Column – Eyes to the sky 3….2….1…. blast off

Published 3:53 pm Tuesday, May 23, 2023

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The year 1961 starts off in an explosion of news and turmoil. On Jan. 4, an explosion of a nuclear reactor killed three people in Idaho Falls. 

While the weather was cold and icy, it paled in comparison to the icyness of the relations between the Soviet Union and the United States. The Cold War was heating up fast. In January 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower broke diplomatic relations with Cuba, and all Americans were advised to evacuate. 

Other headlines from the first months of 1961 included “U.S. Newsmen in Cuba held,” “Boston flier said killed, Havana hit” and  “Soviets test nuclear weapons.” At the bottom of the front page, in a 15-part series over as many days, the News-Herald ran “Knowing What to do Increases Your Chances You Can Survive Atomic Attack.” It detailed how to build a “poor man’s fallout shelter,”  the danger of the radiation, how long to stay in the shelter in case of attack, essentials needed in the shelter, what different bombs do, how to survive them and how to cope with and clean up in the aftermath. 

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While nuclear war was on everyone’s mind, their eyes were turned to the sky or the closest television set. 

On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard Jr. was the first American launched into space. The United States had reached a historic moment in the space race. Shepard radioed from the weightless void of space that he could see, through his periscope, the entire East Coast of the United States.

In August, scientists announced it may be a decade or more before permanent bases are established on the moon. On Feb. 20, 1962, John Glenn became the first human to orbit earth. 

“Shortly after launch, Glenn reported a tremendous view of the earth stretching back to Cape Canaveral. He also said he saw his booster rocket falling away after it had unleashed him on his orbital path. Over the Canary Islands, he said that the horizon appeared to be a brilliant blue. “I am very comfortable,” he said. “I have a wonderful view of Africa. I have the Canaries in view through the window but they are partly obscured by clouds.’’ He said his view of Africa also was partly blocked by heavy clouds, which gradually thinned out as he passed out over the Indian Ocean. Glenn had a good view of the southern United States as he passed over on completion of his first orbit. President Kennedy was reported as very pleased that the flight was going off successfully.

Post offices around the country had packages delivered prior to Feb. 20 marked do not open. Once Glenn was picked up from the Atlantic following his flight and deemed safe, a message went out to all post offices to open the packages and sell the commemorative stamps. 

The same week as the history-making space orbit, a new comic was advertised on the front page: “The Flintstones.” The notice said, “Even in the Space Age, everyone will find a chuckle in the Stone Age satire.”

In May 1962, a new medical procedure that could be performed by ordinary people was unveiled. The procedure, known now as Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation, or CPR, was at the time called “Reviving a heart beat” and said to have been developed to restore heartbeat and breathing to a person whose heart has stopped. Diagrams included on the page illustrated the procedure. The short article explained “direct breathing mouth to nose” and proper external heart massage can prevent damage to the brain and other organs if done within four minutes of the heart stopping.  

In other medical news, Dr. Sue Eggleston Woodward became the first female doctor who was a native Suffolkian. There had been female doctors practicing in Suffolk, and there had been Suffolkian women who became doctors and went elsewhere, but Dr. Woodward was the first Suffolk-raised and practicing female doctor. 

In May 1961, some workmen in the Great Dismal Swamp discovered a safe, stolen 16 years prior from a service station, along the Jericho Ditch. The safe was turned over to the sheriff’s department and then returned to Spivey’s Texaco station on U.S. 13. Delmer Spivey found old account statements in the remains of the safe dating back to 1932. Despite their long immersion in water, the bills were legible. 

In November of 1962, a break in the tension finally came, as 40 Soviet rockets stationed in Cuba were dismantled and removed, immediately followed by the end of the Cuba blockade.

Jen Jaqua is the creative director for the Suffolk News-Herald. She can be contacted at