It was after dinner in the basement of
our 4th Street house. I was down there making something at my little
workbench--snug and warm at my makeshift workshop by the old steam
boiler. Dad was sweeping the floor when the radio announcer started
talking about Sputnik, the first satellite launched by the Russians.
Dad was grim-faced as the announcer gave the details. He wasn't
sweeping anymore, just standing, leaning on the broom. I could sense
tension in the air; and afterwards as I was to learn at school,
this was definitely something big. It changed everything.
It became the topic of our classroom discussions and family talk.
Then they launched Laika the dog into space. It seemed like we just
couldn't get our rockets into the air. Everywhere I turned there
were special programs about space, books to read, and compositions
to write in class about what it all meant.
NASA was created and the race formally began. We were going to
explore space. We were going to the Moon!
Suddenly, math and science became very important subjects, which
was fine, as I liked them already. We dreamed of being astronauts
as schools hurried to toughen the class work because those Russian
kids were putting us to shame. Our own little treadmill was now
There were many other changes and new ideas too. Rod Serling brought
us the Twilight Zone on TV, and other fantastic programs soon followed.
Rock and Roll mixed with folk singers and Beatnik jazz. Atom bomb
testing, radioactive strontium in the milk from cows, secret spies,
and monster movies about crazed scientists and outer space.
Then all those black and white movies without happy endings started
to appear. Mom and Dad seemed ill at ease with it all. TV brought
the change right into our living rooms for everyone to see…..up
close and personal. And still we did the "duck and cover"
air raid drills. Nuclear war could wipe us out at any moment, maybe
even at Sunday dinner…..afterwards I always hoped, following
Then one morning we were brought into the school auditorium to
see our country's first orbital flight with John Glenn at the controls.
It was a fantastic 15 minutes of fame for Americans. We were in
the space race for sure now.
Against a background drumbeat of nuclear annihilation, we moved
through the school grades. My math and science was getting tougher
each year, with high school bringing a special version of the stuff
to me, designed for full-fledged nerds--- chemistry and physics
on steroids. I was learning how to ask questions, really hard questions,
and not only about math and science.
Golden oldies, the Vietnam War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the
Beatles, Kennedy's assassination, Peter, Paul and Mary, the anti-war
movement…….topped off with, "Houston, the eagle
has landed!" What a decade the 60s turned out to be.
Looking back I see this emotional panorama of sad and happy times,
moving in roller coaster fashion. This makes us Boomers the way
we are, just like the Depression and WWII defined our parents; each
generation has a rite of passage.
And for our children, their own set of conditions that lies deep
inside their outlook on life, as bewildering to us as it was to
Rod Serling can still grab me with the irony of his haunting vignettes.
Alfred Hitchcock re-runs make me look nervously over my shoulder
in the living room. I'll watch Forbidden Planet in rapt attention
to my last day, mouthing almost every line from memory.
It would be nice to be in that old basement again, by the warm
steam boiler, hot coals simmering amid old familiar smells. Not
doing anything special, just some fix-it stuff. Then hearing Mom
tapping on the living room floor……
"Hey you guys, Ed Sullivan is coming on!"
"Be right up Mom."