“Life turns on a dime.” – Stephen King, in “11/22/63”

National Archive# NN33300514 2005-06-30 Releas...

National Archive# NN33300514 2005-06-30 Released to Public ID: DF-SC-84-07332 Service Depicted: Navy A Polaris A3 fleet ballistic missile lifts off at 12:33 p.m. EST during a launch from the nuclear-powered strategic missile submarine USS ROBERT E. LEE (SSBN-601). The launch is taking place on the Eastern Test Range. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mollie and I had been looking forward to reading King’s new novel ever since it came out last year, but we decided to delay until we could read it together and discuss it in parallel during a cruise. The plan worked out really well; she read it on her kindle and I on the iPad while we cruised the eastern Caribbean. What made this extra pleasurable is the nostalgia the book held for us, and that we could discuss it as we read along.

It’s not giving too much away, I think, to tell you that “11/22/63” is about time travel, possibly through parallel universes, and an attempt to alter history by preventing John F. Kennedy’s assassination. King has always had a rare ability to take outlandish notions and make them seem real, and he has never been more effective at that than in this book. One way he does it is to envision the past as being resistant to change, or in his word, “obdurate”. Clever. But that clever plot device is simply a way of overdosing the reader on nostalgia for the era and enabling a rip-roaring action plot and appealing characters. In our opinion the book is one of King’s best. The kindle-for-iPad software edition even offers a bonus at the end of the book- a 13 minute film of Kennedy’s time, produced and narrated by King.

Kennedy’s era is particularly appealing to us because that was when we started out as young adults – we were married in 1960 and that was our time. Submarine school in 1961, then first submarine duty in Pearl Harbor. Kennedy visited Hawaii and we saw his motorcade pass by when we were there, albeit at a distance. The Interstate Highway System was just being built – we drove on some parts of it on our way to the West Coast. (I remember that Missouri seemed to have the best highways then.) Our car had no air conditioning then – it was rare – and the “motor courts” often didn’t either that hot summer of 1961.

The Cuban Missile Crisis – I remember outfitting the boat with war-shot torpedoes and supplies throughout the night. We had to load for a 90-day war patrol and had so many canned goods that some had to be stacked in the passageways – we were walking on food! Duty at the Naval Ordnance Test Unit at Cape Canaveral in 1964, helping launch real missiles down range. I was one of the Test Engineers and often was stationed aboard the Polaris boat, counting down the launch over the underwater telephone to the monitoring ship.  (King notes in the book that Kennedy visited the Cape to observe the launch of a Polaris Missile about 1962.) And one other aspect of life then – everybody smoked. So many memories roil up from King’s careful research.

The passing of Dick Clark now propels an added wave of nostalgia to roil the memories. What an interesting concept it is, to think of the immutable past. To think of the choices that were and how things might have been if those choices had been made differently. What if . . . ? King gives the reader a glimpse of what he thinks might be possible, including some political speculation.  He surprised me with that.

Life really does turn on a dime.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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16 Responses to Nostalgia

  1. ansonburlingame says:

    Indeed the book is a great read.

    But I gained some insight near the end of the book as well wherein King showed a “possible” and very different “new world” wherein Kennedy had NOT been killed. Kennedy lives and this is the world we inherited as a result. And of course that world is terrible.

    In other words, King gave us a fictional account of unintended consequences, far different than the utopia some might have expected had Kennedy continued as President.

    We can all imagine what the world might look like today had both John and Robert Kennedy lived and worked in government for the duration of normal lives. But such is nothing more than fantasy, a concocted “what if”. It is also fantasy with political spin applied as well, from either side, but again it is not REAL.

    Consider this. King writes a book entitled 11/6/2012, the day of our coming presidential election. That evening the winner of the election is killed by a madman.

    Now would you care to read the possible outcomes in such fantasy? If King were to write such a book, I am sure it would be a “good read”, perhaps even thought provoking. But even the mighty King can only guess as to the future in such a book.

    NO ONE can predict the future. Our best “guesses” are usually looking for ways to see how history might repeat itself, based on historical facts. But even then there are always potential unintended consequences that result from new laws and governance.



  2. ansonburlingame says:

    Sorry, but one other thought or comment.

    I believe King’s best book was The Stand. It was a classic presentation of Good vs. Evil, with Good winning out in the end, but only in the end of the first book.

    King has now written new parts of the original book. And Evil is observed “washing up on the shore” after the earlier triumph of Good. The rest is left to the imagination of the reader.



  3. PiedType says:

    I’d not heard of this book, but the premise is certainly fascinating. King can spin quite a yarn. More interesting to me is hearing that your submarine duty had you so close to the Cuban missile crisis. I can’t remember a more frightening time for this country. I distinctly recall reading about the range of those missiles and drawing circles on a map to see if they could reach Oklahoma City.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Just so, PT. I too remember the very real awareness of the threat in the public consciousness, the reality heightened not only by Hiroshima and Nagasaki but the Pacific tests of increasingly larger H-bombs and newsreels of first Russia’s and then China’s tests. I suspect that few young people today realize what a miracle was achieved by our country’s all-out nuclear deterrence strategy. The Polaris tests I mentioned were tangible evidence of this, not only to our public but to our Communist foes. Every crew of every new Polaris submarine submarine had to conduct an actual launch of a missile that flew to a target on the Eastern Test Range. The program was called DASO, short for Demonstration And Shakedown Operation. The same applied for boats coming out of overhaul. In my opinion the technical achievements involved in the Polaris Program were greater than those of the moon missions. They included designing a nuclear-powered submerged platform able to hover beneath the surface, launch a nuclear solid-fuel rocket (also new) submerged while compensating for the weight change, miniaturized inertial guidance for the missile and navigation for the sub, the GPS satellite system, and covert communications, all combined with hundreds of lesser innovations. It was breath-takingly successful and the concept still protects the world today.


  4. John Erickson says:

    Is King’s history fairly accurate? If so, I’ll have to see about picking this book up. I’ll have to rely on Mr. Kinggiving me accurate history, though – I was a bit young at the time (like, not born until the end of 1962).
    Finally, a list where I’m NOT the “old fart in residence”! 😉


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      So far as I can tell John, King is accurate on all the big facts. In the afterword of the book he says that he did not adhere to reality in some of the small stuff, like street names and the like I think. But, IMO you can rely on the story for a very good sense of the era. And yes, all this nostalgia is making me feel my age. 🙄


  5. ansonburlingame says:


    Jim for sure speaks the truth for “those days”. I would also point out that those early Polaris missiles had a range of about 1,200 miles. A submarine had to be very close to the Soviet Union back then to be able to “deter” and each missile only had one warhead, a big one no doubt, but still only one.

    I commissioned the first Trident submarine with 24, not 16 missiles with each missile carrying more that XXX warheads with a range of over 6,000 miles!!. ONE Trident missile could “take out” the entire East Coast of America from Boston thru NYC and on to Washington, DC. And we had 24 such missiles ready to launch withibn 15 minutes at any time during the Cold War.

    THAT is exactly why the Soviets “backed down” during the Cuban MIssile crisis in my view. It was pure and simple strategic calculation. And that as well is why we never pushed too far against the Soviets.

    THAT, Pied, is nuclear deterrence in it’s simple form. And most Americans have no idea about such “thinking”. It is a “power versus power” calculation and is going on in Iran today, as we speak, like it or not!!

    And as we speak about Iran today, it seems that they have “done the math” and are now willing to retreat, maybe, from obtaining a nuclear arsenal. Power vs. Power wins again, in my view.



    • PiedType says:

      Just to clarify — it was the range of the Russian missiles, had they been based in Cuba, that I was worried about. As I recall from my compass arcs, they could have reached the SE corner of Oklahoma, but not Oklahoma City. I used to worry, too, about whether an attack on Tinker Air Force Base would affect me directly, and calculated that I would be safe initially because Tinker was in the far SE corner of the metro and I live in the far NW.

      Yes, I have some idea about the deterrent effect of our submarine-based missliles. I can’t imagine any foreign power being foolish enough to ignore their existence and invisible mobility. I sleep better knowing they are out there.


  6. I enjoyed reading this today, Jim, and came back to re-read it tonight. My husband and I also read books together, though we haven’t advanced beyond the turn-the-paper-pages books. Sometimes we have two copies, sometimes we just pass the book back and forth, taking turns reading aloud. That’s the way we read the Philip Pullman trilogy, His Dark Materials. One of my all-time favorites.

    We started Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale aloud, but I lost interest and he finished reading it to himself. Right now we’re reading The Greater Journey together, but each with our own copy (one from the library).

    I’ve never read Stephen King. At least, I don’t think so. The one you describe does sound interesting. I should probably put Stephen King on my list. I gather you recommend this one.

    I hope we’ll get to see some photos of your eastern Caribbean cruise.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I read The Greater Journey last year and liked it, Helen, although I must say that parts of it got a little tedious for me. What I mainly liked it for was to get a sense of the intellectual culture in that era. The King book might be looked on as somewhat similar, except take out the “intellectual”. I should warn you that King, although he is no lightweight writer, uses some rough language in his books, but again, it’s culturally on point. If you do try it I would be very interested in your reaction. Thanks for your comments – we have things in common. I will have to check out Pullman.


      • I’m also finding The Greater Journey to be tedious is places. As to King’s rough language, that may be why I haven’t read him. I don’t recall, but that is the sort of thing that would tell me, Not for me.
        I remember reading Larry Beinhart’s The Librarian — I loved it! But there was one chapter, just one chapter, in which the language made me blush. I wanted to recommend this book to my 12 and 16 year old granddaughter and grandson, but that one chapter — because of that one chapter, I didn’t. I do, however, recommend it to you 🙂


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I went to and downloaded their sample of The Golden Compass. I can see why you would like it – this kind of fantasy mesmerized me as a child, a rich broth of vocabulary, technology and alien (to a colonist) culture served up with adventure. It is the same kind of recipes I so enjoyed with Lewis Carroll, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury and the like. I was impressed too to see that Pullman’s advocates on his Wikipedia page included Christopher Hitchens, that he admires William Blake, and that his critics include Focus on the Family and the Catholic Church. These are all good reasons for admiration, IMHO. Alas, I fear I’m a little too long in the tooth to pursue the trilogy now, but I can and do appreciate your perspective in liking it.


  7. ansonburlingame says:

    Cuba is 90 miles from our southern coast. And your missile arc calculations at that time were reasonable. Also at that time our Polaris fleet was just coming on line. The Soviets followed up a few years later with their “Yankee” class SSBNs. Again the range of those early sub launched ballistic missiles was in thre realm of about 1,200 miles, both ours and theirs.

    Today technology on hand both on our side and the Russian side put missilies for submarines with almost world wide reach as soon as they leave their home ports. China now has at least one such SSBN and building more as we speak as well. As far as I know, no one else has such capability.

    I blogged over a year ago that one key element to watch was Russia redeploying a modest fleet of SSBNs. And they have done so of late. We know of at least one such ship in the last year of so that was “on patrol” in the western Atlantic, at least for a while.

    My point of course is that we have had an ongoing “Cuban Missile Crisis” on our hands, in terms of “enemy missiles” nearby, for now approaching 50 years. And in my view they “ain’t going away” in my lifetime, nor that of my kids, I suspect.

    Another point to consider as well. By the late 60’s both the Soviets and America had somewhere around 10,000 (each) warheads for all their missiles and long range planes. Then in the late 70’s we began the START process to reduce the number of such warheads.

    Today we are limited by treaty to about 1,500 such warheads, each side. Within the last year, the Obama administration was considering to bring our warhead count down to some 300 or so total warheads and they were going to “consider” doing so unilaterally, without concurrent reductions in the world elsewhere.

    WHY were they so considering such unilateral action? Cost reductions. Given such a self imposed limit we could be down to slightly more than ONE Trident submarine holding our entire nuclear deterrence “package”. To me THAT becomes a new “Cuban Missile Crisis” all by itself but we do not read such concerns in the media anywhere.

    And if you care to use 1500 warheads of “their side” today you will find no place to hide anywhere in America. MIssile arcs from both east and west would overlap all across America today.



    • PiedType says:

      Obviously then, to maintain worldwide coverage and deterrence, our remaining 300 (or whatever) missiles would be doled out to several widely dispersed Tridents, not just one. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, etc. I don’t know what the magic number is, but once we have enough missiles on hand to destroy the world (or all possible enemy nations), maintaining any more than that would be an unnecessary expense. Are you saying 300 is too low a number to accomplish that?


  8. ansonburlingame says:

    I was typing a longer reply and “lost it” to word press. Direct answer is I am OK with 1500 as a treaty limit. I am NOT ok with a unilateral limit of 300 on just our side.

    It is not about the ability to “destroy the world”. It IS about the ability to deter the use of nuclear weapons by ANYONE, any where in the future. The complexity of that issue increases, geometrically, as non-ploiferation becomes ineffective to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons capability.

    Much more could be said on the matter, but I leave it at that for now.



  9. ansonburlingame says:

    To all,

    Low and behold, after opining in the above comments about nuclear deterrence, I found this column in the Wash Post this Monday morning. Go to:

    It was written by Kissenger and Scrowcroft, two icons in the world of “nuclear thinking”.



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