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Cuban Missile Crisis: When the Cold War Rolled Down the Sunshine State Parkway

Fifty years ago this week, the Cuban Missile Crisisbrought a Cold War nuclear threat to millions of American homes. To mark the anniversary, the National Archives issued a new mobile app that lets you listen to JFK’s briefings about the aerial photographs that found Soviet warheads in Cuba. But for 13-year-old Tim Warburton, the Crisis appeared as a traffic phalanx rolling down a Florida highway. 

    His parents had divorced and his father, restaurauteur Barclay Warburton III, was restoring himself by refurbishing a yacht, the Black Pearl, in a Florida boatyard. He brought his son for months to help. That October, the ride back to his father’s place after school in Boca Raton seared on Tim’s brain the sight of a southbound convoy of U.S. armed vehicles and personnel.
    “I remember the Sunshine State Parkway completely packed in the southbound lanes with military trucks, men, missiles,” he says. “It was unbelievable.”
    The U.S. administration was scrambling to respond to a threat. By October 26, Kennedy was prepared to invade Cuba to remove the Soviet missiles. The next evening the high tensions led to a clandestine huddle of emissaries from Kennedy and Krushchev at a Chinese restaurant in Washington, DC (now the Walgreen’s where I buy razor blades). The following day, both parties stepped back from the brink.
    The harrowing episode left many people searching for another path, including Frank Braynard, then on the staff of the American Merchant Marine Institute. Braynard, who loved the great sailing ships that had all but disappeared from the ports, and Nils Hansell, an I.B.M. employee and kindred, met in Braynard’s office at 11 Broadway and hatched a plan named Operation Sail. The name evoked romance and intrigue of an intelligence effort, an absurd contrast with outmoded sea transport, and the hope for an effort to foster international goodwill.
    They wrote to anyone who might help. Officials began to champion the idea. From Albany, Governor Nelson Rockefeller issued letters to foreign dignitaries inviting them to join Operation Sail 1964, “a project to bring the great school sail ships of the world” to New York. Hansell’s I.B.M. connections led to an invitation from the White House staff. In 1963 Kennedy signed on. “Sailing has given me some of the most pleasant and exciting moments of my life,” Kennedy wrote. “Thus I am looking forward to Operation Sail. The sight of so many ships gathered from the corners of the world should remind us that strength, discipline and venturesome men still can find their way safely across uncertain and stormy seas.”
    Kennedy would never see that spectacle, but two years after witnessing the defense machinery pass their boatyard, the Warburtons father and son sailed the Black Pearl to New York. In July 1964 New York hosted the first Operation Sail where dozens of sailing ships from around the world came together alongside the futurescape of the World’s Fair. Warburton remembers the Fair and the AT&T videophone exhibited there.
    Operation Sail gave him memories of great square-riggers gathered at the Verrazano Bridge and Burl Ives, a family friend, singing sea chanties up the Hudson. One clear, painful memory involves a side competition among the ships: a rowing contest of dinghies. “We had a terrible boat,” he laughs. “I was an oarsman, and we were last. By a long distance.”
    But the tall ships had a powerful effect on the father. “That was his conversion,” Tim told me for a book on Operation Sail. The 1964 event marked the end of the Black Pearl‘s days as the yacht of a playboy and the start of its mission as a sail-training vessel for young people.
    The sight of these ships gathering in the wake of the Missile Crisis (and the shadow of Lyndon Johnson’s doomsday ’64 election campaign ad, Daisy) hit home. Barclay Warburton saw the sailing ships’ arrival as a way for a new generation to meet each other across borders and learn how others live. Warburton dedicated much of his life to creating the American Sail Training Association, a group that pursued that mission. Another Operation Sail brought the ships to New York and other U.S. ports this summer (including the Indonesian vessel Dewaruci, on its last epic seven-seas journey), where the vessels of a bygone era paraded once again, ghostly reminders of other showdowns.

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