This story is in the Growing Up New Jersey collection, a series of vignettes slouching their way into becoming a book. See more vignettes in this collection at the Short Stories &c. link above.
Some months just stand out. October 1957 is one of those months.
That was the month the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth. On October 4, 1957, to be exact. If you were around in October 1957, you’d know that Americans saw the world differently after that date.
As a 7-year-old, it seemed like a pretty awesome accomplishment. Whatever it meant. But I guess adults, some adults, anyway, saw it differently.
Take my mother, for example. She’d have me say my prayers before going to bed, kneeling down beside my bed, prayers that went:
Okay, that’s scary enough, all by itself. But apparently it wasn’t scary enough for my Mom, not in October 1957. One night, after I said my prayers, on my knees beside my bed, and she tucked me in, my Mom felt compelled to add a little extra thought.
“I don’t think we’re going to live to see Christmas this year.”
That’s what she said to me. She really did.
Now they say you shouldn’t tell children things they can’t understand, or can’t handle. It might alarm them. I guess that message didn’t get across to my mother. Or she didn’t quite grasp it. Whatever, it didn’t stop her from telling me what she did tucking me into bed. So I went to sleep that night with that cheerful thought on my mind, the thought that we might not live to see Christmas that year.
Maybe my mother’s prediction would have been even scarier were it not for the kind of scary times we were living in. Even as a 7-year-old, it was an ever-present background realization that we were living in an Atomic Age, a time of the Cold War that could break out into real war at any time. What Sputnik had to do with that even I wasn’t entirely clear, but I suppose the fear was that the Soviets could use a 184-pound orbiting object less than two feet in diameter as a platform for dropping an atom bomb on a defenseless American population. And that, or the Russians’ ability to do what they did, was why we might not live to see Christmas that year.
It was a time of high tension, and the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were locked in a bitter Space Race, a race the Soviets so far had been winning, the outcome of the first inning sealed with the launch of Sputnik. Meanwhile, despite Ike’s best intents, American efforts were winding up flaming out on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral.
After my mother’s cheerful bedtime thought, the next big shock came on November 3, 1957. That was the day when the Soviets launched the first dog into orbit. Somehow, the day was indelibly burned into my memory as a Saturday, but the calendars show it as a Sunday. Don’t know why the daily shift, everything about it said Saturday, even if it wasn’t. It was a day when my mother and sister were busy cleaning the house, the very un-Sunday din and chaos was everywhere. and somehow I was relegated to my usual role of staying out of the traffic pattern.
Saturday or Sunday, it remains a day clearly lodged in my memory. In between arranging the kitchen chairs like seats on a bus and dealing with the whine of the vacuum cleaner wielded by my sister, who mostly seemed in charge of me that day, the radio was full of news of Laika, the Soviet space dog, launched aboard Sputnik 2. More evidence of how far ahead the Soviets were, though mostly I felt bad for poor Laika, fearing the worst for her. Didn’t seem likely that the Russians would find a way to bring her back to earth. And, of course, they didn’t.
There was more news on the radio that day, too. Strange lights were seen in Texas, and cars stopped running when the lights appeared. There didn’t seem to be any connection between the launch of Laika into orbit and the lights in Texas, but clearly something was up. These were not normal times. And sixty years later, I still remember that day like it was yesterday, even if I thought it was a Saturday.
As it turned out, Laika didn’t last long in space, and probably, as was revealed decades later, had already gone on to doggy heaven by the time the news reached us on the radio. And as for the lights in Texas – what since has become known as the Levelland UFO Case – people knew what they experienced, even if they didn’t know what the lights were, and the Air Force came up with its swamp gas explanation, neither the first nor the last time it would use that theory to explain what couldn’t otherwise be explained.
Those years, 1957 into 1958, were known as the International Geophysical Year, and science and scientific exploration occupied the national imagination, even as the geopolitics of the Space Race weren’t lost on the populace, nor on 7-year-old me.
After all was said and done – spoiler alert here – we did manage to live to see Christmas 1957. And lots of Christmases since. But the lesson of October 1957 wasn’t lost on me, not that year and not in the years that followed. The Cold War was at full tilt, and both the Russians and we provided reminders of that on a regular basis by detonating hydrogen bombs in the atmosphere, spreading nuclear fallout across the landscape.
It was a couple of years later, I think I was 9 by then, and I had gotten in the habit of covering my food with paper napkins to keep the radioactive fallout from descending onto it, even in New Jersey, far from the Nevada testing grounds. Meanwhile, on January 31,1958, the U.S. managed to launch Explorer 1, all 30 pounds of it, our first successful satellite, a joint effort between the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. And lots more satellites, most American and some Soviet, had gone into orbit by the time I was covering my food with paper napkins.
Maybe I was a bit ahead of my time, knowing of the classified capabilities of today’s spy satellites, or maybe it was just early paranoia, but by 9 I was convinced that my moves on earth were being observed by satellites passing overhead in space. Between covering my sandwiches with paper napkins and peering out the kitchen window wondering how I was being watched from orbit, the Space Race and the Atomic Age had come to occupy a big part of my young life.
I have to laugh a tad sardonically when I hear people today look back with nostalgia on the 1950s. I guess it was a pretty good time, if you’re willing to ignore things like the nuclear arms race, radioactive fallout landing on your food and appearing in your milk, societally enforced conformity, Jim Crow and legally sanctioned racism, widespread homophobia, and all sorts of other nasty signs of the times. And, along with all that, the thought in a 7-year-old boy’s mind that maybe he wouldn’t live to see Christmas and that the Lord, indeed, his soul would take.