Trains, Plans, Cars, and Spaceships -
When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut, though no one used that word back then. The closest I got was the mock-up of the moon’s surface that was part of the lunar landing simulator used in astronaut training, though I did get to walk in a lunar gravity harness at Langley, Virginia, and have my bones shaken in an observation bunker watching a launch vehicle test at Cape Canaveral.
Walking on a realistic model of the lunar surface and experiencing the feeling of one-sixth normal gravity were both exhilarating. But being rocked by a million pounds of thrust, which from three miles away felt like a magnitude twelve earthquake, convinced me that I didn’t want to be fired into space on top of a giant Roman candle. I never applied for astronaut training.
My travels weren’t as spectacular as they might have been, but the memories linger nonetheless.
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Author’s Note – since everyone is security conscious these days, I’ve employed a secret coding system to throw the Russians, Chinese, and various terrorists off the scent, but I’ll share it with all of you:
A = Automobile
B = Bus
H = Helicopter
P = Plane
S = Ship
T = Train
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1. The Russian H-Bomb (A, 1951-1953)
My earliest travel memories are of riding in the back seat of my father’s dark green 1949 Ford. I grew up in Brooklyn in the years after World War II, and most of the trips were Sunday drives to Manhattan’s Chinatown or the beach, so the idea of piling into the car generally seemed like fun. I also liked going to “the country” in upstate New York, but in the 1950s, it could take a full day to reach the Catskill Mountains from Brooklyn and several hours to reach my uncle’s house on Lake Mohegan. Today, the Catskills are a two-hour drive and Lake Mohegan is an outer suburb from which people commute to New York City, daily. Gas isn’t ten cents a gallon any more, either.
Until the summer of 1953, if anyone had asked me, I’d have said the drives to Lake Mohegan on ice-covered roads were the most terrifying times of my life, with having to spend an entire week around my fearsome uncle when we finally arrived running a close second. Everything changed on August 12th of that year.
It was a Wednesday, and we’d been planning to spend a week at the lake. Then, someone heard on the radio that the Russians had exploded their first H-Bomb. If you’re not old enough to remember, those were the fear-filled “red scare” days leading up to the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, two months after Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for being Soviet spies. Communist infiltrators lay under every rock, West Berlin was still under siege, and a billboard at the entrance to Coney Island, on the outer fringes of New York City read, “In the event of an air raid, don’t panic. This is not a target zone.” No kidding. But if the Russians had the H-Bomb, that was no longer true.
It was a time of paranoia and hysteria, especially in New York, which was both the center of the universe for the Free World and the imagined prime target number one for Joseph Stalin. Everyone at the lake dropped what they were doing and headed for home in a panic.
My uncle took charge. “Hurry and get packed. We have to get back to the city.”
All of us kids believed our world could end in a blaze of light and gamma rays any minute. I, in my ten-year-old wisdom, argued that it would be smarter to drive north.
My uncle, who never brooked disagreement, snapped, “Why would we do that?”
“Because the Russians never threaten to bomb Canada, that’s why.”
I took his exasperated snort as final confirmation of how much he hated me. Whether or not I was right, people weren’t thinking with their brains that day. Every vehicle within fifty miles of New York City was trying to get there before the holocaust, and the nighttime drive along the cliffs was interminable. At ten miles an hour, even my mother didn’t scream about the road. A much worse fear numbed her.
I cringed on the seat beside my oblivious six-year-old brother. I knew what an H-Bomb was, and the radio kept up a constant barrage of fear throughout the night. Even the avuncular assurances of Ike Eisenhower didn’t help. Looking back, I’m glad my sweet baby sister was spared all that. She had the good fortune not to be born for another fifteen months.