One of the most fascinating aspects of Cold War spy craft is the most innocuous-sounding: numbers stations. They broadcast seemingly random strings of numbers or letters over shortwave frequencies. The broadcasts are received by agents embedded in other countries. Because the signals are one-way, spies are able to hear and decode the messages without fear of radio-tracking.
Originating during World War I, numbers stations proliferated during the Cold War, that period of tension between eastern and western powers from 1947 through 1991.
In the novel Distant Early Warning, Wil and Glenn Andersen believe these broadcasts are aimed at a spy operating in their neighborhood.
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?
Woodstock, the granddaddy of music festivals, turns 52 this weekend. Celebrate the historic event with the story of two lovers who hope to make their bones there, building a relationship as well as a career.
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.
It’s wonderful when readers are touched by something I’ve written. As Carla-Donna has given me permission, I thought I’d share her review of my first book, The Spirit of Swiftwater: 100 Years at the Pocono Labs. It chronicles the history of vaccines in the 20th century, through the stories of people who helped to eradicate smallpox, among others diseases. Here’s Carla’s history, and her take on the book.
“I just purchased The Spirit of Swiftwater. The reason being, I was wondering if they were going to start work on a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus. When I looked them up, somehow I was introduced to your book. Long story short, I grew up in Stroudsburg, my home town, and had once applied for a job at Swiftwater during my college years at East Stroudsburg State College. Our friend, Pete Gerard, made it his career working there. It was nice to see his name in the book.
“My name is Carla-Donna (Holmgren) Martin. My father, Donald Holmgren, had a store in Stroudsburg, Donald’s Family Shoes, for many years.
“As it turned out, I became a registered medical technologist and retired from working 40 years in the hospital laboratory at Lancaster General Hospital, Lancaster, PA. My husband and I live in Lititz now and still visit Stroudsburg several times a year.
“Kudos to you for this very informative work on the Swiftwater Lab. Doc Slee was a household name growing up and this book was enlightening on his family and wonderful achievements and the ups and downs of the lab’s growth.
“In light of what we as a nation and the world are going through right now, hopefully a vaccine will be forthcoming from Swiftwater!”
The novel coronavirus is sweeping the world. How does a vaccine-maker meet that challenge?
More than a hundred years ago, Dr. Richard Slee faced a similar situation with another virulent disease–smallpox. His fight provides a window into that process, and a cause for hope.
First, some background on one of the unsung pioneers of medicine. (His story appears in detail in my first book, The Spirit of Swiftwater.) Slee was born in 1867, a golden age of American expansion. He became a physician and went to work for the surgeon general of the Army, later the United States, a forward thinker who was concerned about the spread of smallpox. Pandemics in sixteenth-century Mexico killed 3.5 million people and accounted for nearly 9% of all deaths in nineteenth-century England. By the late 1800s, similar outbreaks were ravaging major cities in the United States.
The irony was, Americans had access to a vaccine. It just had some serious side effects, and that generated a public backlash. The French, on the other hand, had developed a safer version. The surgeon general wanted to manufacture it in the United States, and sent Slee to France to learn the secret.
Slee returned with a glowing report. Not only was the French formula more efficient, it had fewer side effects. As a bonus, it offered a longer shelf life, essential to any medicine that isn’t immediately used.
The surgeon general was so impressed, he encouraged Slee to build his own facility to manufacture the vaccine.
I came of age in the 1960s, absorbing the culture, identifying with the music, praying I wouldn’t get drafted and shipped to Southeast Asia.
The decade began with a revolt against the restrictions of the 1950s and folded back in on itself. Along the way, it bounced from one extreme to another. We marched for peace and rioted for justice. At Woodstock, we celebrated the unifying power of music. Four months later, the innocence died with the concert at the Altamont Speedway.
At the time, none of it made sense. As we approach the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, we have the opportunity to look back, not in anger but with an understanding of the forces that shaped our world.
The 12 brief essays that comprise Finding Woodstock reflect on one of America’s most turbulent times, examining the promise of the era and the decade that shaped our lives. A companion to the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, the collection provides the backstory to a generation that is still trying, as Joni Mitchell once sang, to get back to the garden.
I came of age in the 1960s, absorbing the culture, learning the music, praying I wouldn’t get shipped to Southeast Asia. While my new standalone novel is fiction, Born Under a Bad Sign is based on a series of historical and personal events that played out in many of our lives, from the war in Vietnam to the fight against the Tocks Island Dam to the dicey gigs our band played to keep the dream alive.
The novel launches today.
Titled after the 1967 hit by blues master Albert King, Born Under a Bad Sign introduces a pair of unlikely heroes, a Quaker and a rocker, Elizabeth Reed and Hayden Quinn—lovers, fighters and opposites in every way. It’s through their eyes that I’ve tried to capture the heady rush of those years. In the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the most famous rock festival of our time, we’ll look at the impact of the Sixties, at Woodstock and Vietnam, at the government’s plan to dam the Delaware River and the people whose homes and lives were demolished by that project.
And, above all, we’ll reconnect with the music. Join me as we revisit an era that shaped a generation.
Two years after the Summer of Love and life in the rural town of Pennsboro, Pennsylvania is about to explode. A dam that would flood the valley pits family against family. Protesters riot. Buildings burn. Amid the chaos of 1969, two lovers risk everything to fight for their dreams.
That turmoil forms the setting for my first standalone novel, Born Under a Bad Sign, a book that captures the spirit of the era through the eyes of an unlikely couple—a pacifist Quaker and a rebellious rocker, two people who wield their differences like armor and sword.
Elizabeth Reed has three passions: photography, the river the government wants to dam and a musician who can’t settle on any one person or place. Hayden Quinn, the guitarist Rolling Stone calls the next Jimi Hendrix, feeds a single obsession—to play Woodstock, the biggest concert of his life. He presents Elizabeth with a dilemma: does she stay to save her family farm, or relinquish her dreams to follow Quinn into the unknown?
In a time when her generation trusts no one under 30, Elizabeth must face the greatest risk of all—whether to trust herself.
The story of Elizabeth and Quinn is inspired by real events. I grew up in Northeast Pennsylvania, the site of that proposed dam, and watched the conflict tear apart families and entire towns. Our band never would have made it to Woodstock but we opened for national acts and played some of the holes Quinn’s fictional group plays. And like Elizabeth, I wielded a camera for a small newspaper that covered the crises of the region, including the forced eviction of its citizens and the squatters who claimed their land.
Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, the novel is a portrait of love and loss in the one of the most turbulent times in American history.