e first visited the American air base at Torrejón in the weeks following the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was an edgy time for many, and all the more so for my father, a great preacher of the coming nuclear apocalypse, a war to end all wars, in which Russia and the United States would obliterate the planet.
He was talking about just this subject (again) as Mr. Juan, the tourism ministry’s laconic chauffeur, drove us to the base. I had met Mr. Juan on several occasions (my father did not drive) and never once had he displayed emotion of any kind. He seemed unfamiliar with smiles or jokes or laughter, and claimed to be uninterested in my pursuit of lizards, as if by simply bringing up the subject I had laid siege to his deep code of deference and silence, which my father claimed were one and the same, insisting Mr. Juan was no more than the typical Spanish fatalist, a kind of human governed by the guilt-ridden Catholic weather that parked itself above his conscious mind. His interests were work, a steady income, procreation, some kind of fatherhood, after which began the long and slow descent toward death. In this regard Mr. Juan was already many steps ahead of most in the race toward mortality, hardly exchanging a word with the Spanish guard at the base entrance.
Not even my loud chewing of gum, which I did only when my father was not around, had any effect on him. “Leave him be,” my father had told me once, “He’s a recluse and a stoic.”
Though of course I understood neither word I immediately adopted both and decided I, too, was a recluse and a stoic, which in my mind was a miniature adult who chewed gum, ran fast, and took orders from no one. My father used another mystery word, pedant, which I also adopted to mean a miniature adult who in addition to chewing gum, read war comic books with great diligence.
Mr. Juan’s dead-end approach to life and the living bears mention because this very real stoicism was in contrast to the approach of the general of the base, from Ohio, who greeted us with such verve my father was immediately offended. Did he not know world war was in the offing? These days that encounter reminds me of meetings between the masked and the unmasked, with the former appalled that the latter aren’t scared to death and mindful of their responsibilities toward others. All was and is exaggerated.
The general didn’t have a thing to say about the Cuban Missile Crisis or my father’s concerns, but he did take an interest in my interest in all the military jets parked on countless tarmacs around us.
It was a strange scene, straight out of a stoic’s comic book. The Spanish air force consisted of a few left-over Korean War-era Sabre jets as well as (and this was incredible) some Luftwaffe prop Junker bombers better known for their use in World War II. Franco, the general to end all generals, the Mostest of the Most, had turned his country over to Ohio.
And it had come through.
I saw B-48s and B-62s and Starfighters, and was allowed to speak to a pilot from Nebraska who told me how much fun it was to ride a supersonic jet through bumpy air, “like a roller-coaster ride,” he said. I so much wanted to ride with him, but realized that as a stoic and a pedant I had all but grounded myself.
As the general continued telling me about all his toys, my father grew slightly short-tempered, as if the time had really come to “talk turkey”: yet another bizarre expression that I took to mean “get to the point,” and for once I was right.
What role would the aircraft at Torrejón play in some imagined fistfight with the Russians? General Ohio smiled and replied, “Well, sir, we certainly don’t ever want to get to that point, now do we.”
At this instant men like my father and Mr. Juan would, if given license, have strangled the general for his good-natured cheer. But I loved it. He just wouldn’t join them on the dark side.
Yes, he said, in theory we’d fly east in that direction (never mentioning Russia) and refuel in Turkey, and go from there.
What “go from there” meant was fly on to Soviet territory and drop nuclear bombs, something my father so much wished to hear, not because he hated communism but because it would square the circle on his apocalyptic world view.
No, sir. General Ohio wasn’t biting. “Lots of fish to fry out here in the Med, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” he said. He spoke of Greece, where the political situation was unstable, and also of Turkey and Cyprus, who hated each other and fought on a regular basis. “Got a lot to look after, I think it’s fair to say.”
We spent twenty minutes with him (he gave me a fighter wing patch as a gift) and twenty more walking around the base, and between the many shiny American planes all I missed was popcorn.
And all this came weeks after Moscow and Washington had nearly gone to war over missiles in Cuba.
This is what most vexed my father on the way home, that General Ohio failed to understand or communicate the real gravity of the situation. Since Mr. Juan was driving but already dead, he didn’t care.
I had the temerity of saying the general might be having a nice day, or simply being diplomatic among civilians.
This drew an immediate rebuke from my father. I was behaving as the worst and most naïve of child sinners: I was indulging optimism. “There’s no such thing.”
I said no more and when we got home thought about all the beautiful shiny planes and how I did not want to lead a life like that of Mr. Juan or even my brilliant father. I wanted to be left alone to my stoicism and pedantry and the comic books that spoke for them. I wanted to be my own man, little perhaps, but unafraid that the world was about to end at any time.
I never forgot General Ohio, because he refused to be provoked, and he could have been. The times were right. He said, in effect, Look, I have the planes to do a dirty job but I hope I never have to do it, and the less we talk about it, the more likely we can not only talk turkey but actually enjoy eating it, all of us around a table, drinking to hope.