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Close Encounters with Science: Picks

Nuclear Family by Terri Favro

I was born in the big, fat fifties, a decade stuffed with lardy piecrusts, fluffernutters and fear. With the hands of the Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight, I picked the wrong time and place to be born: Niagara may have seemed all fruit farms and factories, but as my father pointed out, “We’ll be the first to go.” His favourite magazine, Popular Science, said that the nearby hydro-generating station was a first-strike target.

Death from above hovered like a cloud on the blue sky of my childhood. I had barely blown out the candles on birthday cake when the Soviets launched little Laika the dog on Sputnik II.
Down on Earth, I slept my cozy baby sleep, my capitalist cats curled in a box. But the grown-ups had bigger worries than pets in space. The Soviets had the jump on us. Canada’s Civil Defense Department handed out flyers explaining how to ready ourselves for attack: crouch against a good, strong wall and put our arms over our heads.

I loved the flyer’s drawing of a girl about my age doing duck-and-cover in her crinoline dress. The Soviets must have dropped the bomb while she was on her way to a party.

The space race was the happy flipside on the long-play record of the nuclear arms build-up. Dad said that if they blew up the Earth, we could escape to the Moon.

Everyone’s favourite scientist, Wernher Von Braun, began appearing on TV to prepare us for the World of Tomorrow. He explained the challenge of escaping Earth’s atmosphere -- “Und now Goofy and Pluto vill enter the Mercury rocket… look, they are veightless!”

In his stiff Prussian accent, he promised all the possibilities in Popular Science. Flying cars. Jet packs. Silver jumpsuits. I looked forward to moving sidewalks because worms couldn’t slither out on them after rainstorms.

To the up-down, up-down wailing of the town’s air raid siren, teachers herded us into darkened hallways.

Pretend the bombs are coming. Pray.

I sniffed a bathroom smell as one of the boys, crouched against the wall beside me, peed his pants.

Afterwards, we all went home for a hot lunch.

Mercury. Gemini. Apollo. Sipping Tang, I watched every mission: the ritual of the booster rockets falling away. Men in horn-rims tossing pens in the air. Astronauts speaking from space, like angels with Texas accents.

On Christmas Eve, 1968, we saw Apollo Eight enter lunar orbit, circle the Moon, and return. 

“Like a test drive,” Dad explained.

Captain Lovell read from the Book of Genesis: In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth… I was astonished to see cheese-shaped slices of the moon through the capsule’s pie-shaped window.

The next summer, I watched Neil Armstrong’s puffy foot step down into lunar dust. We no longer needed to be afraid. Soon, my family and I would be up there, too, snapping Kodachromes of one other against a dangling blue Earth, lunar tourists in the Sea of Tranquility.

Terri Favro is from Toronto, ON.

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