[Poster on bedroom wall:
One night only! Friday, October 11! Come see Mr. Spectacular! The Bruiser Brothers! The Masked Whacker! And more!]
When I went to bed that night, all I could think about was Sputnik.
[Family gathered around the radio:
“He said â€˜Sputnik.'”]
We heard about it after dinner. The Russians — the Russians! — had launched this … thing into space, and it was sending back beeping signals.
It was called Sputnik. Sputnik weighed 184 pounds, and it was orbiting around and around the earth. Even over the United States.
[“Hey, 184 — same as me.”
Part of me was amazed, and part of me was scared. I wasn‘t sure which part was bigger.
Amazed because I didn‘t know anything about satellites or orbits or things that went “beep” in space. My dad knew a little, but he’d never tried to explain it before.
[“What makes Sputnik stay up there? Why doesn‘t it fly off into space or come crashing down?”
“Um, well… Gravity.”]
I was scared because the Russians were our enemy. We’d always heard that everything in the USA was better than in Russia. But we’d never launched a satellite, and now Russia had.
The worse an enemy is, the more names you have for them. We had a lot of names for the Russians.
The Russian leader once bragged, “We will bury you.” And if that wasn‘t frightening enough, at school we had to practice hiding under our desks in case a Russian bomb ever fell on us.
[“I’m not sure this will help.”]
The next day was Saturday. Instead of playing Mr. Spectacular vs. the Masked Whacker, my friends Ronnie and Dave and I talked about Sputnik.
[“Why don’t we just shoot it down?”
“Because it’s 560 miles up and going 18,000 miles an hour.”
“Do you think it’s got an A-bomb or an H-bomb?”
“Maybe a death ray.”
“Do you think it’s spying on us?”
“We aren‘t doing anything.”
“What does that â€˜beep-beep-beep’ mean, anyway?”
“Someone told me that it’s really â€˜deep-beep-beep.'”
“Well, what does it sound like to you?”
Most everyone took Sputnik seriously. Some people took it really seriously. My Uncle Earl, for one. My dad tried to be funny.
[“Not only are the blasted Russkies watching us, but you know what they’re gonna do next? Paint the moon red, just to show us they can!”
“Oh, come on. I weigh 184 pounds. How come no one’s scared of me?”]
All weekend, we could hear Sputnik beeping on the radio. We didn’t know if it was doing anything else. The Russians said it wasn‘t, but who believed them?
Politicians told us not to panic. But then they gave us reasons why we should.
[“If the Soviets can launch a Sputnik into orbit, what can’t they do? What can’t they do?“]
I learned everything I could about Sputnik, but even with three TV channels and two newspapers, it wasn‘t much. At school on Monday, everyone was talking about flying saucers. I tried to set them straight.
[“It’s actually round. Like a beach ball with antennas.”]
Our teachers told us how hard school was in Russia, and that was why they had the first satellite. We got twice as much homework as usual.
My mom went out and bought every science book she could find so that I could catch up with Russian kids.
[“Mom, this is about earthworms.”
“You think rocket scientists don’t need to know about earthworms?”]
I began to worry about Friday’s wrestling matches. Uncle Earl was supposed to take me, but he said Sputnik’s beeps were a secret code, and he wouldn‘t rest until he’d broken it.
“I’ll be out when I’m finished!”
“â€˜Boo hoo hoo?'”
“â€˜Bwa ha ha?'”]
I heard you could actually see Sputnik before sunrise or after sunset if it passed overhead. So I got up early and ate dinner late so I could watch for it.
Sometimes my friends joined me.
[“I bet we’ll beat â€˜em to Mars.”]
Sometimes my dad did.
[“I don’t see why all the fuss. After all…”
“I know, Dad — you weigh 184 pounds, too.”]
But Sputnik must have been over some other part of the world whenever I was looking.
Friday evening came. Mom was playing bridge. Dad said he had to work late. I sat on the porch to wait for Uncle Earl, just in case.
And then I saw a bright orange glow begin to streak across the sky. It was speeding along, but the sky was so big, it seemed to take forever. At that moment, I wasn‘t scared at all. I was just amazed. People had put that streak up there.
[“It’s beautiful. No one told me Sputnik was beautiful.”]
My uncle showed up a few minutes later.
[“Did you break the code?”
“No. It broke me. Let’s go see some rasslin‘.”]
Just before the main event, the announcer spoke to the crowd.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a special guest tonight, joining us all the way from Moscow, Russia, in the U.S.S.R.”
The rest of the crowd booed, but I didn‘t. The masked grappler looked familiar. And ridiculous.
“Weighing in at a mighty 184 pounds, it’s… Sputnikolai!”
The boos turned to laughter. Sputnikolai winked at me.
Now I really wasn‘t scared.