Times Past

We’re living in uncertain times, but that’s nothing new for children of the 1950s

Sputnik, 1957
Sputnik, 1957

“Duck and cover!”

The teacher’s instructions were a regular part of my education through the 12th grade. We learned to accept nuclear bomb drills at school.

Today, a brutal dictator of a small nation with nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles threatens us. The leader of Russia, our former enemy in the Cold War, has proven his intentions to resume that struggle.

Refugees from dozens of troubled lands seem unable to find adequate humanitarian relief.

In California, we moved from floods to massive fires and the renewal of a drought cycle in 2017.

You might think I would like to turn back the clock to when I was about to graduate from high school. But then again, things weren’t all that great in 1957.

I spent part of New Year’s Eve in 1957 sitting in an Oldsmobile “Rocket 88” listening to a popular disc jockey playing Buddy Holly’s music. “Not Fade Away” had a nostalgic cachet for me because my life was about to change, and given the realities posed by the draft board, not for the better.

Far too much has been made of the complacency and conformity of the 1950s “Leave it to Beaver” and “Nelson Family” generation. Even in Southern California, there were obvious signs of the racial discrimination that fueled the nascent civil rights movement.

My hero at the age of 4 was the janitor at the Huntington Park Ralph’s store. He let me push his industrial size vacuum! But several customers complained about a “white boy” fraternizing with black people. The store manager told “Jackson” that he wasn’t to speak to me.

In 1958, 17 year olds understood how ephemeral life could be. Our early formative years had been shaped by World War II. Some of us had seen family members off at the train or bus station, never to return. I had at least three friends who had lost their fathers.

An aluminum sphere that weighed only 184 pounds and was 23 inches across was launched by the Soviet space program on Oct. 4, 1957.

It was called Sputnik. It was the high point of Soviet space technology and began the Cold War race to the moon. The fact that America won that race a little less than 12 years later is overshadowed by the effect that Sputnik had on America during that period.

America’s initial efforts at placing a grapefruit-sized satellite in orbit had resulted in a failed launch at Cape Canaveral. Then, in November 1957, the Soviets added a further technological insult.

The world’s second artificial satellite, Sputnik 2, was launched. On board was the first living organism sent outside the earth’s atmosphere, a little dog named Laika (Huskie). Sputnik 2 was not designed for recovery, and Laika died in orbit as the world listened to the stop of his heart.

Columnists Stuart and Joseph Alsop wrote a column for the Saturday Evening Post that spoke of a “missile gap” that imperiled America’s future. By Thanksgiving 1957, America’s educational establishment was asking, “Why can’t Johnny add?” or, conversely, “Why can young Ivan argue the Binomial Theorem.”

No wonder 1957’s signature image and slogan was Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman saying, “What, Me Worry?” Somehow, most of us survived the 1950s with a modicum of grace.

The terror caused by the “October skies” of 1957 was ameliorated by the sanity of leaders of both the U.S. and USSR in resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. I hope 2018 marks a return to such sanity in our world. We could begin with a sane and compassionate extension for the “Dreamers” of the DACA Program.

Dan Krieger is professor of history, emeritus, at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.