Under the stairs is no longer my safe haven



When I was but a boy my brother and I would often hide under the stairs in our modest terraced house, setting up a make-shift camp and pretending we were Robinson Crusoe and his Man Friday stowed away on some far-flung island. Much to the alarm of my mother for our bolthole housed the gas meter – into which daily my mother fed endless coins – and she feared we would be rendered unconscious by inhaling any escaping fumes.

My hideaway island often had a faint whiff of gas but it was not unpleasant, serving only as a reminder of our annual holidays with my mother’s sister in Liverpool, where she lived in a small council house by the gas yard wall.

That childhood retreat, though, was to take on a more sinister role. For, as the Sixties rolled out, the leaders of the two most powerful nations, America’s John F Kennedy and the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev, found themselves at loggerheads at a specific and scary point in history.

In 1959, a leftwing revolution in Cuba had ended with a government under Fidel Castro. The regime quickly severed formerly strong ties with the US by expropriating US economic assets and developing close links with the Soviet Union.

Given Cuba’s geographical proximity to the US, in March 1960 President Dwight D. Eisenhower directed the CIA to plan for the invasion of Cuba and overthrow the Castro regime. Following his election in November 1960, President Kennedy learned of the plan, concluded that Castro was a Soviet client posing a threat to Latin America and, after consultations with his advisors, gave his consent for the clandestine invasion to proceed.

After two days, US special forces were defeated by the Cubans at the Bay of Pigs.

Embarrassed, Kennedy decided to have another shot. US intelligence reports, however, indicated there were expanded arms shipments from the Soviet Union to Cuba. For some months there was growing concern the weapons included ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads.

While the world held its breath, a leaflet from the Department of Defence was popped into every Irish letterbox, informing us what to do in the event of a nuclear war. Crude drawings depicted what such a terrifying event could do to the human body: there were some tablets we must take, iodine I recall; we were to never go outside, ever, and we had to find a safe room in the house and wait until the authorities gave the all-clear.

My father, in his wisdom, decided that under the stairs would be the safest place should the nuclear button be pushed. I just wondered how the heck two grown-ups and three children would fit in there, not to mention our beloved family dog Mutt.

In the end, Kennedy pulled us back from the brink by abandoning his planned second invasion.

Now, a lifetime on, our old assumptions are rattled again by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. In addressing the West, he has warned that exceptional action by NATO allies would result in dire action by him.

His hand ever steady on the nuclear trigger, the Russian leader has warned the rest of the world that any attempt to interfere with his action will lead to “consequences they have never seen”.

Here’s the facts: Russia has the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons with a 6,257-strong fleet which include 527 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and strategic bombers. ICBMs can get up to a top speed of four miles a second in about 10 minutes after launch, meaning the weapons could potentially reach the rest of us mere mortals in almost no time.

The sudden mania for speaking of nuclear warfare, among men with unrestricted power, is the closest – North Korea aside – humankind has come to the kind of scenario that had that leaflet popping into the home of my boyhood. The view of some is that the West has squandered the glad confident morning of its victory back in 1989-91, what with NATO’S continuous encroachment.

At time of writing, Ukraine seems a foregone conclusion, sadly. Will Putin stop there or advance further? Will sanctions work? And then there is the oligarchy’s cyber warfare, if the nukes do not finish us off in the meantime.

Alas, I’m no longer holding my breath. I’m too darn old for that. And, besides, I know enough now to know that hiding under the stairs would no longer provide a safe bolthole.

For any of us, if Putin loses his grip…

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