Boomers Grew Up With Spy Culture

As of this writing, the U.S. has shot down four unmanned objects over U.S. airspace in the past two weeks (well, one was in Canada), with one being identified as a Chinese spy balloon. It’s probably safe to say that countries have been spying on one another for as long as there have been countries. Yet for some boomers, like Mister B, the goings-on of the past couple of weeks are a bit of, as Yogi Berra used to say, “Deja vu all over again.”

Boomers grew up hearing about spies all through the Cold War; It permeated our popular culture in toys, books, TV and movies. If anything, spycraft was glamorized in movies like the James Bond series (boomer years 1962-79), while boomers gleefully watched TV shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E (1964-68), I Spy (1965-68) and Mission: Impossible (1966-73). The whole process of spying was also satirized in the TV show, Get Smart (1965-70), as Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale on The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show (1959-64) and in the margin-drawn comic, Spy vs. Spy, in Mad Magazine (from 1961 throughout the boomer years).

Yet before the boomer-era infatuation with spies and spying could cement itself into pop culture, a CIA U-2 spy plane was shot down over Russia on May 1, 1960. The secretive nature of the plane’s missions meant only partial news made it to the general public at the time. The initial reports released by the government stated a NASA weather plane had gone missing over Turkey. It was Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev who revealed to the world that the plane was not a NASA plane and it had been shot down in Soviet airspace.

The story actually began in 1954, when Dwight Eisenhower was President. Critics of his administration feared that there was a growing gap in military power between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. As a result, in November of 1954, Eisenhower secretly authorized that 30 U-2 spy planes be built and delivered to the CIA for the purpose of high-altitude reconnaissance. The U.S. would look to gather data on what capabilities the Soviet Union had, and what they might be building.

On May 1, 1960, Francis Gary Powers, an Air Force pilot contracted by the CIA, was flying a U-2 plane over Soviet airspace when the plane’s autopilot malfunctioned and he took over manual controls to fly it. When documents on the incident were declassified in 1982, it was confirmed that a near-miss of a Soviet surface-to-air missile took out the tail control of Powers’ plane, causing it to plummet to the earth in a spin. Powers knew he could not eject from the plane under those conditions, but did manage to escape the cockpit and parachute safely to the ground. However, he was not able to destroy the plane, which brought criticism to him from many angles.

His subsequent capture and interrogation by Soviet officials could not have come at a worse time. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, French President Charles de Gaulle, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev were set to meet at the Four Powers Paris Summit on May 15, 1960. The first day of the summit, Krushchev demanded the U.S. stop flying spy planes over the Soviet Union. When Eisenhower agreed only to a temporary suspension, the two leaders were furious with each other, and the summit was cancelled the next day.

Powers was tried and convicted of espionage in August of 1960, sentenced to three years imprisonment and seven years of hard labor. After serving one year, in February of 1962 he was exchanged for a Soviet spy imprisoned in the U.S. named Rudolph Abel, on a Berlin bridge between East and West Germany.

Hearings in the U.S. Congress absolved Powers of any wrongdoing. In 1965, he was awarded the CIA Intelligence Star. Powers left the CIA and worked as a test pilot for Lockheed until 1970, when he became a traffic pilot for radio station KGIL. Next, he became a pilot reporting on traffic for KNBC-TV in Los Angeles. On August 1, 1977, his helicopter crashed when heading back after a report, killing Powers and his cameraman.

The U-2 incident and Powers’ release was dramatized in a movie, Bridge of Spies, starring Tom Hanks, in 2015.

You’d have to be an earlier-age boomer to recall the incident first-hand, as Mister Boomer does. What do you recall about the Powers’ U-2 incident, boomers?

Boomers Born in 1961 Reach Age 60 This Year

Boomers born in the year 1961 will reach their 60th birthday this year. Time flies when you’re having fun! All boomers know that life is profoundly different today in many ways than it was in 1961. Here are some stats that present a picture of what our lives were like 60 years ago:

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was inaugurated as President of the United States, succeeding President Dwight D. Eisenhower
• There were about 184 million people in the U.S.; the population jumped by 28 million in ten years (thanks to the Baby Boomers!)
• To continue the Baby Boom, 1.5 million couples were married in 1961; the average age of a bride was 19-20 yrs. old, and the groom was 21-22 yrs. old.
The average annual income was $5,700
$1 in 1961 is approximately equal to $8.80 today
• The cost of a dozen eggs was 57¢
Milk was 50¢ for a half gallon
Ground beef was 52¢ lb.
It cost 41¢ lb. to buy a frying chicken
• If you wanted to mail a letter, a stamp cost 4¢
• Born in 1961? You share a birth year with Eddie Murphy (April 3) and George Clooney (May 6)
Alan Shepard became the first American in Space (May 5)

President Kennedy announced the goal of landing a man on the moon and bringing him home by the end of the decade (May 25)
The Apartment won the Best Picture Academy Award
The Bullwinkle Show debuted
Tossin’ and Turnin’ by Bobby Lewis was the number 1 hit single of 1961
Disney released 101 Dalmations in theaters
• IBM introduced the Selectric typewriter

The Berlin Wall was constructed, further escalating the Cold War
Sprite was introduced by Coca-Cola to compete with 7-Up
Ray Kroc bought a small chain of hamburger restaurants from the McDonald brothers
President Kennedy sent in the first advisors into Vietnam
Marvel introduced The Fantastic Four comics
Roger Marris broke Babe Ruth’s record and hit 61 home runs for the New York Yankees

If you were born in 1961, of course you learned about these things later in life. Yet more than half the Boomer Generation was born before 1961, and they have vivid memories of the year. Mister Boomer was in elementary school and remembers many things about 1961, including watching the inauguration of President Kennedy. The school he attended was big on observing American history-in-the-making, and wanted the students to follow the Space Program, beginning with Alan Shepard’s launch on May 5. A TV was rolled into the classroom for subsequent launches of Project Mercury and on to Project Gemini.

Mister B and his family were also big fans of Rocky & Bullwinkle, including the 1961 iteration of The Bullwinkle Show. Of course, he was not able to view the show in color. It was the mid-1970s before the family got a hand-me-down color television.

If you’ve been reading Mister Boomer for even a short time, then you know he definitely remembers hearing some top hits of 1961 on his transistor radio. Out of that tiny speaker, he heard Tossin’ and Turnin’, but also, I Fall to Pieces by Patsy Cline; Runaway by Del Shannon; Dedicated to the One I Love by the Shirelles; Take Good Care of My Baby by Bobby Vee; Travelin’ Man by Ricky Nelson, and many, many more.

Yet, in retrospect, what a good portion of boomers recall about 1961 is that there was a palpable change in the wind. Life as we had come to know it was about to be turned upside down. By the time the earliest-born boomers reached the age of 18 in 1964 — which was the final year of the Baby Boom — music, fashion, world events, Civil Rights, the Space Program, the Cold War, even what we ate, was about to change forever.

Were you born in 1961, boomers? If not, what do you recall about that momentous year?