October 24, 1962
Palo Alto, California
I put down the slide rule and hoisted up the black handset.
“Yeah?” It was too early in the morning for my phone manners to have kicked in.
“Am I speaking to Nathan Michaels?” the caller asked in a New England twang.
I hesitated for a moment. “Jack? Can that be you?”
“No, it’s not Jack. It’s his brother Robert.”
By his second word, I’d realized my mistake. The pitch was too high, the tone too reedy to be Jack. And why would he be calling me more than two decades after we’d last seen each other?
“Mr. Attorney General, I am sorry. What can I do for you?”
I wouldn’t have tried to be polite to Jack, but Bobby, well, I’d never met him, and he was head of the Justice Department – even if his appointment could be attributed to bloodlines rather than achievement.
“The president, uh, needs to see you,” he said.
“I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t want to see him.”
“And I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t believe you.”
“What? I really don’t want to see him,” I repeated.
“I meant it sounds like you did mean to be rude.”
I snorted. “Okay, maybe I did.”
“Listen, this is no social call. You were in the War. Your commander-in-chief has asked to see you.”
“I left the service in ’45.”
“My brother needs to see you right away,” he insisted.
“Isn’t he a little busy right now?”
He had been on television the night before last. The Russians had moved missiles into Cuba. Yesterday my twin sons came home with stories of air raid drills which, as best I could tell, consisted of ducking under their desks at Palo Alto High School. Ten pounds of wood and steel didn’t offer much protection against a 20-megaton warhead air-mailed C.O.D. from Siberia. And our little piece of paradise in Palo Alto would be a target or at least close to one. The Navy’s P-2 Neptune sub hunters flew out of Moffett Field just a few miles down the freeway.
“Mr. Michaels, uh, you’re called Nate, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” I said, noting he hadn’t actually asked permission to call me by my first name.
“Well, Nate, President Kennedy is busy and so am I and that means I don’t have time to fuck around with you and neither does he.”
When I woke her, my wife clung to me and asked me not to go, that no good would come of it. But ninety minutes after I hung up the phone, I was flying back to Washington on an Air Force T-39 that had been waiting for me at Moffett Field.
What with a refueling stop, a forty-five minute drive into the city from Andrews Air Base, and a three-hour time change, it was seven in the evening when the guard at the White House gate waved through the Air Force car I was riding in.
A little sparrow of a woman with a nest of brown hair and rimless glasses was waiting for me at the side door.
“Follow me, Mr. Michaels.”
Carrying an athletic bag that held two changes of underwear, a couple of white button-downs, a razor, a pair of pajamas, and a copy of Seven Days in May, I did as instructed. After racking my brain in the airspace above California, Nevada, and Idaho over why I’d been summoned, I stopped wondering while gazing down on the purple peaks of Wyoming. Now I concentrated on keeping up with my guide as we trotted through a maze of hallways and a warren of offices. She stopped in front of a huge set of white wooden doors, knocked, and twisted the brass knob without waiting for an answer. Leaning her torso around the half-opened door, she chirped, “I have Mr. Michaels here.”
“Bring him in, Mrs. Lincoln,” said the familiar voice.
She swung the door all the way open and I entered.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, former friend and current president, sat in a rocking chair outfitted with cloth padding. I’d read it was good for his back. To his right was a couch seating three and to his left were nine weighty wooden chairs, all filled with advisors and cabinet secretaries recognizable from NBC’s “Huntley-Brinkley Report” and the news pages of The San Francisco Chronicle. They were staring right back at me.
The attorney general rose and said, “Let’s give the president and Mr. Michaels some time. We all have plenty to do.”
Out filed the dozen officials. Bobby Kennedy reached to shake and I transferred the bag to my left hand. As he grasped my right hand, he searched my face for an answer, but I didn’t even know the question. General Maxwell Taylor, whose uniform jacket provided a backdrop for a kaleidoscopic exhibition of ribbons, introduced himself. A man I recognized as John McCone, head of the CIA, scowled as he went by. Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, and the others trudged out without even a glance my way.
For the first time in twenty-two years, I was looking at Jack Kennedy in person. He was returning my stare, leaning forward on his rocker. His face itself had filled out – no, more than filled out, it had puffed up. The blue-gray smudges under his eyes contrasted with the orangey tan of the rest of his face.
I heard the door click shut behind me.
“Long time, Nate. You look good.”
He held out his hand from the rocker, and I took it without thinking. His grasp was firm, keen, undulled. I’d read that the custom of shaking hands arose to show that you held no weapon and hence that you came in friendship. I flexed my fingers and let my hand drop.
“My father used to say the three ages of man were young, middle-aged, and you look good,” I said.
He laughed. “Wise man, your dad.”
“You, on the other hand, look like shit,” I said.
“I’ve had a rough couple of weeks,” Kennedy said. “You know, I figured you’d come. You were always a little impetuous. Always ready for a quick getaway.”
He smiled. It didn’t take any willpower at all to refrain from smiling back.
“I never thought of myself as all that impetuous,” I said.
His chin cupped in his right hand, Kennedy began to rock a little. “I don’t think people change much. Remember the train ride we took down to L.A. when you should have been studying? What about your road trip up to Canada?”
Right after the last time I’d seen him, I’d headed up to Canada. I’d just thrown some clothes in a suitcase and driven non-stop up the Pacific Coast to Vancouver. Two days later I managed to parlay my summer flying lessons and pilot license into a commission in the Royal Canadian Air Force and by the end of the month was enrolled in the Commonwealth Empire Air Training Scheme.
“I was tired of waiting for war to come. I got a jump on things. But then didn’t you enlist right after me?”
“I tried, but failed the army physical.”
“Among other things.”
“But the Navy took you.”
“Eventually,” he agreed. “Um, about what happened, I’m sor….”
That did it. The wall of self-control I’d built brick by brick during the flight across the country came tumbling down. I took a step toward him. “Listen, I can’t even begin to guess why you’ve hauled me out here from California, but I never, and I mean never, want to talk about what happened all those years ago. Bring it up and I’m back in Palo Alto. The whole world can blow up for all I care.”
He looked up at me from his chair and said, in a soft voice, “That was before the War, Nate. In the distant past. Isn’t that too long to nurse a grudge?”
“Probably,” I said. “Consider it a character defect.”
He breathed out and moved on. “All right,” he said and rubbed his hands together. “Let’s see how much you do care about the world blowing up. Have a seat.”
“I’ll stand,” I said and tightened my left hand’s fingers around the handle of my bag.
“Have it your way.” He didn’t seem fazed, but then he must have acquired a fair amount of experience dealing with stubborn and opinionated people in the twenty-one months of his presidency. “Any trouble getting away?” he asked.
“No.” My wife really hadn’t wanted me to go. I called my secretary Karen at home and winced when I heard her swear for the first time in the three years we’d worked together. She was right – with only a week to go before the end of our fiscal year at Hewlett-Packard, the timing was not good for a jaunt to Washington, no matter who was asking. I was supposed to be meeting with Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach the day after tomorrow to close a big sale. I left it to Karen to convince Bill or Dave to go for me. The last thing I did before leaving the house was to look in on the twins. I spent half a minute watching their backs rise and fall with the deep, guileless sleep of overactive teenage boys.
“As long as you’re up, would you turn on the TV?” Kennedy asked. I walked over to the set sunk into the wall and did as I was asked. “CBS has a special report on.”
We said nothing while the tube warmed up. When the picture did appear, a man against a background of the Pentagon, identified by subtitle as Charles von Freund, was saying, “Everybody’s lips are sealed. We are under what amounts to a wartime censorship program. Back to you, Walter.”
Like the president, Walter Cronkite, the man who’d replaced Douglas Edwards a few months ago as anchor on the CBS Evening News, sported dark smudges under his eyes. “There is not a great deal of optimism tonight,” he intoned.
Kennedy’s right hand moved in a chopping motion. “Enough.”
I flicked the switch off, straightened up, and asked, “Why am I here again?”
“You have a good war record.” He opened a manila folder on his desk and started reading. “Captain Michaels displayed extraordinary….”
I cut him off. “That was a long time ago.”
“Yeah, October, ’43. The citation is signed ‘by command of General Doolittle.’ With that Distinguished Service Cross you could have stayed in the service.”
“I’m just a business executive out in California now.”
“I wonder why you weren’t called up for Korea.”
“I guess they needed hotshot fighter pilots qualified for jets, not old B-17 pilots.”
“Serving your country is behind you now?”
Yeah, it was. I’d been running away from my war experiences for seventeen years. I’d had enough. I didn’t tell Kennedy that though.
He pulled out a sheaf of photographs and handed one of them over.
It was taken from a plane. I could see tiny figures on the ground along with heavy equipment and eight large cigar-shaped cylinders.
“U-2 photos of a Soviet missile installation in Cuba. You see that blockhouse over there?”
“Well, there are nuclear warheads in there.”
I dropped my bag and sat down.
“Are any of those missiles ready?”
“Maybe, most likely, but in any case they’re working hard to get them there. We’ve also spotted some IL-28 bombers that can carry nukes. If they’re not combat-ready yet, they will be soon.”
“How are the Soviets getting the warheads to Cuba?” I asked
“By sea. Their ships will get to our naval cordon tomorrow. I’ve given orders to stop and search them. The Soviets say it will be an act of war.”
“Do they mean it?”
“Doesn’t much matter. It looks like I’m going to order air attacks and an invasion to take out the missile sites.”
“And if the Soviets respond?”
“Then we will respond.”
“By attacking the Soviet Union?” I asked. He nodded. “With nuclear weapons?”
“If they use them, we will have no choice.”
I picked up my bag. “If I’m about to die, I’d rather be home with my family.”
As the president rose, his lips tightened and eyes narrowed. His back had not gotten any better in the past two decades.
“Remember that Sunday when you took me up to your parents’ for brunch?”
“The guy from the Soviet consulate who was there….”
“Right. Do you know what he’s doing now?” Kennedy asked, his face only a few feet from mine.
“No. He’s still alive?”
“Good to know. I’ve wondered. My parents gave him a going away party in 1942. They got a few letters from him, but heard nothing once the War was over. Dad figured he’d been purged.”
“You were pretty good friends.”
“Yeah, family friends,” I said.
“Two months ago he came to Washington as a counselor in the Soviet Embassy here. McCone tells me the counselor job is a cover. He’s KGB, the new head of Soviet intelligence here in the United States.”
So Volkov had been using my father and me all those years ago. One more betrayal from those years before the War. “You were right about him then,” I said.
Kennedy didn’t gloat. He just kept on talking. “The CIA doesn’t think it’s a coincidence he came just as the missiles were being smuggled into Cuba.”
“I appreciate the update on Volkov, but you didn’t fly me across the country for that.”
He shook his head. “In a meeting with our top Soviet expert at the State Department yesterday, Volkov mentioned you and your dad.”
“He was the one who said you were good friends. Llewellyn Thompson, that’s our expert, says Volkov was quite emphatic about wanting to see you again.”
“You know my father died in ’48?”
“Yeah, I’m sorry. He was a great man. Volkov knew he’d passed away. He meant he wished he could see you. He said you were his one friend in the United States.”
“Okay. So he wants to see an old friend?”
“Come on, Nate. The KGB station chief meets with the State Department’s top Russian expert and brings up your name for no good reason?”
“Because he knows we were friends.”
“And he thinks he can trust you.” Kennedy shook his head. “I want you to get in touch with him.”
“What do I know about politics and diplomacy? I sell engineering instruments in California.”
“Sometime it’s more important who a man is than what he knows.” “Maybe I’ve changed since 1940.”
He shook his head. “I don’t think so. Being president means putting bets down on people. No matter what happened between us, I know you have a good head on your shoulders, and your war record shows you are more than competent. I’m comfortable betting on you.”
“But….” I started.
He waved away my interruption. “Here’s what I am uncomfortable with – figuring out why the Russkies think you’d be a better channel than an official one. Here’s a guess – Khrushchev wants a direct channel to the White House, one that some powerful faction in the Kremlin who wants war doesn’t know about.”
I could ignore the flattery. It was political b.s. Still, I leaned even closer to him. “So what do you want me to do?”
“Talk to your old friend. Have a vodka. And find out what it would take to get out of this mess. Just listen and come back and tell me what he says. That’s all. Don’t worry. I’m not counting on you to save the world.”
“A good thing,” I said.
“If there’s nothing there, no harm done. All you’ve missed is selling a few more oscilloscopes.”
I hadn’t mentioned that I sold oscilloscopes.
“Do I need some kind of CIA briefing?” I asked.
“I’d rather the CIA didn’t even know what you were up to just now. They don’t appreciate amateurs getting in the way.
“Makes sense to me. They’re pros. They must know what they’re doing.”
“Not always,” Kennedy said with a wince. “Remember how well the pros did at the Bay of Pigs.”
Three months into his presidency, CIA-sponsored forces, who were supposed to rally a popular overthrow of Castro’s regime, had instead been routed on a Cuban beach.
“Good point, but do you really think Volkov will tell me something you don’t know?”
He shook his head. “Nope. You’re probably here for nothing. Still, if there’s a one in a million chance that having you talk to Volkov will do some good, I’ve gotta take it.”
What choice did I have? Kennedy was an expert angler. He’d used the fate of the country as bait. I’d bitten and he’d reeled me in. Just like he knew he would.