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Thank You, Vasili Arkhipov

by | Jun 22, 2021


Thank You, Vasili Arkhipov                                                  

October 27, 1962


The world, booked in alphabetical order,

lined the shelves of the dimly lit den

where my brother and I dawdled

over grade school homework. I fingered

through the solar system, sun flares, red mars,

moons and a diagram of Sputnik.

My brother was assigned a war.

It was late.


Father came in to say good night, but sat

instead. What did you do in school today?

And we told him about the drill, about

the sirens and curling up under our desks,

covering our heads in case the bomb came.

Oh, he said, sank onto the sofa and was quiet.

Then he looked up. Who’s supposed

to fill the fish tank?


He strode to the kitchen; we heard him banging

around until he returned with three plastic jugs:

washed and reused bottles Mother kept for water

storage. In the basement she lined up

her jam, canned beans, asparagus, tomatoes

and cherries around the ledges of the coal bin,

but she crowded the jugs under her kitchen sink

for when the bomb came.


We watched Father empty all three bottles

into the aquarium, swirling the azure fighting fish,

neon tetras, angel and clown fish above

party-colored rocks, the castle and a row

of fake trees. But the smell. Pungent. Acrid.

Oh Hell Father shouted. Clorox. The castle,

the little trees, lost all color. The fish flashed

iridescent. We could see


their now transparent bodies, their delicate back bones,

scooped up in my father’s hands. Soon nothing,

not even an outline or shadow, and the rocks—

pure white in a matter of a minute.

The aquarium—wiped out. Every fish, dead.

The shining empty water.



Vasili Arkipov, a senior Russian Naval Officer, prevented nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis. He refused to authorize his submarine captain’s firing of nuclear torpedoes at the U.S. Navy who were dropping depth charges on the Russians and the east coast of the U.S. The decision required three senior Russian officers to agree to fire the nuclear weapons and Arkipov would not agree. “This was not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. It was the most dangerous moment in human history.” Arthur M. Schlesinger, advisor to the John F. Kennedy Administration.






Versions of this poem have appeared in Kakalak Anthology and Women’s Voices for Change


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