Everything Old is New Again

They were the best of times and the worst of times. America in the 1950s was booming. From Detroit to Levittown, people bought cars and houses in record numbers. President Dwight Eisenhower established the interstate highway system to boost commerce and provide escape routes during atomic evacuations. Low inflation and rising GDP. Drag races and sock hops, flattops and greasers, Elvis and Buddy. The dawn of the space age and color TV. A time of infinite possibilities.

But the 1950s weren’t all happy days.

Political conflicts generated a fearful response: Communist witch hunts, nuclear tests, fallout shelters, air-raid drills. Across the country, Americans faced a host of existential issues, from over-consumption to Russian aggression, racism, nuclear war and the threat of epidemic disease, issues that reverberate today.

Bert the Turtle from Duck and Cover

Then there were the natural disasters that plagued small towns like the one where I lived: the Flood of ’55, the blizzard of ’58, and a fire that destroyed a block of Main Street that summer. One storm alone, Hurricane Diane, took 180 lives and caused more than $832 million in damage, making it the most-costly hurricane in U.S. history to that date. (Those challenges form the heart of Distant Early Warning, a new book about one family’s struggle with the challenges of the Cold War.)

If anything, it was a decade of contrasts, both backward- and forward-looking: the USSR and the USA, eastern steel and western gold, San Francisco and Selma, beatniks and bottlenecks, Gunsmoke and The Twilight Zone.

Prosperity and paranoia. Do times ever change?

What do you remember? What would you like to forget?

Civil Defense Air Raid Drill Oak Ridge TN 1953

A Cautionary Tale

It is the late 1950s, and the Andersen family is at war with itself. As back-to-back hurricanes ravage the rural town of Pennsboro, the family suffers an irredeemable loss. Georgia becomes mired in a haze of medication and TV. Marsh retreats into work and fantasies of the redhead next door. Wil, a precocious boy with a fondness for a girl with almond eyes, suspects his parents are possessed by the aliens from his favorite movie.

Adding to their private grief is the collision of consumerism and the Cold War, amid the rising threat of Soviet missiles that may render obsolete America’s last hope for defense, the newly completed Distant Early Warning Line. With the launch of Sputnik, the family’s anguish comes to a head.

As the Andersens watch the first man-made satellite write history across the sky, they wonder if they, and the world, will ever find peace.

Based on true events, Distant Early Warning portrays the fears and dreams of a generation as it navigates the promise and perils of mid-century America. The book is available here.

Past as prelude

The Fifties were more than the happy days portrayed by the entertainment industry, more than a collection of nostalgic tropes like doo-wop, poodle skirts, Elvis, and the Fonz. People faced existential issues ranging from over-consumption to nuclear annihilation in a collision of consumerism and the Cold War that brought us bomb shelters and barbecues, McCarthy and Maypo, strontium and Schlitz.

Americans faced a host of global events that shape our lives to this day, from the Korean War and the Rosenberg spy trial to Levittown, the polio pandemic, and the racial battles embodied by the Little Rock Nine.

Yet Communism was the real focus–some might say obsession–of the decade. America tested its first full-scale thermonuclear device in 1952. A year later, the Soviets tested theirs. During the ensuing years, Russia matched the Americans bomb test for bomb test, then moved the competition into space with the launch of the first man-made satellite, Sputnik, in October of 1957. In response, the U.S. government staged mass evacuations of its cities. It encouraged citizens to build fallout shelters in basements and backyards. It published booklets like 100 Things You Should Know About Communism to aid in the identification of fellow travelers. The phrase “Better Dead than Red” became common currency.

Today, we have coronavirus disease instead of polio; hypersonic weapons in addition to H-bombs; George Floyd on top of Little Rock; Ukraine instead of the Suez Canal.

What do you remember? What would you like to forget?

Vintage Remco Radiocraft Crystal Radio Kit

The band with kaleidoscope eyes

Fifty-three years ago, a group of high school kids calling themselves Shagg performed as the warmup band for the bubblegum hit machine The Ohio Express. What a contrast in musical styles, and whiplash for the audience, who’d come to hear the Top 40 classic “Yummy Yummy Yummy” and got Hendrix, Cream, and The Who. (“Yummy” hit No. 4 on the U.S. charts in April 1968. Although we eyed fortune and fame, our band never had a hit, or a recording contract. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, So it goes.)

The date was Saturday, June 22, 1968, the venue the Hullabaloo Club in Wind Gap, Pennsylvania, a pole building off a four-lane highway that looked like a World War II bivouac and felt the size of an aircraft hanger. Concrete floor, metal walls. I doubt anyone heard anything except a wall of noise. It certainly sounded that way from the stage.

Shagg’s original lineup consisted of Chip Decker on bass, Bob Dittman on rhythm guitar, John McAllister on drums, and me on lead guitar. The band expanded with the addition of Joey Raynock on keyboards, Gene Gorse on the Hammond B-3, and Ron Oney and Don Chase on vocals.

I wrote about that and other formative experiences of our generation in FINDING WOODSTOCK, which you can find at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other fine retailers.

As for the poster, yes, it is the original, on neon cardboard, with additional styling by Chip, the artist in the band. He added the flowers, the smoke streaming from the locomotive, and a girl with kaleidoscope eyes (it was the Sixties). Oh, yes, and the most important element that was missing from the original: our name.

Vaccines: a love story

The campaign to vaccinate Americans, and the backlash that ensued, didn’t start with the current pandemic. It began in a sleepy Pennsylvania town in the late 1800s when a doctor and his wife bet everything they had on a new formula to eradicate smallpox. The Spirit of Swiftwater tells their story of hardship and success. Discover how vaccines are made and who makes them on Amazon (click on the link “New from $15) or on eBay.

Defeating ‘the American Plague’

Yellow fever doesn’t have the cachet of the Black Death or the Asian flu, but the mosquito-borne disease nicknamed “the American Plague” has tormented the world for centuries.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the virus causes 200,000 cases and 30,000 deaths each year, and not just in the tropics. The disease first struck New York City in 1668, followed by at least 25 major outbreaks in the Americas, including an 1878 epidemic in the Mississippi River Valley that killed 20,000 people.

There is a vaccine, developed after the opening of the Panama Canal in 1912 by scientists throughout the world. However, historically it needed to be freeze-dried, a process prone to mechanical issues until it was refined in the early 1950s by National Drug in the small hamlet of Swiftwater, Pennsylvania.

You can read the story of this and other vaccine innovations in The Spirit of Swiftwater, a chronicle of the pioneers of immunization who fought to revolutionize healthcare in America.

Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll

Celebrate the anniversary of Woodstock with a novel that captures the heart and soul of a generation, Born Under a Bad Sign, a gripping story of love and obsession, set in one of the most turbulent times in American history.

Published by Allusion Books for the 50th anniversary of the iconic music festival, Born Under a Bad Sign is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

An outbreak of innovation

The Spanish flu outbreak of 1918 wasn’t the first pandemic to sweep America.

In the late 1800s, smallpox ravaged the nation. In New York City, the mid-century death rate from the disease hit 21.9 people per 100,000. In nearby Pennsylvania, by 1900 the disease had killed thousands.

There was a vaccine. And it worked. Some of the time. And there were side-effects.

The solution? A cross-cultural effort that combined French ingenuity with American innovation.

You can read the full story in my first book, The Spirit of Swiftwater, a chronicle of the pioneers of immunization who fought the odds to revolutionize healthcare in America.