To Oz? Yes, To Oz!

Sara Etgen-Baker

© Copyright 2019 by Sara Etgen-Baker
Photo of Sara's mother.
Mother Winifred Christine Stainbrook-Etgen 1944

To Oz? Yes, to Oz!” is a memoir and a true, biographical account of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The story details my childhood thoughts and reactions as I was forced to grow up and face the very real danger of the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

It was an autumn day—far enough from summer to have lost the heat and not close enough to winter to have that bite of cold. Above me, brilliant shafts of sunlight ignited the color in each falling leaf. Below me, each leaf fell, not knowing that this was its last dance in the sunlight—its last chance to play in the crisp October air. It tumbled with such elegance, but all too soon it was lost in the sea of autumn leaves swirling around my feet. Part of me wanted to find it, pick it up again, and toss it high so that perhaps it would have a second time around. But time was short; and whether I liked it or not, twilight stole away the opportunity and the vibrant colors of the day. So I scurried home crunching the dried leaves under my feet.

“Where have you been, young lady!” Mother peered around her newspaper.

Just watching the leaves falling and thinking about trick or treating.”

Oh, Sweetie, you’re too old for trick or treating this year. But,” Mother handed me a section of the newspaper, “the Plaza Theater is showing your favorite movie, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and hosting a costume party. Maybe you and your friends would like to go.”

May I go as Dorothy Gale? Please, Mama!”

I suppose so.” She folded the newspaper across her lap. “We’ll even make your costume together. How does that sound?”

“Oh Yes!” I squealed.

To Oz?” Mother flashed me a smile.

Yes!” I danced in place. “To Oz!”

Let’s go to the five and dime before dinner.” She grabbed her purse. “We’ll buy the pattern and the blue and white gingham fabric and start tonight. We’ll also need some blue and white rickrack for the sleeves. Oh, and help me remember. You’ll need blue socks, not white ones.”

But what about ruby red slippers, Mama? I don’t have any red shoes.”

Ah, let me think…your grandmother has red shoes. Maybe she’ll loan ‘em to you. You can call her later and ask—after the I Love Lucy show—she always watches Lucy.”

But just as I Love Lucy was about to air, regular programming was interrupted. A calm yet grim President Kennedy told Americans that the Russians had nuclear missiles in Cuba, many pointed at cities in the United States. It was October 22, 1962.

Shortly thereafter, my grandmother called, hysterical like most Americans, as the reality of the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted in front of us. Like most kids my age, I’d heard of the Cold War and listened to endless stories about those nasty Russians. Duck and Cover drills were common and routine practice at my elementary school. Yet I was restless that night unable to sleep as I grappled with my own fears and uncertainty about nuclear war. Sometime after midnight, I glanced outside my bedroom window. The neighborhood homes—uncharacteristically lit for that time of night—looked like fireflies twinkling across a dark, moonless sky. I took comfort knowing that our neighbors and even my friends were also awake and probably frightened like me. I eventually drifted off to sleep listening to my parents’ soft whispers as they discussed building a bomb shelter in our backyard.

The next morning before taking me to school Mother knelt next to me, took my hands in hers, and looked into my eyes. “If there’s a nuclear bomb today, find your younger brother at school and take care of him. Whatever you do, don’t leave school; don’t come home. You’re safer at school. When it’s safe, I’ll find you.”

I looked at mother and saw something I’d never seen before—the juxtaposition of fear and courage on her face. “But Mama, I’m scared.”

I know you are, Sweetie, and it’s okay to be afraid. Even the powerful Oz once said, ‘there is no living thing that isn’t afraid when it faces danger’.” She wiped the tears from my cheeks. “You want to be brave like Dorothy Gale, don’t you?”

Yes, I guess so, but I don’t know how to be brave.”

Of course you do; we’re all brave in different ways. Remember, Dorothy couldn’t be brave unless she was first afraid. Does that make sense?”

I paused and realized that Mother—even in the midst of a crisis—was teaching me an important lesson.

I nodded. “Yes, bravery comes after fear.”

Yes. So, put aside your fear; promise me you’ll do as I’ve said. Stay calm and take care of your brother. Understand?”

Yes, Mama, I understand.” She hugged me then whisked my brother and me off to school.

As I sat in school that day, I stared silently out my classroom window. But I wasn’t thinking about Halloween, the Emerald City, or my Dorothy costume. Instead, my mind drifted. What’s to become of my colorful, magical world? What does a nuclear missile look like? What will my school and home look like after the Russians fire one of their nuclear missiles? Like Dorothy, I’d been dropped into a strange and colorless world and desperately wanted to make sense of it all. I sensed that the fear I was experiencing was similar to Dorothy’s the day the tornado arrived, swooped her up, and deposited her in an unfamiliar and terrifying land. No wonder the cowardly lion was afraid!

But the Cuban Missile Crisis made my world much scarier than the Wicked Witch’s castle; Nikita Khruschev was more evil than the Wicked Witch of the West; Cuba was more frightening than Winkie Country; and nuclear missiles were more harmful than flying monkeys. Like Dorothy, I longed to skip down the Yellow Brick Road; find the powerful Wizard of Oz; and click my heels together so he could send me back home to the world I’d known just yesterday.

Thankfully, the school day ended anticlimactically with no nuclear missiles striking any of us. Although Cold War tensions remained high for the next several days, Mother and I busied ourselves making my costume; and by October 28, the Cuban Missile Crisis had been averted.

So, when Halloween arrived Mother took me to the Plaza Theater where I wore my Dorothy costume and my grandmother’s red shoes. Before she drove off, Mother rolled down her window and asked, “To Oz?”

To Oz? Yes, to Oz!”

I ran across the street toward the theater, crunching the swirling leaves beneath my feet. I purchased my ticket, found a seat next to my friends, and waited for the lights to dim. As they did, the red waterfall curtain at the Plaza Theater lifted. My stomach dropped, and I once again lost myself in the swirling tornado as it picked up Dorothy’s farmhouse and deposited her in the unfamiliar Land of Oz. I skipped alongside Dorothy as she headed down the Yellow Brick Road in search of the mighty wizard who dwelt in the magical kingdom of Oz.

I closed my eyes and imagined he’d somehow right my world and return me to life as it once was. I even clicked my heels twice hoping to return to my innocence, embrace it once more, and have a second chance to be a child again. But time was short; and whether I liked it or not, the Cuban Missile Crisis had stolen away the vibrant colors of my childhood. Like a single leaf swirling amongst the autumn leaves outside the theater, my childhood was dead and forever lost in the sea of adult reality.

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