Change written in sky one October day

Before October 2017 becomes history, I’m looking back at several of this month’s important dates.
Two are closely related, because both have to do with the discovery of America. Since 1937, the second Monday of October has been observed as Columbus Day by presidential proclamation. There’s no day dedicated to Amerigo Vespucci, who arrived in what we call South America just a few years after Columbus hit the Bahamas; still, we can never forget him, because both our continents, North and South, carry his name.
But here is, also, a little-known recognition: Leif Erikson Day honors the Viking who may actually have discovered America 400 years before Columbus. Also by presidential proclamation, it’s nominally observed every year on Oct. 9 — although government workers don’t get any time off. Since I once had a neighbor who insisted that it would be un-American to forget Erikson, I honor him also every year on Columbus Day — whatever date that second Monday in October may be.
However, all that is mere prelude to the third, most important date: Oct. 4, 1957. It’s not a holiday. Yes, it gets brief mentions from the various media, but you had to be there to know how it felt — suddenly recognizing the turmoil our country was being tossed into. I know, because I was there, and like all who were there, I can remember how I got the news. I can see myself again, exactly where I was and who I was with, when word came that the Soviet Union had launched the world’s first satellite: Sputnik — a compact Russian word for something elliptical, capable of orbiting the earth.
Some weeks before, I’d had the privilege of hearing Buckminster Fuller speak. What impressed me most from the long talk was his recollection of pushing his baby girl in her pram when a plane flew overhead in a clear London sky. That was many years earlier; it was the first plane he’d ever seen. And the great geodesic dome designer shared his first thought: “My daughter is going to grow up in a different world.”
I was together with friends that Sputnik evening. We were in a local coffee shop, reviewing the lecture we’d just heard at Chicago’s old Max Strauss Jewish Community Center, when the news came on the TV that, up to that point, we’d been ignoring. The only word for what happened to us: Galvanized. We couldn’t speak. We couldn’t take our eyes off that telecast. All of us knew immediately that our country would change profoundly. It would have to…
My husband had stayed home with our year-old son so that I could attend that evening’s lecture, which I no longer recall anything about. But I remember thinking of Bucky Fuller, and of my little boy, who was going to grow up in a very different world…
Suddenly, America was babbling about the importance of math, which had lagged woefully behind in public education for a long, long time. And science, which was even farther behind. Not too many years before, I had graduated from one of the highest-ranking public high schools in the country, and all that was required of me in a college-prep curriculum was one semester each of general science, algebra and plane geometry. All of us, crowded around that Formica table, were college graduates in “soft” subjects; nobody knew anything about what we quickly realized would be most important for our own children to learn.
Then America rose to President JFK’s challenge: to put a man on the moon by the end of the ’60s. So on July 20, 1969, my husband and I, with our son — two weeks before his bar mitzvah — and his 9-year-old sister were glued to our TV at home, watching “one giant leap for mankind…”
For me, October will always be for remembering America’s three discoverers, plus the shock that made us wake up and smell the challenging smoke of a Russian satellite.

Leave a Reply