The day 'Fidel Castro' hung around John Kennedy School
If you grew up in the United States in the 1950s and early 1960s, or to put it another way, if you're old, the term “communist” had a very negative connotation and the color red was probably not your favorite. To be called a “commie” or a “red” was an unpatriotic insult to most people during that time.
Following World War II, the Soviet Union and China, both communist countries with their respective leaders Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong became political enemies of the United States. When the USSR obtained nuclear weapons and China supported North Korea against South Korea and the United States in the Korean War in the early 1950s, it was the beginning of the so called “Cold War.”
The world was in fear that nuclear war would break out and the spread of propaganda by both sides became rampant. Spying increased dramatically to try to gain an advantage. The ideologies of Democracy vs. Communism were in a power struggle for world domination.
So, what did all this mean to a kid in Batavia growing up in this era? As you were trying to navigate through your kid life of going to school and watching the news in between the "The Howdy Doody Show" and "I Love Lucy" on your black and white TV, how did the Cold War affect you?
Bomb Drills at School Were Routine
In school (I went to St. Mary's Elementary), one thing I remember vividly is having bomb drills. In the event of nuclear attack, we practiced getting under our desks and putting our heads down.
Later on in life this jokingly became known as the “kiss your butt goodbye” drill. Also, I recall getting together as a school and praying for the new Pope when Pius XII died in 1958 and for the defeat of “godless communism.”
On TV, we went through the news cycle of the Korean War, the arrest, trial, and execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for selling nuclear secrets to the Russians, and the Congressional hearings concerning Senator Joseph McCarthy and his investigations of Americans he suspected of being communists.
There was the “blackballing” of actors, producers, writers and artists suspected of having communist leanings, the forceful Soviet put down of an uprising against the communist government in Hungary in 1956, and Secretary of the Communist Party and Premier Nikita Khruschev's strident denunciation of “American imperialism” at the United Nations General Assembly in 1960.
So how we were affected by all this was that I think almost every kid in Batavia would have considered themselves anti-communist. That's how our parents felt, that's how our teachers felt and that's how our government felt.
In 1959 and 1960 the communist scare came closer to the United States with Fidel Castro's rise to power in Cuba. Originally acclaimed for his overthrow of the longtime Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, it soon became clear that Castro was aligning his government with the Soviet Union and that Cuba would be a communist regime only 90 miles from Florida.
Looking Askance at 'Beatnik' Types
Furthering Americans' dislike of the cigar-chomping Castro was his wearing of military fatigues and sporting a bushy beard; 1950's Americans, including the kids, tended to be pretty conservative and looked skeptically on any “beatnik” looking type of people.
So, with all this anti-communism coursing through our American school kid brains, my friend Charlie and I decided to make a political statement.
Looking back on it now, we were probably more highly motivated by trying to get some attention rather than any sincere “down-with-the-commies” convictions.
Charlie and I (I'm pretty sure he went along with it just to humor me) went to work in my basement on North Spruce Street constructing an effigy of Fidel Castro. I can't remember exactly what we used to build it, but I'm positive an old fur “ear-flapper' hat was cut up and glued on the face for the beard. My mom helped, but she was mostly amused at the project. Kids will be kids was probably how she viewed it.
(Actually, adults during that era were known to put up effigies of Castro, too, as this link from 1961 shows.)
Old-school Truly Fake News
The most important aspect of our plan was to find a credible place to “hang” Fidel where the media (i.e. the local newspaper) would be alerted to it. We hoped they would send a photographer and a reporter and, even though we had to remain unknown, once the “Big News” was revealed we would be famous in our own minds.
We could picture the photo of Fidel's faux body hanging from a pole with an attached “Down with Castro” sign in the middle of the paper's front page. Under it would be a headline like: “Batavia Patriots Stand Up to Commie Castro” -- fellow Batavians would see our brazen display and we would be the talk of the town for our anti-communist bravery.
Since I lived on North Spruce Street and we were about 12 years old with no way to transport “Fidel,” we picked the nearest public place with a flagpole -- John Kennedy School on Vine Street.
Of course in lieu of how things turned out with President Kennedy and the Cuban Missle Crisis of a couple years later, in October of 1962, the symbolism would have been extra sweet.
But, as all good Batavians know, the school was named for a former superitendant not the president.
At any rate, Charlie's dad was a car dealer and he “borrowed” some of those colorful triangular flags which used to be hung on poles around the car lots to help draw attention. Carrying these, fake Fidel, and our sign, we headed down North Street in the dark (probably about 8 p.m.) toward the back entrance to the school at the end of Elm Street.
In those days, North Street ended at North Spruce, so there was little traffic at that hour. Nonetheless, about halfway there, we heard a car coming. Thinking on our feet (literally) we carried Fidel between us much the same way many of us later helped our inebriated college friends back to the dorm after a night of drinking.
Holding our breath we tried to appear normal until the car went past and then let out a sigh of relief like somehow we were on a secret mission to Cuba itself.
Hoisting Fidel and Scurrying Away
The school flagpole was on the south side of the building by the empty parking lot. We quickly looped the rope around the effigy with sign attached and tied on the multicolored flags. We hoisted it to the top of the pole and stood back briefly to admire our patriotic handiwork.
Then we scurried away through the darkness like commandos returning to base, or in reality to probably go do our homework.
Our plan was to return on our bikes the next morning like we were just casually riding by. We hoped that there would be all sorts of commotion going on and that we would pretend to be as shocked but pleased as everyone else to see the heinous dictator swinging in the breeze.
Our pro-American hearts must have been thumping as we approached the school in the sunny morning. We turned onto the gravel path and emerged onto the school grounds to see “Fidel” and the flags on the pole and … nothing.
No photographers, no reporters, no police cars, nothing. Cars of school staff were parked in the lot and there was a custodian nearby cutting some grass.
Completely taken aback, we sat on our bikes and stared. Didn't anyone see “Fidel”? Maybe that was it. Perhaps we needed to stir things up.
We pedaled over to the flagpole and began pointing and talking in exaggerated voices.
No One Pays Attention
“Wow! Look at that! It's a dummy of Fidel Castro up there! That's really something! Who could have done that?”
The custodian kept mowing, cars kept driving by on Vine Street, a couple people left the school, got in their cars and drove away. No one paid “Fidel” a single bit of attention.
We were crushed, or at least I was. All that patriotic work and surreptitious sneaking around in the dark and no one even cared. Plus, it was too embarrassing to even tell anyone about. I'm not sure what I told my mom, but in retrospect she probably knew how it was going to turn out anyway.
The saddest (or funniest depending on how you look at it) part of the whole episode was that on our way home, Charlie said he'd really like to get those flags back so he wouldn't get in trouble with his father.
That evening we rode back to John Kennedy and the effigy and the flags were gone from the pole. Nearby was a dumpster and we looked in to see “Fidel” forlornly staring up at us, albeit from one eye as the other has apparently been knocked loose.
Charlie retrieved his flags and as we rode away we made a pact to keep the fiasco between ourselves. Communism and Fidel Castro unfortunately would continue to plague the good old U. S. of A. for many years to come, despite our heroic attempts to raise the ire of the apparently apathetic citizens of Batavia.
Great story Billie. That Charlie was always up for/to something. Apathy is a dangerous and persistent disease. Especially in a democracy.
Dave Reilly wrote the story.
Missed that. Good Story Dave.
I'm showing my age, but I remember the nuke drills at John Kennedy School.