Amy’s Bookshelf Reviews has given Distant Early Warning, my novel of the Cold War, a five-star review:
It’s an amazing plot that has multiple subplots that help the reader get to know the Andersens and the incomprehensible events that have affected their lives. The characters had a lot of depth and were very realistic. This book deserves a second read! (And maybe more). It’s definitely un-put-downable!
You can read the full text on the review site or on Goodreads. And, if you’d like to explore the effects of natural and human disasters on a family already facing the fear and paranoia of the 1950s, you can read a sample and buy the book on Amazon.
In the 1950s, a relatively unknown senator from Wisconsin reshaped America by alleging that Communists had infiltrated the U.S. State Department. By 1954, Joseph McCarthy was accusing the Army of harboring Reds. In riding those accusations to fame, the senator created a state of fear and paranoia that ruined careers and destroyed Americans’ trust in their own institutions.
That legacy that lives today, in the litmus tests of political loyalty.
The Red scare, which predated McCarthy, lasted well into the 1960s. It was fanned by publications such as the 1949 U.S. government pamphlet entitled 100 Things You Should Know about Communism.It defined the objectives of the Communist state and told Americans how to identify supporters and spies. “What is Communism?” the first question reads. “A system by which one small group seeks to rule the world.”
Here are two more examples:
Number sixty-two. “How can a Communist be identified? It’s easy. Ask him to name ten things wrong with the United States. Then ask him to name two things wrong with Russia. His answers will show him up even to a child.”
Number seventy-six. “Where can a Communist be found in everyday American life? Look for him in your school, your labor union, your church, or your civic club.”
Image reading this and other Cold War propaganda as a child. What kind of a world would that create? One you recognize today?
In 1950, the U.S. government published a pamphlet with the hopeful title of Survival Under Atomic Attack. The publication came five years after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan and one year after the Soviet Union developed its own atomic device. Both nations would develop more powerful thermonuclear weapons—hydrogen bombs—in the early years of the decade.
The booklet begins with an assessment of survival:
What are your chances? If a modern A-bomb exploded without warning in the air over your home town tonight, your calculated chances of living through the raid would run something like this:
Should you happen to be one of the unlucky people right under the bomb, there is practically no hope of living through it. In fact, anywhere within one-half mile of the center of explosion, your chances of escaping are about 1 out of 10.
On the other hand, and this is the important point, from one-half to 1 mile away, you have a 50-50 chance.
Under that hopeful assumption, the booklet goes on to explain flash burns and radiation before listing six survival tips for atomic attacks:
Try to get shielded
Drop flat on ground or floor
Bury your face in your arms
Don’t rush outside right after a bombing
Don’t take chances with food or water in open containers
Don’t start rumors
Easier said than done. In the Cold War novel Distant Early Warning, the residents of Pennsboro have a mixed reaction to that advice. Patriotic to the core, the Gouchers build a fallout shelter in their backyard. The rest of the neighbors are on their own. At work, Marshall Andersen hears the sirens blare and wonders if he can get home in time. His wife Georgia unplugs the iron and draws the curtains against a possible blast. Their son, Wil, ducks and covers in the hallway at school, frozen by the sound of impending doom.
The pamphlet offers a more hopeful appraisal.
“To sum up, If you follow the pointers in this little booklet, you stand far better than an even chance of surviving the bomb’s blast, heat, and radioactivity.”
They were all the rage in the late 1950s—fallout shelters you could build in your basement or backyard. Now viewed with comic tolerance, the shelters were a response to a series of very real threats, starting with the Korean War and the execution of the Rosenbergs for spying and culminating in launch of Sputnik in 1957. In between, the United States and the Soviet Union traded nuclear-bomb tests tit for tat. America and Canada built the Distant Early Warning Line of radar stations across the Arctic. The U.S. staged mass evacuations of its largest cities. And children huddled under their desks in duck-and-cover drills.
The threats were anything but comic.
In June 1959, the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization published a 32-page pamphlet called The Family Fallout Shelter. The text was sobering:
Let us take a hard look at the facts. In an atomic war, blast, heat, and initial radiation could kill millions close to ground zero of nuclear bursts. Many more millions—everybody else—could be threatened by radioactive fallout. But most of these could be saved. The purpose of this booklet is to show how to escape death from fallout.
The booklet contained building plans for several types of shelters: basement concrete block, above-ground double-wall, pre-shaped corrugated metal, and underground. (Harry Goucher used similar plans for his backyard shelter in the novel Distant Early Warning. Imagine you’re a young mother like Georgia Andersen watching him build a four-person bunker and wondering where the rest of your neighbors will shelter.)
The booklet listed equipment and supplies for a prolonged stay and advised readers to “be prepared to make it your home for 14 days or longer.” Four to six people in a shelter with a hand-crank air pump and a bucket for a toilet. How long do you think most of us would last?
I was old enough to remember but too young to understand the destruction and aftermath of the Flood of 1955. Back-to-back hurricanes Connie and Diane ravaged the Northeast that summer, dumping nearly two feet of rain on Northeast Pennsylvania where we lived and killing 184 people throughout the region. Some of the worst destruction happened in Connecticut.
The storms hit that August. Connie swept through with little to show except for rain. As if to blow the all-clear, the sun came out. I ventured into the backyard. Rain had turned the grass into a pond. It seemed miraculous.
Then, on August 18, came Diane, with its torrential rains and raging creeks that took a region by surprise. When the sun returned, my father packed me in the Buick for what came to be known as the disaster tour. One location remains embedded in memory: a stop by the Brodhead Creek along Stokes Mill Road just north of Stroudsburg, Pa. Climbing from the car, we viewed a great plain of mud, dried and cracked as if an earthquake had hit. Not a single tree, house, or rock. Just acres and acres of nothing.
I remember other things about that time: air-raid sirens near the Y, duck-and-cover drills in school, playground bullies and kick the can. Knowledge of the Cold War, the fear and paranoia over spies and nuclear attack, would come later.
Researching and writing about that era allowed me to explore the events and feelings of people who, at the time of the flood, were, for a child, out of reach. The result is Distant Early Warning, the story of a family—Marsh, Georgia, Penny and seven-year-old Wil—as they struggle with the perils and promise of the 1950s. The title refers to the line of radar stations strung across the Arctic Circle to detect incoming Russian bombers, but it could easily serve as a metaphor for a young boy’s discovery of the friendship of girls and the darkness that haunts his family, secrets buried deep beneath the mud.
That research also led me to discover these family photos of the aftermath of the flood, images unpublished until now.
Postscript: Thanks to members of two Facebook groups for their help in identifying the location of these photos: “I remember East Stroudsburg and Stroudsburg when . . . ” and “1955 Flood in Monroe County, PA, and environs.”
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!”