12/05/2012 02:30 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2013

Cuban Missile Crisis: Death in the Afternoon

Author's note: My 90th birthday will be June 8, 2013. Should I call it a lifetime experience? I'm in pretty good shape. A retired Episcopal priest (ordained in 1955) I remain very active, spending quality timel offering spiritual direction to a fine mix of people and continuing my lifetime of writing. My ears perked up when the thought surfaced that I might write quite personally about a few crucial American religious moments in which I'd particiipated.

A deadly chill fell on Manhattan on those panic days 50 years ago. It didn't come from changing of seasons. Instead it was a devastating panic engendered by a seemingly imminent possibility of corporate annihilation.

The U.S. and the Soviet Union were bound by a killer suicide pact politely called "Mutuality Assured Destruction." It concerned the installation of a missile base in Cuba which was within striking distance of most of America. It was regarded as an Armageddon trigger.

I was a graduate student at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan. I was in the process of proof reading my new book "Christ and Celebrity Gods" and today was supposed to spend six or eight hours engaged with my editor completinlg the task. But what would today call for us? Could it become the end of who we were or would ever be? To say the least, this would provide a catalyst for religious contemplation. I met my editor at his nearby apartment on the edge of Harlem.

We got down to work on the manuscript. We were confronted by practical questions. For example, should we simply eliminate a talky three pages in chapter two? Had I made my position absolutely clear in the final pages of chapter six?

The clock was ticking. Would we survive or perhaps be blown away? The sheer routine of life slowly took over. We had our work to do and embraced it. As we focused on such things as rewrites and punctuation, we were aware of the bright flash of a nuclear detonation. Yet we huddled together over a clattering manual typewriter. Corrected galleys surrounded us. We realized we were there for each other, for the work at hand, for whatever meaning life mysteriously held for us.

Looking back after all these years, I realize the political/military establishment had worked tirelessly to prove nuclear war is "survivable" with the claim that atomic weapons can be "tactical." We'd heard language designed to minimize a nuclear threat: "suitcase" bombs, "dirty" bombs, "bunker-buster" bombs. Such language was designed to give a diminutive tone to weapons perhaps far more powerful than devices that vaporized Hiroshimla and Nagasaki.

Eons away from that threatening morning in Manhattan, the so-called Cuban Missile Crisis continues to stay in plain sight. It provokes an existential question: Can time run out?