04 October 2007

Sputnik & St. Francis

Today, October 4th, is the 50th anniversary of the launching of the first man made satellite in history. The U.S.S.R. (Soviet Union) launched it in 1957 when I was ten years old. It was called “Sputnik” by the Russians which in Russian is written "Спутник". The word Sputnik means "co-traveler" or "traveling companion". Ironically, October 4th is also the feast day of Francesco Bernardone who is better known as St. Francis of Assisi, one of the best loved of the Christian saints. The day gives me mixed feelings because I love St. Francis but I hate Sputnik…a lot. The United States and the Soviet Union were deeply engaged in the so called “Cold War” in those days and we were at the height of the communist scare. Nikita Khrushchev, The First Secretary of the Communist party of the U.S.S.R, was telling us that they would bury us and we were always afraid that the Russians would bomb us with nuclear bombs just about any day.

As a ten year old I was terrified to have Sputnik flying over our heads going “beep, beep, beep”. The Catholic nuns who taught me didn’t help my fears one bit because they were always talking about dying with sins on your soul and going straight to hell and burning in unquenchable fires for ever and ever. I don’t even know which was worse, the Russians or the nuns. Even the priests got into the act. Our priest would shout at us from the pulpit on Sunday, “If the Russians manage to drop the atomic bomb on this parish tonight, fifty percent of you are going to wake up in Hell”. I can still hear his voice and it gives me the shivers. The terrible scare wouldn’t seem to go away and the Sputnik signals continued for 22 days until the transmitter batteries ran out on October 26th. That wasn’t the end of it however. It got worse. On November 3, Sputnik II was launched, carrying a much heavier payload which this time included a dog named Laika who was never returned to Earth. This showed us how cruel the Russians were and because they were atheistic communists that they didn’t care about life. We had a family dog at the time that looked very much like Laika. We called her “Cindy” (short for Cinderella). We would never even think of leaving Cindy up in space like that. This was just about too much for a 10 year old boy to comprehend.

The paranoia went on for several months until January 31, 1958, when the United States successfully launched Explorer I. This made me feel a lot better because I knew that our American satellite could probably kick the Russian Satellite’s ass. Years later, while visiting the United nations complex in New York City with my daughter Angela, I discovered that there was a replica of Sputnik I hanging from the ceiling. Immediately my heart started pounding and I could feel my face flush red and all of the feelings of fear and hate that I had as a child came back to me. In all, there were actually 41 sputniks launched during the Soviet space program but none of the latter had the impact on me that the first two had. The world has changed quite a bit since then and Russia is now merely a rival and not an enemy. I hope that it stays that way. Young people today have enough o worry about without another “Beep, beep, beep”.

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.