Nikita Krushchev and Hillsboro High School

by Kenneth Fieth, Metropolitan Nashville Archivist.

The typed letters stand out in stark contrast to the white paper. This is only one of the thousands of documents held by the Metro Archives: most of them are routine; many are interesting; a few are significant. At first glance, this one appears to be nothing more than a standard form sent out from the office of John Koen, principal of Hillsboro High School. However, the date gives it instant significance: October 26, 1962.

In October 1962 the United States and the Soviet Union – the two great powers that had risen from the wreckage of World War II – stood nose to nose, ready to unleash the forces of the third, and arguably final, world war.

Nashville knew little of the events spiraling out of control in the White House and the Kremlin. Here life went on as usual: fifty cents would buy a ticket to see the latest James Bond movie, Dr. No, or to watch Marlon Brando’s Mutiny on the Bounty. A Westinghouse 4-speed phonograph cost $29.95, and a driver could fill the tank of his new $2,500 automobile with gasoline that cost 31 cents a gallon.

School children taking part in a duck-and-cover drill to practice what they should do in case of an nuclear attack.

From all indications, there were few preparations being made in Middle Tennessee for potential catastrophe. Nashville was not the primary target that Oak Ridge, Ft. Campbell, or Memphis would be, but the fallout from an attack on Fort Campbell would be picked up by the prevailing easterly winds. Nashville would be permeated by a mortality that could not be seen, heard, or tasted. Surprisingly, though, other papers in the Archives from the same period – those of Nashville Mayor Ben West, County Judge Beverly Briley, and other city and county officials – give no indication that anything was amiss. The major political concern of the moment seemed to be the conflict over a proposed consolidation of city and county administrations into a single metropolitan government.

But public and private change occurs in subtle ways. During the renovation of the Metro courthouse, many artifacts and records were transferred to the Metro Archives. Among those was a faded yellow sign, installed in the mid-1960s, proclaiming that this particular courthouse hallway was a fallout shelter that would hold 103 persons.

Paul Clements, a local historian and writer, remembers his father filling the car with gas every night that November. The senior Clements kept food and water in the car and developed an escape plan in the event of the unthinkable.

Former Nashville Mayor Richard Fulton also recalls those days in 1962. Newly elected to Congress, he had gone to Washington, D.C., to meet with Bobby Kennedy, Attorney General of the United States. The meeting ended abruptly when Kennedy received an urgent summons to the White House. Because it was raining, Fulton rode with the Attorney General to the White House, after which the driver delivered him to his own destination. The White House meeting, Fulton learned later, was a discussion of the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba.

President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert in conference. (public domain)

Thus, the apparently routine form sent out by Principal John Koen was not a mere formality after all, as it asked parents to indicate what they wanted their children to do in the event of “a real emergency created by any type of attack.” This particular parent’s response specifies that the child should start walking home.

The Metro Archives is a treasure house full of these seemingly unrelated snippets in time – a faded yellow sign, a boy’s memory of his father’s anxiety, a freshman Congressman’s brush with world power, a simple typed form with a child’s name on it. Put together, these examples form a picture of a time when the lights almost went out never to come on again.