahaba in 2nd through 6th grade starting in the fall of 1961-spring of 1966.
In 1962, I was a 3rd grader at Shades Cahaba Elementary School in Homewood, Alabama. The school was directly across from our house on Poinciana Drive. Back in those days, a person, as far as I know a man only, could open a store charge account at the large downtown Birmingham department stores. As we made selections for purchase, my mother would give the store clerk our name and address, and a bill for the merchandise would be sent to our home later for payment. I can still hear my mother spelling our street name to the clerks in a sing songy voice, P O I N C I A N A.
The school itself was a large building of dark red brick. Inside there were wooden floors. Most of the school’s interior walls were painted with that institutional green that we all remember. There was a formal entrance on the front side, and a large ball field in the rear, which is the side our house was on. The building is still used as a public school to this day, and the exterior remains quite similar to the way it looked in the 1960s, though I am sure the interior has had major renovation.
In third grade, I had my favorite teacher ever, Mrs. Alderson. She was a steady presence with a sweet and caring nature. The class responded to her by behaving and doing our work. I don’t remember any discipline problems in Mrs. Alderson’s third-grade classroom.
As my third-grade year began, an international crisis broke out, known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. In retaliation for an unsuccessful U.S. led invasion of Cuba in 1961 known as The Bay of Pigs, Cuba’s Fidel Castro agreed to allow the Soviet Union to deploy nuclear missiles in Cuba, in close proximity to America’s southern states. On the Soviet Union’s part, this deployment was in response to the U.S’s deployment of missiles in Turkey and Italy. All of this bluster was a part of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union which began after World War II and ended after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It’s remarkable now to look back at how the Cold War informed our thinking as a nation during my childhood. I guess international terrorism will be the dominant political theme of our current young adults’ memories. Of all the international and national current events of my childhood, the Cuban Missile Crisis affected me the most on a personal level.
The first thing that told us that something was amiss was the enactment of bomb drills at school. A specific series of bell rings, different from the bell rings used for a fire drill, indicated it was time to practice for a bomb attack. We would all immediately crouch under our wood and metal desks, whose tops had been scratched up by generations of students before us. And we opened up one of our heavy books and placed it over our heads for additional protection. At the time I just found this to be interesting, and a fun break from school work. I didn’t think about how ludicrous this activity was against a nuclear bomb. But we did practice this drill pretty routinely. The correct series of bells would ring and down to the floor we would go. Once, the teachers got confused by the bell pattern and filed us out to the field behind the school as we would do for a fire drill. The principal came out in an excited manner and began to vigorously wave us all back in. We sprinted it-after all, what if this time was the big one?
The next thing that happened was that we were all requested to bring a gallon of water to school, in an empty but unrinsed bleach bottle. This was to provide us with sanitary water while we awaited a rescue of some sorts after the bomb attack, I assumed. I couldn’t remember if bleach bottles made at that time were brown glass or plastic, but a quick google did tell me that bleach came in white plastic bottles by 1962. I do often wonder what happened to all those hundreds of bleach bottles full of water. Are they still stored in a musty basement at the school? Were they removed decades later by people who were clueless as to why they were there? I’ll never know.
But the most exciting thing that happened to me during the Cuban Missile Crisis was getting dog tags. The tags were imprinted with our names, our parents’ name, our address and date of birth, and an initial indicating our religious affiliation. Mine said P for Protestant. Forms to order dog tags were sent home, and parents had to pay perhaps one or two dollars to have their children tagged in case of a nuclear holocaust. Of course, back then I never wondered how the silver metal tag with the beaded chain and the barrel clasp would survive the destruction. I just knew that I loved my dog tag. We all painted the embossed lettering with fingernail polish, then cleaned up the unembossed portion of the tag with fingernail polish remover, to create the effect of colored lettering. I don’t believe then that I understood the purpose of the tags was for the identification of our bodies after a nuclear attack. It all seemed like a lark to me. To a 9 year old, those dog tags were a great fashion accessory. They felt like a status symbol. They seemed fancy and special and I wore them proudly. But how did our parents feel about these events? I can only imagine that these dangerous times caused great anxiety. But my parents never showed any fear or anxiety in front of us kids.
In late October of 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis ended with the U. S. and the Soviet Union reaching a compromise agreement where both sides agreed to remove their respective missiles, and things calmed down. I believe I still have my dog tag somewhere in my house, I just don’t know where. My husband still has his. Before school ended that year, my teacher Mrs. Alderson lost her young adult son to leukemia. I remember being scared that she wouldn’t be the same when she returned to school after his death, but she was still the same sweet and caring person, though she was sad and not vivacious. As an adult I can empathize with how sad and difficult finishing out the 1962-63 school year must have been for her. To me, 3rd grade was fun, interesting, memorable and at times quite sad.
Cindy Reneau Wise