A Place We Knew Well

A Novel

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“Susan Carol McCarthy blends fact, memory, imagination and truth with admirable grace,” said The Washington Post of the author’s critically acclaimed debut novel, Lay That Trumpet in Our Hands. Now McCarthy returns with another enthralling story of a family—their longings, their fears, and their secrets—swept up in the chaos at the height of the Cold War, perfect for fans of Caroline Leavitt, Laura Moriarty, and Ellen Feldman.
Late October, 1962. Wes Avery, a one-time Air Force tail-gunner, is living his version of the American Dream as loving husband to Sarah, doting father to seventeen-year-old Charlotte, and owner of a successful Texaco station along central Florida’s busiest highway. But after President Kennedy announces that the Soviets have nuclear missiles in Cuba, Army convoys clog the highways and the sky fills with fighter planes. Within days, Wes’s carefully constructed life begins to unravel.
Sarah, nervous and watchful, spends more and more time in the family’s bomb shelter, slipping away into childhood memories and the dreams she once held for the future. Charlotte is wary but caught up in the excitement of high school—her nomination to homecoming court, the upcoming dance, and the thrill of first love. Wes, remembering his wartime experience, tries to keep his family’s days as normal as possible, hoping to restore a sense of calm. But as the panic over the Missile Crisis rises, a long-buried secret threatens to push the Averys over the edge.
With heartbreaking clarity and compassion, Susan Carol McCarthy captures the shock and innocence, anxiety and fear, in those thirteen historic days, and brings vividly to life one ordinary family trying to hold center while the world around them falls apart.
Praise for A Place We Knew Well
“Gripping . . . Even as those tense days of the Cuban Missile Crisis are depicted in unwavering detail and with inexorable dread, the intimate moments between human beings on the verge of the apocalypse stand out. This multilayered story will remain with you long after you turn the last page.”—Melanie Benjamin, New York Times bestselling author of The Aviator’s Wife
“Susan Carol McCarthy makes a nightmarish moment in America’s recent past terrifyingly immediate and devastatingly personal. This was what it was like to live, and even more astonishingly, to go on loving—as a husband, as a wife, as a young girl on the cusp of womanhood—with the threat of nuclear annihilation hovering only miles offshore.”—Ellen Feldman, author of Next to Love
“Susan Carol McCarthy’s genius is in turning history over to muscle-and-blood human beings who variously hope, fear, lash out, hold steady, and tear at the seams. If you weren’t there, this is as close to living through the Cuban Missile Crisis as you will ever come.”—Tom McNeal, author of To Be Sung Underwater
“Riveting.”Kirkus Reviews
“Powerful . . . McCarthy vividly evokes a turbulent time in her state’s recent past. . . . [She] memorably captures the impact of the intense military mobilization on residents. But the novel’s greatest strength is its seamless portrayal of what this international chess game means for one man on the brink of losing everything.”Booklist

Under the Cover

An excerpt from A Place We Knew Well


12:42 p.m., Friday, October 19, 1962

Wes Avery stood at the back of the Plymouth wagon holstering the nozzle on the silver Sky Chief pump. He noted the amount, spun the gas cap closed, then turned to scan the traffic in the busy intersection where Princeton crossed the Trail. Still no sign of the parts truck from Holler Chevrolet or the special-­order camshaft he’d been promised “by noon, Wes . . . one at the latest.” He pictured dragster Jimmy Cope’s hopeful face, convinced the new Crower cam would drop his quarter-­mile ET from the low 13s to the high 12s in tonight’s “Run What Ya Brung” race at the Big O Speedway. Hope springs eternal, Avery was thinking, but . . . no part, no start.

Just then a sharp, shrill scream sent him quick-­stepping to the wagon’s rider-­side window.

The baby had startled awake with the kind of heart-­piercing shriek that scares the bejeezus out of new parents and jerks even experienced ones alert with a worried “Now what?”

Behind the wheel Marjorie Cook lunged sideways, hands outstretched, spilling the contents of her open purse everywhere.

Pelted by a pair of shiny lipsticks and the pointy end of a rat-­tail comb, the baby yelped even louder and bucked herself perilously close to the edge of the bench seat. Seeing what was bound to happen next, Avery ducked his head and thrust in his arm. Just as the child fell, face-­first, toward the floorboard, he grasped a wad of pink shirttail and hauled her back up to safety. She was really squalling now. Her little arms and legs flailed every which way, as he handed her gently over to her mother.

Marjorie’s face, pale and frozen a moment ago, flushed blotchy red with relief. “Oh, Mr. A!” she said, eyes wide with what-­if.

In the backseat, three-­year-­old Tommy squinched up his face, stuck his fingers in his ears, and cried, “Mommmmy, make her stop!”

Beside him J.J., his barely older brother, snapped, “Shaddup, wouldya,” and launched a swift kick at Tommy’s sneakered foot.

As little Tommy dissolved into howling outrage, J.J. retreated to his corner and met his mother’s over-­the-­shoulder glare—­“You boys!”—­with an innocent shrug. “I didn’t do nuthin’,” he insisted.

The bald-­faced lie launched his brother onto him with fists flying.

“Tommy, stop that . . . now,” Marjorie hissed.

Avery shifted his gaze, backseat to front, wondering, What the heck happened? Only minutes ago, the baby girl was sound asleep, the boys drowsing in the back. A sleeping cherub, he’d thought, cleaning the windshield: same blond curls and pink cheeks as her mother, same fairy dust of freckles as both her big brothers. But now the pink cherub was flaming red, tiny lips calibrating a frightened cry into a furious screech.

“It’s okay, Lissie, you’re okay . . . ,” Marjorie was saying when, abruptly, they both heard what the baby’s sensitive ears must have picked up ahead of them: the high, keening squeal and thunderous rumble of massive turbojet intake roaring into view.

Avery raised his head to watch the two B-­52 bombers, monstrous eight-­engine Stratoforts from Orlando’s SAC base, climb into standard three-­ship cell formation. Their companion, a huge KC-­135 Stratotanker, lumbered behind, refueling boom at the rear retracted like a scorpion’s stinger at rest.

Odd time for takeoff, he thought, as the air, the very ground beneath his feet, trembled under the combined jet power passing overhead. And poor Marjorie, as the engines’ roar set off another round of pained howls inside the car.

Avery slid a practiced eye, courtesy of the United States Army Air Forces, over the second bomber’s sleek silver fuselage to the manned quad-­fifty turret at its tail. Catching the shadowy shape of the tail-­gunner there, he raised a commiserating hand. Normally, the big birds of the Strategic Air Command left mid-­evening, carrying their heavy bombs in long figure-­eight patterns east over the Atlantic, past Gibraltar to a tight turnaround just short of the Soviet border then back, with the help of in-­flight refueling, around sunset the following day. Leaving now meant a long, late-­night flight home over black water—­which always upped the ante on a potential SNAFU.

“Ohhhhhh . . . ,” Marjorie bristled, “I’d like to throttle the guy schedules a gol-­durn exercise during naptime!” She’d wrestled the baby to her shoulder. “There, there, Lissie,” she murmured, patting the plump cloth-­diapered behind. She blew a damp strand of hair out of her face and looked over the scattered mess of her purse. “My wallet,” she said, frowning, “it’s here somewhere.”

Avery nodded sympathy. “Look . . .” He chucked his chin toward the groceries in the back. “Your ice cream’s melting, and so’s that little cupcake. I’ll make a note. You drop by later, anytime tomorrow; we’ll settle up then.”

Marjorie resisted, at first—­“Oh no, I’ll just . . .”—­but he waited while she worked out the logic: If she left right now and put the kids straight to bed, she’d have time to take in the groceries, repack her purse, maybe put in a load of laundry before they were up again clamoring for Adventures with Uncle Walt.

He shot a wink at the two boys in the backseat, sullen and sulking in their respective corners. Some other day he’d tell them that smiling, mustachioed Walt Sickles—­WDBO-­TV’s popular Uncle Walt—­lived just up the road in Lockhart and was a regular customer, same as them.

Resolved, Marjorie fired the ignition. “Thank you,” she called over the baby’s blubbering. “You’re a peach!”

Avery acknowledged the compliment with a modest show of both palms. He stepped back to wave her off, but his hand dropped midair at the shimmy in her left rear tire. He’d have to check that when she returned.


Steve stood in the office doorway holding up their lunch pails. Avery nodded and, with another quick glance at the traffic, strode inside. On a small pad, he wrote Marjorie’s name and $5.58 gas debt—­Marjorie Cook she was now, he reminded himself, not Franklin as she’d been in high school. He added Ck. Rr. Shimmy, then punched open the cash drawer and slipped the note into the twenties slot.

Steve put their pails on the desk beside the chessboard he’d retrieved from the bottom drawer. As Avery took the swivel chair, long legs stretched out to the side, Steve sat down opposite on the station stool.

Squat, ropy-­armed, with a steel-­gray buzz cut and a petty officer’s swagger, Steve had a two-­pack-­a-­day habit (Camels unfiltered) and, according to Avery’s daughter, Charlotte, “the face of a sad, old hound dog.” His real name was Ira Stephens, but shipmates called him Steve during the war and that’s what he had embroidered on the white name patch of his Texaco-­green uniform. While Avery flew in B-­29s over Japan, Steve had been a gunner’s mate at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Their widely differing views on warfare showed up in their chess play: Steve’s strategy was naval, full speed ahead to capture the center and continually attack, while Avery was more circumspect, deflecting from the outside then diving into a defensive weakness. “Backward into battle,” he called it, the tail-­gunner’s mantra.

Steve watched Avery pop the top on his RC Cola and study the game in progress without comment. Although they were both the same age, forty-­two, Avery was a head taller, still airman-­slim and, in Steve’s mind, solid as the day was long. Lately, however, he’d seen the tiredness puffing Avery’s eyes, the worry tugging at his lips, and couldn’t help but wonder . . .

“What?” Avery asked, catching his stare.

“Sleep much?”

Avery shrugged him off.

Steve bit into his bologna and cheese, took a swig of his cola, then pressed, “Everything okay on the home front?”

Avery dropped his gaze to the board. It wasn’t his nature to complain. Besides, even though he considered Steve his best friend, he felt it would be disloyal to Sarah to say, My beautiful wife doesn’t sleep, hardly eats; she seems tied up in knots, constantly on edge, yet she can’t or won’t say why. . . .

Instead, Avery short-­castled his king and said quietly, “Fine, everything’s fine.”

Steve heard the hesitation, though it lasted only a fraction of a second. He was considering his next move when, suddenly, another thunderous three-­ship flyover rattled the front windows and clanked the empties stacked next to the Coke cooler.

“Laggin’ today!” he said, scowling.

As quiet gradually returned, Avery chewed the inside of his cheek. Summer out at the base had been nuts with “large joint military exercises in the Caribbean,” the Orlando Sentinel reported. “Gettin’ ready to kick out Castro,” locals added cheerfully. But for the past two months, things had settled back down to normal with the usual flurry of evening takeoffs and just-­past-­sunset returns.

A short while later, as Steve bent to light his after-­lunch cigarette, a third flyover obliterated the flip and click of his navy Zippo.

Avery checked his watch. They were spacing the takeoffs twelve minutes apart. He uncrossed his legs, leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and rolled his shoulders against the ball of tightness at the base of his neck.

Thirteen minutes later, he did the math: Four flyovers meant eight long-­range bombers plus four tankers were in the air—­over half the 4047th Strategic Wing based out at McCoy.

Normally, no more than a third of the wing was gone. Half the wing gone meant something was up. Something big.

Avery shut his lunch pail and stood to stretch his legs. Had Khrushchev made good on his threat against Berlin? Recalling the Krazy Komrade’s latest rant—­“Berlin is the testicles of the West. Every time I want the West to scream, I squeeze on Berlin.”—­he switched on the station radio for the top-­of-­the-­hour news.

At two o’clock, WABR reported that President Kennedy had left Washington for Chicago on “a three-­day, seven-­state campaign trip in support of upcoming midterm elections.” If this was an international crisis, Avery reasoned, surely the President would have stayed at the White House. Steve shelved the still-­unfinished game and returned to the tune-­up in his service bay.

Avery walked out to ask the Holler Chevy delivery guy, “Since when did ‘one at the latest’ mean two oh eight?” He carried the stock boxes into his bay, popped the hood on Jimmy Cope’s ’61 Roman Red Impala SS (feared and revered locally as “Brutus”), and began the careful process of removing the old camshaft and installing the new one, plus lifters and triple valve springs.

By three o’clock, four more flyovers meant the entire wing was in the air. In seventeen years here, that had never happened.

“This is no exercise,” he told Steve. “More like a complete evacuation.”

“Why? What now?” they wondered.

A battered brown Ford coupe pulled through the pumps and parked beside the office. The driver, a young man in a white short-­sleeved shirt, skinny black tie, and coffee-­stained suit pants, wandered into the service bays.

“Joe Riley,” he said, addressing both mechanics, “Orlando Sentinel, looking for Mr. Wes Avery?”

“You found me,” Avery said, wiping his hands on a red work rag to offer the guy a shake.

“Oh!” Riley blinked pale eyes as if he couldn’t believe his luck. His face spread into a delighted grin.

The guy’s youth, his red-­peppered freckles and rust-­colored hair, made Avery think, Jimmy Olsen, cub reporter, in the flesh. Resisting the urge to ask, Where’s Clark Kent? he said instead, “What can I do you for?”

“Well, I was just at your house, interviewing Mrs. Avery about the big show on Sunday. You know, Civil Defense?”

“Yup.” Preparations by the Civil Defense Committee of the Orlando Women’s Club had consumed Sarah’s every waking hour for weeks.

“Got a peek inside your bomb shelter. Pretty nifty.”

Avery shrugged. “Came with the new house. Fellow we bought from built it.”

“Yeah, your wife said that. She also said . . .” Riley pulled a flip-­top notebook out of his back pocket and thumbed through the pages. “Here it is. . . .” His hushed tone oozed reverence. “You helped drop The Bomb on Japan?”

- About the author -

Susan Carol McCarthy is the award-winning author of three novels, Lay That Trumpet in Our Hands, True Fires, and A Place We Knew Well, and the nonfiction Boomers 101: The Definitive Collection. Her debut novel received the Chautauqua South Fiction Prize and has been widely selected by libraries and universities for their One Book, One Community and Freshman Year Read programs. A native Floridian, she lives in Carlsbad, California.

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— Published by Bantam —