Cold War on the Prairie
Sometimes events of the present shine a light on the past, bringing the two together in an eerie convergence. For me, it began with two bright beacons overhead and a shout. There they are! My husband Steve spotted them first: a pair of white lights moving in perfect tandem in a lowish arc from the west to the southeast. It was the Space Shuttle Atlantis and the International Space Station clipping across the dusky June sky just below a crescent moon and the gleam of Venus. Oh, my god, look at them. We stared; we held our breath.
In less than two minutes, they had faded into a filmy haze of cirrus clouds and spun me back to a cool October night half a century ago. My two sisters and I, bundled in jackets over our pajamas and with bare toes tucked into quilts, sat in the back seat of the family car and looked for the world’s first manmade satellite. Our car was parked on a slight rise near the wood-slatted corncrib behind our house – the highest place on our Midwestern farm with a big view. Just a day or two before, the Soviets had launched Sputnik, scaring half the world to death and sending Americans into a frenzy of worry over whether the Russkies, as they were called, would now send a hail of missiles our way. Though the car heater was running on high, we shivered with our eyes pm the heavens.
Then we saw it: a dot of light speeding in an elliptical arc around the earth every 96 minutes. It was just 183 pounds and the size of a basketball, but with a threatening significance that belied its size. My child’s-eye memory remembers that orbiting beam as red; maybe it was or maybe I imagined it. In either case, red would be appropriate: In 1957 red was not the color of a state’s political bent but the color of a dangerous enemy – the Communists. Better dead than red.
In those days, out in the farm towns -- along with gossip about the weather and what about those hog prices and how was your soybean harvest -- people talked about building bomb shelters. Burrows carved deep into the good prairie earth and filled with cots, bottled water, canned goods and a shortwave radio. You could buy instructions on how to build one, and all the kids at school talked about it. Most parents said if there were a nuclear war no bomb shelter would be enough. You’d have to come out sometime, and when you did there’d be nothing left anyway.
In the midst of this terrifying talk of Armageddon, Sputnik spun around and around the Earth on its course for the next three months along with its sister satellite Sputnik II that had been launched in November. Could they see us, I asked? Were they taking pictures of stubbled acres of corn and counting bales of hay that pockmarked the fields? Was it a spy satellite? Could they really be interested in our ordinary activities in the nation’s midsection?
My cousin Billy and I reassured each other that, because we lived in the middle of a big continent, the Commies could care less about us. We tried to persuade ourselves that we were protected by millions of acres of former prairie; that no one would care about miles and miles of pasture and crops; that weren’t we lucky that we didn’t live on the East or West Coasts.
Despite our bravado, we were scared. A new term became part of our vocabulary: The Cold War. We were more knowledgeable of world events than perhaps elementary school children ought to be. Once a few years later, when my sisters and cousins were playing charades, I took off one of my Keds and banged it on a table. They knew in a flash that I was mimicking Khrushchev’s infamous podium-beating speech at the U.N. where the Soviet leader took off his shoe and cracked world diplomacy on its ear.
Before Sputnik, we’d spend summer evenings craning our necks at the night sky while sprawled on an old Army blanket. While we swatted mosquitoes, our dad pointed out the big constellations – Orion, the Seven Sisters, the Big Dipper—and taught us how to find the North Star. After Sputnik, we no longer looked at the stars in the same way. If I had felt dwarfed by the immensity of the universe before, I now felt even more insignificant.
Eventually, of course, Sputnik I and II fell to earth. The Americans made their own break with gravity by launching Explorer I at the end of January, 1958. It was a new era: Welcome to the Space Age. Men walked on the Moon; the Cold War ended; and space exploration became exciting instead of chilling. These days, on just about any clear night, you can spot a satellite roaring overhead.
I wondered the other day if the Atlantis and Space Station astronauts that June night in 2007 had looked down on the farm fields that used to be the vast North American prairie. Did they wonder about the nature of existence and our tenuous hold on tiny patches of ground? Or, did they see only the cities and towns, the bright lights that blind us and confuse us, just as Sputnik’s glow did so long ago?
In another 50 years, if I live that long, I will be a very old woman. And, I ask myself, what will lights in the sky mean to us then?
Copyright © 2008 LeAnn Spencer. All rights reserved.