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Thank You, Vasili Arkhipov, a Poem by Nora Hutton Shepard

by | Jan 23, 2023

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 Arkhipov, a senior Russian Naval Officer, prevented nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He refused authorization to fire nuclear torpedoes at the US Navy and the east coast of the U.S. His submarine had lost all communications to Moscow and other Russian subs in the area because of the heavy damage his submarine had sustained from the depth charges of the U.S. Navy. The decision required three senior Russian officers to agree to fire the nuclear weapons and Arkhipov would not agree.” This was not only the most dangerous moment in 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

Nora Hutton Shepard

Nora Hutton Shepard is a poet and alumna of N.C. State’s Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing program, as well a graduate of the MFA Writer’s Program at Warren Wilson College. She taught poetry courses at N.C. State before relocating to Davidson in 2019 to be closer to her daughter’s family. Nora has quickly acclimated to life in Davidson and is a wonderful addition to our Community.

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