Poetry Sunday:
“Thank You, Vasili Arkhipov, October 27, 1962,”
by Nora Hutton Shepard

Thank You, Vasili Arkhipov, October 27, 1962

The world, booked in alphabetical order,
lined the shelves in the dimly lit den
where my brother and I dawdled
over the encyclopedias. 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, about curling up under our desks,
covering our heads in case the bomb came.
Oh, he said sinking into the sofa and was quiet.
Then he looked up. Whose turn is it
to fill the fish tank?

He went to the kitchen: we heard him rumbling
around until he returned with three plastic jugs.
Mother kept these reused bottles to store
drinking water. In the basement she lined up
her jams, canned beans, asparagus, tomatoes,
and cherries around the ledges of the coal bin,
but she stowed these jugs under the 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. Bleach. The castle,
the little trees, lost all color. The fish flashed
silver like water.


First published in Kakalak 2014 (Main Street Rag 2014), an anthology of North and South Carolina poets, and published with permission of the author.


Nora Hutton Shepard graduated from Hollins University with a degree in Creative Writing and American Literature. Following graduation, she wrote educational programs for the North Carolina Museum of Art, and Shepard’s own paintings are found in various collections around North Carolina. Married with two daughters and founding president of a community arts school, Arts Together, she found her poems sidelined: tucked into books, written on the backs of matchbooks, envelopes, grocery receipts, and into casserole dishes in the pantry. She found them when she moved after being widowed at the age of forty-seven and then began her next study of poetry. Age fifty-five brought an MFA in Creative Writing from NC State and a second MFA from Warren Wilson five years later. Nora taught Creative Writing and Poetry at NC State for twelve years. Her poems have appeared most recently in The Cortland Review, Great River Review, and Poet Lore. Shepard writes and maintains her husband’s business interests in Raleigh, NC, where she was born.


Poet’s Note

Vasili Arkhipov, a senior Russian Naval Officer, prevented a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He refused to authorize his submarine captain to fire nuclear torpedoes at the U.S. Naval ships that were dropping depth charges on the Russian subs. The decision required three senior Russian officers to agree to fire the nuclear weapons, and Arkhipov would not agree.

I first learned about the valor of Arkhipov, a Soviet B-59 submarine commander, from a documentary on the Cuban Missile Crisis. I am old enough to remember practicing handy-dandy techniques for surviving a nuclear blast. Fifty years later I was amazed to learn that the hero, who delivered us from the brink of destruction, was Russian. His valor becomes personal when I reflect on my childhood. Here I offer both apology and gratitude for the heroism unknown by the people he saved.

Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • mickey monroe August 5, 2018 at 1:32 pm

    Great poem. I regret to admit I don’t always read the poetry. This one triggered the thought: Where was I on October 27, 1962? Was I even vaguely aware of the crisis? I was 14 years old. Anyway, thanks so very much. And I, too, thank that stalwart Russian who ‘saved’ the world.
    I couldn’t find a photo credit for the submarine. Did they still have a machine gun or whatever it is on the decks of submarines then? More thanks.