The day the Earth stood still: A regrettable reprise

By JERRY TALLMER  |  On October 27, 1962, a beautiful fall day here in the heart of Greenwich Village, I was a dead man walking. And so were you and you and you and you and you and…

…and you, dear 29-year-old North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, except that in 1962 you weren’t quite born yet. Well, now that you’re here, I thought you might just want to know.

Khrushchev had started building ICBM launching bases in Cuba, and Kennedy had thrown a naval blockade around that whole island nation. The extinction of mankind, or at least of Russian and American mankind, was touch and go.

U.S.A. vs. U.S.S.R. Two kids on a playground, out-toughing one another.

Knock this chip off my shoulder.

Oh yeah? Knock this chip off my shoulder.

I needed a coffee break, or a work break, or a think break. But how do you stop thinking?

Went downstairs and out the door of the Village Voice. Headed toward the Limelight, Helen Gee’s high-class coffee house and photo gallery at 91 Seventh Avenue South. Stopped for a moment on the sidewalk crossing Sheridan Square. Breathed in, breathed out. An absolutely beautiful October day, clear, cool, sunny, high clouds, a small, invigorating wind. Football weather. Breathe in, breathe out. William Saroyan said it, a long time ago. The kind of day that makes it great to be alive.

You are going to be dead, my brain told me. Any minute now — this minute, next minute, the one after that — any second now, you are going to be dead.

And so are your two 2-year-old [in 1962]  children going to be dead, and so will their mother be dead, and so will everybody else you’ve ever known, along with your own mother, and everybody in that newspaper office you’ve just stepped out of, and everybody in Greenwich Village and New York City and Moscow and Leningrad and Havana — and Pyongyang, don’t forget Pyongyang — and the whole wide world.

Death of a world, death of a planet. With the Statue of Liberty’s arm and torch sticking up through the burying sand as in “Planet of the Apes,” with Charlton Heston cursing lost and damned mankind. And womankind.

I once interviewed Charlton Heston. A luncheon interview. Every other phrase out of his mouth was “bankable actor,” meaning himself. So much for “Planet of the Apes” and death of a planet. Wasn’t the late Mr. Bankable also one of those big N.R.A. gun guys? I remember when N.R.A. stood for the New Deal’s National Recovery Act.

Greenwich Village, as good a place to die as any, and better than most. Stop sounding like Ernest Hemingway, who would certainly never have wanted to die in Greenwich Village. He’d have opted for Havana, maybe. Ketchum, Idaho, in actuality.

Resumed walking toward the Limelight. Ignored the traffic light. What’s a traffic light up against an ICBM?

Had my coffee in Limelight. Thought about Maya Deren, who was now dead just over one year. Maya was born in Russia, come to think of it. Well, all her distant relatives back there will be wiped out too… .

Breathe in, breathe out…. .

Guess what? Khrushchev backed down. Kennedy backed down. The world is saved. Never so fair a day as this until another cloudless morning on a September 11, 2001, not quite 40 years hence, but who could have seen that coming?

Your dead man, by the way, is still walking.

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