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Author of this essay:

Shi Ming Zhen
(July 15, 2004)

by Ming Zhen Shakya

Most people have a hero - someone who instructs, inspires and challenges. Our resident computer whiz has his, Don Knuth - someone I'd never heard of until he mentioned his name in a discussion we were having about geniuses.

I asked him who Don Knuth was, and by way of introduction he sent a url which, when I clicked on it, was filled with absolutely unintelligible information. It seems that Professor Knuth is Stanford University's ultimate word on Computer Science.

But I continued to poke around the various sections of his website until I came to one that revealed something I could understand... or thought that perhaps I understood. Professor Knuth has a hobby of photographing highway road signs. In particular, he likes the diamond shaped ones.

So why would a computer genius go around taking pictures of diamond shaped road signs?

Scientists look in one place for answers: clerics look in another. As I sat here searching for an explanation, I remembered a moment in time to which historians do not even allocate a footnote. Unless a person was alive and aware during the time in which that moment occurred and was as properly bewildered by the Time as he was dazzled by the Moment, he would accord it no significance. Highway road signs are not just highway road signs. I remember when they were the only sane thing in a world gone mad.

The Moment occurred on November 8, 1968.; and the Time was that era of irrationality that compressed itself into the Sixties.

As we approached the Sixties, television had forced a change in perspective, but we had not had sufficient time to reorient ourselves - from the old way of getting news to the new. The immediacy of the televised image made reflection impossible. For the first time that I can remember, viewers weren't just retrospective onlookers, they felt involved in an ongoing process. Nothing was past or far away. And the words that tried to explain the images were themselves in an alien idiom. Fission. Fusion. UFO. Brainwashing. E.V.A. Kwashiorkor. Broken Arrows. Destroying something in order to save it. And violence being as American as Cherry Pie.

We rushed through events like passengers in a runaway train, plunging downhill, accelerating around curves. Nobody could see where we were going and we were either screaming or too scared to speak.

Boundaries disappeared. Science fiction crossed at will into science fact.

Outer Space had always fascinated us; but when the Soviets launched Sputnik in l957, the sky grew fearful. (That year the official Soviet Christmas card sent to foreign diplomatic services announced, in the mockingly anti-religious way of Communist thought, "There is a new star in the heavens.") We could hear it beeping on our radios.

The Russian Space Program showed that rocket ships - real ones not just Hollywood props - could break out of earth's gravitational prison; but then, by some curious coincidence, other beings, from unknown worlds, were simultaneously trying to break in. Every day, somewhere on the planet, somebody experienced an alien encounter or saw a UFO. The derangement that would be manifest in the Sixties began when fiction became plausible.

Queen Juliana of the Netherlands invited author George Adamski to lunch with her. Mr. Adamski numbered among his friends citizens from Venus and Mars and he, himself, had actually been taken on a journey into outer space. He had written the popular Flying Saucers Have Landed, and the Queen wanted to meet him. The Queen was not alone. Many important people wanted to meet him.

Books, films, television programs, both as fiction and as non-fiction, dealt with these ubiquitous alien incursions. In India people had been scratched in peculiar ways by the occupants of a UFO. In Venezuela police documented accounts of alien spacemen and their flying saucers. Every law enforcement agency on the globe recorded similar incidents.

Public skepticism - not of the alien invasions but of the government's refusal to acknowledge the invasions grew. People openly derided the official Project Blue Book explanation that a UFO landing in Dexter, Michigan, was simply "swamp gas." When prestigious Aviation Week suggested that some UFO sightings might be ball lightning, readers objected. The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) was more accommodating and formed a committee to study UFO sightings. Thanks to the X Files, the public reaction to Roswell and Area 51 now needs no elaboration.

As we moved inexorably toward the lunacy of 1968, something everyone had suspected all along passed the test of reasonable doubt: in 1967 Erich Van Daniken wrote Chariots of the Gods? and offered photographic evidence that those Nazca lines and cobbled artworks could have been meant for none other than alien spacemen. We beamed radio signals into space to tell them "Earth says 'Hi'."

As the decade began, nearly half the U.S. population was under twenty. The staggering number of babies born after WWII had come of age. Public schools could not keep up with both the inner-city overcrowding and the exodus to the suburbs. Educational levels declined in tandem with our national self- image.

Sputnik made us wonder what had happened to our old, reliable Yankee ingenuity. Our attempts to put even a grapefruit-sized satellite into orbit became pitiable as, one after another, efforts to launch a rocket failed. It didn't help when ABC's news coverage of one Vanguard flop let us hear the shout of Achtung! that went over the loudspeakers at Cape Canaveral prior to launch.

The USSR's hegemony extended over vast areas of the world: the enormous northern Asian land mass, right up to 20 miles from Alaska. Mongolia. China. Yugoslavia. Albania. East Germany. Poland. Bulgaria. Hungary. Romania. North Vietnam. Cuba. The Congo. South Yemen. One country after another fell behind the Iron Curtain.

Chinese leaders had much admired Soviet science, which included the bizarre agricultural concepts of Trofim Lysenko. Russia had experienced its own disastrous famines by instituting his methods and strongly advised China not to follow them, but the suspicious Chinese ignored the advice and ordered their farmers to plant seeds very densely (choking seedlings to death); to kill all birds (increasing insect damage); to plow 4 to 5 feet deep (wasting time and labor); to not use fertilizer (producing puny crops); and so on. Between twenty and thirty million Chinese starved to death in 1960. The decade was not off to a good start.

Russia responded by withdrawing financial and military assistance to China and curtailing domestic and political advice. For the rest of the world, they flaunted their scientific expertise by exploding a 50 megaton nuclear bomb that could be seen 600 miles away.

President Kennedy advised his fellow citizens to build bomb shelters; and those who could afford to, did.

In l961 communists erected the Berlin Wall, 90 miles of 12 feet high concrete and barbed wire. At least a hundred people would be shot to death trying to cross it to freedom.

Two other problems surfaced. In 1945, two atomic bombs had been dropped on Japan causing casualties of a quarter million - this included countable dead, wounded, those who would later die of radiation-caused diseases, and those who were missing and therefore assumed to have been vaporized at ground zero.

The bomb dropped on Hiroshima had the explosive force of 15,000 tons of TNT. The one on Nagasaki had the explosive force of 21,000 tons. Total: 36,000 tons. By 1951 the total of explosive nuclear force released into the earth's atmosphere had reached 600,000 tons. By 1962, the total had risen to 500,000,000 tons. The testing of new and more powerful Hydrogen bombs accounted for the increase.

While the Chinese were deliberately killing their birds, Rachel Carson began to wonder why ours weren't being born. In l962 she published her disheartening revelation, The Silent Spring. We looked around and tried to remember the last time we saw an eagle or a falcon or a bluebird... or even a robin. DDT had gotten into the birds' food chain, preventing eggs from developing. The poison was also in our bodies.... as was the nuclear explosions' byproduct, Strontium 90, cited as the cause for the shocking increase in childhood leukemia.

But the political problems always took precedence. Every country had a Communist Party, in or out of view. China had moved into Tibet and then, in l962, tried to invade India. The U.S. sent supply planes and China backed off, having already secured part of the territory it wanted.

Previously, the U.S. strategy had been "defense and counter strike." Accordingly we had constructed the DEW (Distant Early Warning) Line, a string of 63 radar stations spaced like beads on a 3000 miles long necklace that crossed Alaska and Canada just north of the Arctic Circle.

But by 1962 the Soviets were installing nuclear missiles in Cuba which would have made the DEW Line as useless as the Maginot Line. Kennedy stood firm and blockaded Cuba, demanding the removal of all Soviet missiles. A deal was made: We would remove our missiles from Turkey and they would remove theirs from Cuba. But it had become clear that the little coups and tricks of the CIA and the "point, counter-point" strategy would no longer suffice. The USS Ethan Allen, while submerged, successfully fired a Polaris missile armed with a nuclear warhead that detonated over the Pacific. Anybody could locate Cuba on a map; but only a few people ever knew where the Ethan Allen and her sister subs were prowling. Or the Soviet subs, too, for that matter.

And so a more active role was necessary. Containing and then reversing communist expansion became the strategy. What was even more desirable to many anti-communist enthusiasts was the "pre-emptive first strike" advocated by General Curtis LeMay, the brilliant "Father of the Strategic Air Command" (SAC).

But in 1962 those of us who were not privy to state secrets went to work every day and got our attitude and insights from movies.

Hitchcock's The Birds captured our confusion. We knew that we were under attack but no more understood the reason than the people in the film understood why those birds were after them.

We saw The Manchurian Candidate and learned the term, "brainwashing." North Korean communists psychologically manipulated a captured American soldier into becoming a president's assassin. Critics called the film far-fetched and then, in 1953, while riding in Dallas, President Kennedy was assassinated by a communist-sympathizing former U.S. soldier.

When the Soviets made a point of announcing that they now had a 100 megaton bomb the news spurred an agreement between the US, UK, and Soviets to cease atmospheric testing; but other countries were not worried about the atmosphere. In a joint venture, Israel and South Africa successfully tested a nuclear bomb. India was in the process of double-crossing Canada by using technology intended for peaceful purposes to develop nuclear weapons. Pakistan rushed through its program; and France withdrew from NATO and proceeded with its own nuclear weapons' development, eventually exploding 46 bombs in the atmosphere without bothering to tell its Polynesian workers the dangers they were being exposed to. And China was building its own nuclear arsenal.

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