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In October 1962, the State of Florida was an armed encampment. Troops were dispersed from Jacksonville to Key West. Hundreds of military ships lingered not far offshore. Terrified South Floridians descended on grocery stores as if the mother of all hurricanes were on its way.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was unfolding, and the United States was closer to the brink of nuclear war with the Russians than at any other point in history. The military leaders in JFK's inner circle were almost unanimous in arguing that the country must invade Cuba to stop the proliferation of nuclear missiles so close to our shores.
Few places are appropriately dramatic enough to ponder the near end of the world, but Peanut Island in Palm Beach County is one such locale. At one point the island was slated to house a terminal for shipping peanut oil but ended up as home to a nuclear-bomb shelter. If the Russkies happened to strike while President Kennedy was hanging out at Joe and Rose's place on Palm Beach, Peanut Island would have become his temporary home.
In order to explore this local piece of Cold War history, I grabbed my tent, sleeping bag, a pint of Jim Beam, and a copy of Thirteen Days, Robert Kennedy's memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I then headed off to this 79-acre, man-made clump of pine trees and sand just off Riviera Beach. For those who are not among the boated gentry, there are two places from which to catch a water taxi to Peanut Island: the Riviera Beach Marina and Phil Foster Park. The ride will set you back five bucks.
When I set foot on the island, the area around the docks was swarming with boats idling in the water, the passengers drinking beer and soaking up the sun. Pelicans circled the island, occasionally dive-bombing into the water to snap up fish. Hard by the docks were the reserved campsites, cute little sandboxes adorned with cute little palm trees, the camping equivalent of a planned community. One of these will set you back $16.50 per night and afford zero privacy. Of course I, as an explorer, headed instead to the section reserved for "primitive" camping.
This camping area is set in a dense thicket of pines and sabal palms on the northwest section of the island. Depending on the tides, you may have to wade into the water and around the wildly tilting trees just to find a spot. I found a secluded campsite under cover of woods, pitched camp, and went off in search of the Kennedy bunker.
The bunker is run by the Palm Beach Maritime Museum, and tours are offered four times per day. A sign is still attached to the chainlink fence surrounding the bunker that reads, "Keep Out. Magazine Area." This was the official story when the bunker was being built, that it was actually a munitions dump.
I and about a dozen other tourists entered through the steel door, painted in a queer camouflage of green, peach, and tan. The entranceway is a circular tunnel made of corrugated steel. We turned to the left and soon were in the room that would have housed John and Jackie and 18 others if nuclear war had broken out while they were in Palm Beach. The shelter is thought to be made of steel, several feet of concrete, and a lead shell. Nobody knows for sure, because the blueprints have never been found. Ten pairs of bunks used to fill the cozy room, along with enough cold military rations and other supplies to last for 30 days. Kennedy visited the bunker in 1961, along with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
Very few of the original furnishings remain from when the bunker was operative. In later years it became a home for vagrants on the island and then was taken over by the museum in 1995.
Back at camp I dug into Thirteen Days (as well as the bottle of Jim Beam), Robert Kennedy's minute-by-minute account of the inner workings of the President's brain trust reads more like a political science primer than a taut thriller, but the essential terror of the time is adequately conveyed. The world was on the verge of all-out nuclear war. Nobody on either side wanted this to happen, but nobody seemed to be really in control. One wrong move and the precipice to carnage might have been crossed.
By the time darkness fell, the tide had encroached far enough that I was stranded within the pine trees, alone. The water crashed on shore, drowning out all other sounds. It was peculiar to be so secluded, yet surrounded by lights. To the north I could see the Blue Heron bridge, to the west the lights of Riviera Beach, to the east the comfy homes of Singer Island.
Then a series of horn blasts shattered the quiet, giving notice that the SunCruz Casino boat moored nearby was on its way out for the night. It shook me out of my reverie, and I realized the Cold War was long over. Civilization had prevailed.
Peanut Island bunker, Palm Beach Maritime Museum, 561-842-8202.