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Posts Tagged ‘1962’

Just over a half century ago, the world was poised to go to nuclear war. Today’s Writer’s Almanac reminded me that this is the anniversary of the day in October, 1962, that President John Kennedy appeared on television to announce the presence of nuclear armed missiles in Cuba, pointed toward US cities. It was the day before my 12th birthday, and I recall looking at the reconnaissance photos of hard to interpret evidence on the small black and white screen, and the young and serious president at his podium, and being afraid.

Just three years prior, Pat Frank had published his apocalyptic and completely believable nuclear war novel, Alas Babylon. As my family gathered in front of the TV, it seemed entirely possible that we would soon be seeing the white flash and the mushroom cloud over one of the nearby military bases that surrounded our small city and slowly feel the effects of invisible radiation raining down silently out of the sky.

My father was in the Navy then, and we lived in Key West, which soon became an armed camp. Though I did not realize it until much later, the troops who rolled in day after day along Roosevelt Blvd and camped beyond the barbed wire that now surrounded our high school football field were preparing for the invasion of Cuba, ninety miles away. If they had invaded as planned, Castro and his Soviet advisers were prepared to launch ballistic missiles, which could reach anywhere in the continental US, and 100 nuclear armed tactical missiles, which could have at least wiped out most of South Florida.

Just over twelve years ago, the entire country was frightened out of our wits by nineteen stateless terrorists flying planes into the World Trade Center. Not to diminish that terrifying day, but in this week in October fifty-one years ago, we were a hair’s breadth away from the deaths of an estimated 100 million Americans, and the complete destruction of the Soviet Union. There is no comparison between the two events, except in the way we reacted to them.

I reread Alas Babylon every few years, because it remains one of the best stories of its kind, but also because I don’t want to forget how fragile our existence really is. We were one step away from the edge of an abyss, and some in our government were calling for us to step out. Times have not changed so much.

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Telstar Credit: NASA

I’ve clipped the following paragraph from today’s Writers Almanac, June 10, 2012:
“The world’s first commercial communications satellite was launched 50 years ago today, in 1962. It was called Telstar 1. AT&T owned it, but it was part of a multinational project to experiment with satellite communication across the Atlantic Ocean. The satellite itself was about three feet in diameter, with an array of square solar panels over its surface. NASA launched Telstar from Cape Canaveral, aboard a Delta rocket.”

I don’t remember the launch of Telstar, but before long everyone knew about it. All across America, people stood in their backyards waiting to see the first manmade wandering star cross the sky. I was a young boy just entering junior high school and in love with the idea of space. I dragged my small telescope out to the yard and set it up in the clear south Florida nights. In other yards I could see families standing together with their binoculars or just pointing up toward the sky.

A song called Telstar, an instrumental tune I can still hear in my head, was popular on the AM stations we could get on our transistor radio. Our eyes and ears were turned to outer space, in both wonder and in dread. We all knew that if the Soviets launched their ICBMs, they would make a long arc to the edge of space before falling out of the sky. Yet, we were preparing to launch the first human beings into the edge of the universe.

When I listened to Telstar on my sister’s tinny radio, I felt the ache of longing for the mysterious wonder of the stars and planets, for the Moon and Mars. Like John Carter, I could have willed my body to be transported to the alien Martian landscape. Even then I knew that was a fantasy. Mars is as dead as the Moon, and besides, what better place to be a boy than the island of Key West – 12 months of summer to fish and swim and sail, play ball and bike through the narrow streets, watch movies in the downtown theaters on Saturday afternoons, check out an armful of science fiction books at the library to swallow in huge, heady gulps?

We were straddling an ever widening crevasse, one foot in the time of hand cranked ice cream and fire fly evenings, the other in color television and the first lumbering computers and handheld calculators, courtesy of IBM and Texas Instruments.

Telstar told us the future was coming fast. It was a buzzing in our ears, an artificial light crossing the sky. It was soon the background of our lives, half forgotten, but suddenly there at the corner of our eye. Wow, a manmade star. Who could forget that?

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