ANYWAY, the 1950s were an interesting time. The decade too often is dismissed as a period Americans were self-centered, naive ... and segregated. In view of what we've since become, culturally, at least, the 1950s seems a pinnacle from which we've been slipping and sliding ever since.
However, it was a scary time, and when you're scared, you do things that in retrospect seem unbelievably silly ... until years later when, in the midst of another cycle, you discover folks are still doing those things, not out of fear, but because they believe they have discovered something important.
Specifically, the 1950s was the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. People believed the two powers, which represented democracy versus communism, could at any time become engaged in a real war. The Korean War was an eye-opening scrimmage; there seemed to be a crisis every week around the Berlin Wall, and just over the horizon, into the 1960s, loomed Cuba.
OUR FEARS were such that our schools regularly conducted bomb drills. Students left classrooms and lined up against hallway walls ... in the belief this is where we'd be more protected during nuclear attack, perhaps winding up medium rare instead of burnt to a crisp.
One of the slogans of the time was "Duck and cover!" This was strongly ingrained in me by the time, as a teenager, I was rudely awakened by a fireworks rocket set off from the hill behind our house after the 8 o'clock mass at nearby St. Cecilia's Church.
It was August 15, a Catholic holy day (Assumption of Mary), and marked the end of St. Cecilia's three-day festival in the park at the end of my street. That rocket, believe it or not, was like a commercial, intended to remind residents of both the day and the festival.
I woke up abruptly, the noise ringing in my ears and my eyes blinded by the morning light. "They've dropped the big one!" I thought. And I instinctively dove off my bed into a corner to duck and cover.
IN SUCH an era it was small wonder we welcomed the diversion of reports about flying saucers or UFOs. True, some of us suspected that if these objects were real, they probably were experimental, American-made gadgets designed somehow to combat the Russkis. Or, they could be Soviet saucers used to spy on us.
But what if these things were from another planet ... another galaxy? What if aliens were sent to observe the nonsense that threatened World War III, which could destroy planet Earth?
It's a difficult thing to explain. I can't say I ever believed we were visited by beings from another planet, though there are people today who believe this has been going on for thousands of years and that humans are descendants of space creatures. Sounds far-fetched to me, though when you try to account for the differences between humans and other animals, this theory may make more sense than Darwin's.
Also, I can't say I was ever frightened by the prospect of space visitors, not even when people (most of them out west) insisted they had been abducted and interrogated, though eventually released by strange-looking creatures in saucer-shaped, glowing craft that hovered over Earth, emitting an ear-piercing hum.
AND YET . . . I often looked into the night sky, half hoping to see something unusual. The closest I came to what I now call "the Charlie Major experience" was in 1959 while driving from Solvay back to my rented room in Kent, Ohio, where I was my last weeks as a college student.
On this particular trip I drove south from the city of Conneaut along a stretch of Ohio's Route 7, an almost perfectly straight highway, paralleling the Pennsylvania border. This is the middle of nowhere at any time of the day, but in darkness it's unreal. So it was that I noticed a light in the sky, a light that seemed to follow me. For miles and miles and miles.
A small plane? No, I decided. A figment of my imagination? Please. I was wide awake. An optical illusion caused by some reflection off my car window? No. I rolled down my window. The light didn't disappear. It remained strong, brighter than the stars, and it continued to follow me.
IT WAS all very intriguing, at least during the 30 minutes or so that I experienced it, but I was, after all, more concerned with reaching my destination and getting a good night's sleep than I was in becoming a character in a sci-fi movie. I had a strong sense there was a good explanation for that light in the sky ... even while assuming I'd never read about it.
You see, there was something else about the 1950s ... an almost overwhelming fatalism. Songwriters Jay Livingston and Ray Evans said it best in 1956, and it was Doris Day who spread their message, albeit with a positive spin: "Que Sera, Sera, whatever will be will be."
So I took my eyes off the sky and concentrated on completing my trip without an accident. ("I didn't see the tree until it was too late, officer. I was being chased by a flying saucer!")
Besides, I figured if there really were space creatures interested in a little probe and tickle, well, they'd know where to find me. In the meantime, I was on the brink of adulthood, single, without a clue where I'd find the job that soon would be necessary.
So I had plenty of other things to worry about. In a way, being abducted by aliens would be the perfect escape.