Many of my fellow baby boomers in Medfield had relatives who fought in the Korean War, but we were too young to understand the significance of events like Israel’s achieving statehood, Hungary’s becoming part of the Iron Curtain, and the Berlin Air Lift’s feeding the people of Germany. As young students, we didn’t appreciate the concept of war and peace until we reached of Medfield Junior High.
From that point on we were reminded that we had to keep up with the Russians. By then every kid in Medfield schools had learned that the then Soviet Union was thought of as an evil empire, a totalitarian government that controlled the lives of its people. The Soviets captured the attention of the world by launching into space the Sputnik and then soon afterward another spacecraft with a dog named Laika.
The United States then tried to hastily launch the country’s first spacecraft, which was the size of two basketballs. However, to the embarrassment of the space agency, on December 6, 1957, the Vanguard rocket only got about 50 feet in the air, blew up, and was then dubbed Kaputnik. The image of that failure showed up in black and white on the front page of the Record American newspaper, staring back at us the First National Grocery Store, where the Casabella Restaurant is today.
So it was back to the drawing board for NASA. The seventh grade science class, taught by Mrs. Betty Sauer, had students Chris Gibbs and Beverly Peterson bring in news clippings that were pinned onto the bulletin board, generating further interest and enthusiasm for space exploration around the world.
The articles had Russian photos of the dog, Laika, seated in the spacecraft. Many of the animal lovers in the class were disappointed to learn that the small dog, Laika would not be making the return trip back to Earth. Most of the students emotionally expressed their sadness that the dog would eat a final meal and drift off into eternal sleep.
One of the other misconceptions about Soviet space travel that was only learned in later years was that the Russian cosmonauts quickly parachuted from their space capsule as soon as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. The reason for this was that the Russians still did not yet have the means for their spacecraft to survive the fiery re-entry into the atmosphere.
The race for space was on, and clearly the Soviets were ahead. As students, we were warned that we better study hard and go to college if we had any hope of ever keeping pace. Soviet life was compared to the American counterpart, and as far as President Eisenhower was concerned, Americans were behind academically. Life had to change and it was widely feared that if the Soviets conquered the cosmos before the Americans, then they could perhaps launch an attack from outer space, something akin to Battle Star Galactica.
Fear sometimes ruled the airwaves, and much of the propaganda seen on television emphasized the disparity between American and Soviet technology and in other areas as well. In the Olympics of the era, young American kids were especially impressed with the competition taking place. Soviet athletes now outperformed the Americans in events they once dominated. The Russians seemed to be bigger, stronger and more confident than ever before. Young people in Medfield wondered how an athlete like Boston University’s John Thomas could ever lose to his Soviet rival in the Olympic high jump competition.
During the mid-1940s the production of the atom bomb drew world attention. America continued testing bigger and better bombs while the Soviets did the same. Both discovered that the hydrogen bomb gained power from fusion, much like the sun. The aim of each government was to destroy an enemy with overwhelming nuclear force. As the American government employed nuclear scientists at Los Alamos, the Soviets enforced working conditions at their test sites. As in the match-point of a cosmic chess game, the two superpowers were in a race to build a hydrogen bomb of unlimited destruction, the consequence of a few mathematical equations on a blackboard of a physics lab.
Before long, scientists were predicting that the superpowers of the world were becoming more capable of destroying the planet. Odd though it may seem now, people started to send away for instructions of how to build a fallout shelter right in their own backyard.
It was not at all surprising to see some of these below-ground structures here in the town of Medfield. Any casual observer could easily see them as the telltale chimney stuck out at the ground level. The family of Frank Rogers, who graduated from Medfield High in 1966, was ambitious enough to expand their basement by digging an indoor well, and stocking shelves with canned foods.
But not everyone wanted to build a fallout shelter. After all, many people were fatalistic about a nuclear war. If you could survive in a shelter, what kind of a world would you emerge to? There would be very little left, not to mention the lethal nuclear fallout remaining in the air.
The film “Failsafe” drove home the point by calculating that a nuclear war could be started by accident, with both sides countering. In the movie, the President of the United States had to placate the Soviet premier by having an American pilot drop a nuclear bomb on New York City, after the Air Force mistakenly dropped one on Moscow. It was an ominous reminder of what could possibly happen. The paranoia that existed between the United States and the Soviet Union became the staple of Hollywood, and tales like “Failsafe” helped make people aware of possible human error.
While this played in 1963, Medfield High students stopped at the water cooler to talk about the Cuban Missile Crisis as it unfolded and nearly became a real life “Failsafe.” We watched the nightly news as President Kennedy had the navy form a blockade around the island of Cuba. The possibility of World War Three was on our minds, but somehow we had faith that the two countries would find a way to peacefully resolve the confrontation. Fiction and reality often reflected the world we lived in, with life imitating art.
With the Vietnam War expanding, many young American men were being sent over to that part of the world to fight in a controversial war.
In 1967, four young college students from Medfield went together to the Boston Army Base for their pre-induction physicals, but they flunked the physical even though they had been fine athletes.
Bob Curry, due to a childhood injury on a bicycle, lost the big toe on his right foot when it went under the bike chain.
Ronnie Kerr failed to pass the physical because he was color-blind.
Lee DeSorgher failed the physical due to being partially deaf.
This writer failed the physical due to being asthmatic since the early teens.
Some who went for their physicals avoided induction with student deferments, but many young Medfield men decided to serve their country in the armed forces.
Everyone had an opinion about the Vietnam War, and there was little doubt that this war was the most unpopular America ever had to fight. In the end, 58,220 American lives were lost. Estimates of the total death count in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia run as high as 3.5 million.
The ’60s perhaps represented the great parentheses of the times. The youth of America decided to protest the war. Flower power was in bloom and hipster prophets chanted “tune in, turn on, and drop out.” Many people opted for the bohemian lifestyle. Music changed profoundly, with the great culmination of the event Woodstock. As far as this baby boom generation was concerned, life would never be the same.
Glasnost and Detente
During the 1980s the pentagon developed “Star Wars,” a defense system that was to deploy weapons from outer space, with President Reagan warning that America’s military would use them if needed. The Soviets were persuaded and convinced of American superiority, and responded with “Glasnost.”
Detente was the new objective, and the Russians acquiesced after their government collapsed economically. Civil disobedience made headlines in the New York press, as women used the flag of motherhood to voice their concerns. The Berlin Wall fell, while people in China demonstrated for greater freedom. After all the years of plotting against one another, the combatants gave peace a chance, extolling the virtues of freedom.
The superpowers wanted only one holistic system, with no petrol-dollars, pesos, rubles or pounds. They would strive for an international system of balanced currency, giving a totality to life. There would be a vast structure of the way things were meant to be.
What it all came down to for Americans and the Russians was IBM, ATT, DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon. These operations represented the nations of the world. The Russians didn’t talk about Karl Marx any more. They looked at linear programing while charting and computing. They wanted to know the cost of their investments. The world represented a giant business, and that’s the way it had been since merchants chose trade over misunderstanding.
Fast-forward in time to the ’90s, where people could watch Desert Storm in living color on television from start to finish. That war went well; the United States decided to resolve the conflict in Bosnia, demonstrating what strategic bombing was all about. Now America has sometimes taken on the awesome task of policing the rest of the world and preventing other nations from using nuclear weapons on one another. Old adversaries who at one talked about peace, became adversaries all over again. Diplomacy is still the new order of the day, but the bomb is just as much a threat as ever.
Looking back, the ’90s became the ’60s upside down. It’s déjà vu, all over again. The new millennium is just an extension of the upside down ’90s in the aftermath of Nine Eleven. It’s just the players who are now different. Instead of the protest of Vietnam, we have Iraq, where the parents of American soldiers just want their sons and daughters to come home. Many of these same moms and dads were members of an earlier generation who protested a war over four decades ago, under the banner of the counterculture.
It has been said that war is sometimes perceived as a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always evil. Knowing that should allow for a time to pause and reflect. From an evolutionary standpoint, war has been an unavoidable aspect of our planet with many wondering if mankind is “hardwired” to make war. If we wait long enough, could the pendulum of time swing toward peace with hostilities becoming passé? That would be remarkable for all and in time, be a forecast as normal and natural as the sunrise.