The Final Frontier

Most boomers recall the dawning of the U.S. space program with national pride and patriotic aplomb. Yet many of us were too young to be fully aware that we had entered a Space Race with the Soviet Union. The facts were, we weren’t the first into space, and we were getting further behind.

The Soviets had a great deal of success in the late 50s and early 60s. They were the first to launch a satellite into orbit (Sputnik 1, in 1957). That prompted a response from the newly-minted National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) in the form of Explorer 1 in 1958 — and the Space Race was on.

NASA had announced an ambitious program of launching a man into space and ultimately orbiting the Earth. Thus, the Mercury Program was established (1958-63). Seven “astronauts,” as the U.S. spacemen were to be called, were chosen from among military pilots to participate in the program.

But the Soviets beat them to it, launching Yuri Gagarin (the Soviets named their spacemen “cosmonauts”) into orbit and safely back to Earth on April 12, 1961 (Vostok 1). One month later, Alan Shephard became the first American into space (on board Freedom 7). His mission, however, amounted to little more than a slingshot into space and a fall back to Earth — there was no attempt at an orbit yet.

The U.S., feeling the growing embarrassment of “second place,” responded through the president of the United States. In April of 1961, the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba pretty much started the Cold War, according to some historians. Now the Space Race was going to enter the political maelstrom. On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy gave a speech before a Joint Session of Congress in which he laid down to NASA the challenge of sending a man to moon and back again. As if that weren’t a daunting enough challenge for a team that had yet to send a man into orbit, Kennedy set a deadline on the program — the end of the decade.

Building on the success of Alan Shepherd’s Mercury mission, NASA launched Gus Grissom into space in July of 1961. His was another preliminary mission — there would be no attempt yet at establishing an orbit around the Earth. It wasn’t until February of 1962 that the U.S. sent Astronaut John Glenn into Earth orbit aboard the Friendship 7 — a full nine months after the Soviets had completed the feat.

That same year, 1962, was an important one in boomer musical history. The communications satellite Telstar 1 was launched into orbit. Composer Joe Meek immortalized the moment with an instrumental song every boomer can recognize. “Telstar” was originally recorded by The Tornadoes. It went to number one in the U.K., and was the first single by a British band to ever hit the U.S. Billboard Top 100. Then in 1963, it was covered by The Ventures, perhaps the version most boomers will recognize.

John Glenn enters the Friendship 7 capsule. Photo courtesy of NASA.
John Glenn enters the Friendship 7 capsule on Feb. 20, 1962. Astronauts were allowed to name their own crafts in the Mercury Program. Each had chosen to use the number 7 in their naming structure to reflect that they -- the original seven astronauts -- were a team. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Mister Boomer remembers being in grade school during the Mercury missions. A black & white TV sitting on an AV cart was wheeled into the classroom every time there was a launch. A second class of students was ushered in to sit on the floor between the desk rows, faces turned to the TV. Then, along with our nun teachers, we quietly sat in awe as we witnessed the historic events unfold, as they happened.

The Friendship 7 launch holds a special, particular place in Mister B’s memory banks. The summer after the successful mission, Mister Boomer’s family hopped into the car to visit Washington, D.C. The family visited the monuments, U.S. Treasury, sat in on a session of the House of Representatives for a few minutes, and visited the White House. Impressive, memorable visits for a young child, to be sure. But none could capture the imagination as much as a visit to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. There, Mister Boomer saw the Friendship 7 capsule — the same one he had seen in the launch, on TV. Looking like an inverted top, it sat on a platform, with wooden stairs leading directly to it. Walking up the stairs, visitors could not only touch the louvered exterior of the capsule, but peer inside through the small window. There, a mannequin astronaut in full gear was visible in the one-man pilot seat. This surprised and frightened the young Mister B at first, but then he was struck by the incredibly tiny and tight space John Glenn had inside his capsule. Walking down the stairs, Mister Boomer noticed the charred exterior of the spacecraft. The pattern of re-entry had left a visible trail in blackened flames. He couldn’t resist running a finger over the darkened side, only to find there was no charcoal-char residue at all. It was completely burnt into the metal, a permanent testimony to the day.

For Mister Boomer, that was it. He followed every space mission, as many boomers did, up to the moon landing in July of 1969 and beyond. With President Kennedy’s challenge met, the U.S. had overtaken the Soviets in the Space Race. And boomers had stories that stirred images of the final frontier that today’s generation can’t even fathom. We were there at the beginning, boomers!

What great memories of the space program do you have? Do you still have a copy of “Telstar”? Is it by The Tornadoes or The Ventures?

Laughing Through the Cold War

Following World War II, the U.S. and Soviet Union engaged in a “balance of powers” exercise that was termed the Cold War. The rules were simple: each country had to accumulate more nuclear weapons to keep the other in check. Consequently, there was a massive arms build-up on both sides as the public at large was gripped with the fear of total annihilation. As Eve of Destruction, that great Cold War ditty from the sixties so succinctly put it, “When the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away.” It seemed hardly the time for laughing it up. Throughout history, though, we’ve had a habit of cutting our opponents down to size with humor. If you could laugh at them, then perhaps it could lessen some of the fear.

Our parents had done so in World War II. It is said that each generation develops their own sense of what is funny, and surely they had the likes of radio broadcasts and Spike Jones laughing “right in der Füehrer’s face.” When you think about it, they surely didn’t have much to laugh about. Yet they grew up through more than a decade of the Great Depression, which was followed by a World War. Once the war was over, they still couldn’t relax as they were always on guard for potential enemies… and they found one in Communism. Perhaps this set up our generation to be uniquely poised for a comedy explosion?

The first set of baby boomers were only five years old when the U.S. Department of Civil Defense produced that classic comedy of the Cold War era, “Duck and Cover,” in 1951. Not that they intended it to be a comedy, mind you. There is the very real likelihood that in the preceding years before Mister Boomer’s class was shown the film, it was taken all too seriously. Yet Mister B recalls that film, like so many others that were projected onto the portable tripod screen in the basement below the church. Lessons on school safety and proper bike riding would surely help us to be better citizens, so why not inject some civil defense knowledge, for our own protection? In Mister B’s class, however, the reaction was probably not what was expected. The lights went out and the familiar sound of the clicking projector could be heard, cutting the silence. Then it began, in glorious black and white, with that likeable turtle cartoon and memorable jingle. OK — so far, so good. Once the live action began, though, snickers started rolling through the assembled pre-pubescent crowd. Muffled at first, it could be contained no more when the scene of The Typical American Family enjoying a picnic saw “the flash” and grabbed the picnic blanket to duck and cover. A raucous laughter erupted that left the teachers aghast. The film clicked on as we children laughed and laughed at the silly scene of plates and food flying, the screen children’s heads ducking under the cover of their picnic “shelter.” We couldn’t possibly understand the ramifications of a nuclear attack. We just knew funny when we saw it. They finally quieted us down and we watched the remainder of the film in mandated silence.

Ike was our President and Commander in Chief at the time. He successfully saw the country through D-Day, and now he was protecting us from the evils of Communism, especially as represented by the Soviet Union. The visible Soviet leader during boomer time was Nikita Khruschev. In the spirit of détente, Eisenhower had invited him to visit the U.S. in 1959 following Richard Nixon’s participation in the Kitchen Debate. Khruschev came with his wife and children, and although it didn’t further Ike’s agenda the way he had hoped, it did provide fodder for satirists and comedians. Of the many spots the Soviet Premier visited on his 13-day trip, he was impressed with the agricultural education from the University of Iowa, and the self-serve cafeteria at IBM headquarters. Comedy gold! Like the reaction of Mister B’s class, all sorts of jokes about Ike, Khruschev, their unlikely meetings at Camp David and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) became fodder for the laugh machine. By 1960, the jokes were flying on TV and in the nightclubs. One such seminal star that weighed in on the subject was Bob Newhart. The young upstart would release “The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart” that year, based on his stand-up routines. In an interview years later, he recalled that they needed an extra track for the album, so he tossed in “Kruschev (sic) Landing Rehearsal,” a re-imagined scene of the Soviet Premier being greeted at the airport. Bob envisioned it as the concept for a new TV show (can anyone say, “Green Acres”?), which never materialized.

Most boomers, however, are going to recall the unbelievably great Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons (1959-61). The Cold War characters Boris Badenov and his sidekick, Natasha Fatale, and their Fearless Leader, were an integral part of the show. As Boris himself would put it, “It’s good to be bad.” In print media, Mad Magazine also got into the act with its long-running “Spy vs. Spy” cartoon series.

A few years later, we were still making fun of our stalemate situation. After years of depicting bumbling Russian spies, we now turned to creating bumbling idiots on our own side. On TV, Get Smart (1965-70), saw the likes of Maxwell Smart as Secret Agent 86. Clueing us in on the joke, the writers gave him the “86” moniker. The term “eighty-sixed” in common parlance means to throw or kick out. Somehow, Max always saved the day, with the help of his ultra-sexy partner, Barbara Feldon, as Agent 99 (one would presume out of a hundred).

The top of the heap of Cold War comedies for Mister Boomer is Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. In 2009, the 45th anniversary of this Stanley Kubrick movie was celebrated. The movie starred Sterling Hayden, George C. Scott and the phenomenal Peter Sellars playing three distinct roles. It described a “what if” situation where a U.S. military general started the process that triggered full nuclear response from both sides, and the possible planning for the rebuilding of civilization the remaining leaders would need to accomplish with the survivors. If you haven’t seen it in a while, run to your nearest online movie ordering site and buy it or put it on your list immediately! Viewing it as an adult, in our post-Cold War era, has made the dark humor all the more poignant. Go forth and laugh it up, boomers!

What made you laugh at the Cold War?