On top of the world

The Distant Early Warning Line was a system of 63 radar stations built across the Arctic Circle to detect Soviet bombers. Constructed by Western Electric, it extended 3,000 miles along the 69th parallel from Alaska to Baffin Island. The Arctic Institute of North America estimated it took 25,000 workers and $300 million to build the stations.

The U.S Air Force took operational control of the DEW Line on July 31, 1957, two months before the Soviet Union launched earth’s first man-made satellite, Sputnik.

This magazine ad appeared shortly after completion of the system.

Jeff Widmer’s latest book is Distant Early Warning, a novel of the Cold War.

The sound of the Cold War

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.

This is what the boys might have heard on their shortwave receiver. It is a recording of a woman reading a string of numbers in German. The numbers were often read in groups of three, four, or five. The file comes from The Conant Project on SoundCloud. The Conant Project consists of dozens of recordings of numbers stations from around the world, available for listening or download. (For a look at contemporary use of the stations, see the Numbers Stations Research and Information Center.)

Soviet spy radio set (Eagle) Mark II R-350M. (Photo by Maksym Kozlenko. Used with permission under Creative Commons license.)

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 Big Dig

Author Ann Hood came to Sarasota, Florida on Tuesday with a message for readers: It’s OK to feel.

Hood, the author of twelve novels including The Knitting Circle and The Obituary Writer, was in town to promote her latest, The Book That Matters Most, a work that involves one of Hood’s favorite groups—book clubs.

That was how she conducted her talk and signing at Bookstore 1 in Sarasota, a group of more than fifty people seated around her, enclosed by shelves of hardcovers and paperbacks.

Growing up, she said, “I wanted to live in a book.” Books provided relief from conflict. She wrote her first short story at the age of eight, after a reprimand from her grandmother. That, Hood said, was the beginning of her literary career.

But it was the tragedy in her life that has forced her to dig deep for meaning, and that process, something akin to an archaeology expedition, gave her writing a purpose.

“When I wanted to escape, I could pick up a book. But when I wanted to understand something, I could write a story.”