Chuck Oates
5 October 2007

Rev. 8 October 2007

Norman, Oklahoma, USA

 

Beeeeeep, Beep, Be-Beep

 

I remember coming home from Mrs. Marcel Brewer's third grade classroom on October 4, 1957 and being greeted with news that the Soviet Union had launched the first Earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik I (in Russian, "Fellow Traveler").  There were worried looks on my parents' faces and comments from neighbors that "them Ruskies" were gonna get us.  I too was worried, mostly because my parents were worried, but I had no perception of the profound impact this event would have on my life.


 

A few nights later we gathered in our front yard to watch the bright little satellite as it zipped through Amarillo's post-sunset sky.  We listened to the news reports on TV and to the recordings of the satellite's strange, slowly beeping radio transmitter.  The success of the Soviet satellite, along with several spectacularly disastrous live-TV attempts by the U.S. to duplicate the feat in the months that followed, stirred up some interest in model rocketry among my schoolmates, but aside from some model rockets made for science fair projects, there wasn't all that much activity.


 

U.S. military planners and political leaders were, of course, much more energetic.  They instituted crash programs to transform military missiles into man-carrying vehicles to match the Soviet spectacular that would obviously happen soon:  the launching of Yuri Gagarin into orbit on my thirteenth birthday in 1961.  Later in 1961, when the U.S. had a grand total of 15 minutes flying in space, President Kennedy, in a speech at Rice Stadium in Houston, announced the goal of landing men on the Moon and returning them safely to Earth by the end of the decade, 1969,1 and the race was on.


 

More importantly for me, political leaders at the national level determined that we would need a great many more scientists, mathematicians, and engineers if we were to avoid being bullied by a Soviet Union that would soon be able to rain nuclear-tipped hypersonic intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) on the U.S. mainland.  Innovative math and science programs, including the New Math program of the Science and Math Study Group2 and the physics and chemistry courses of the Physical Science Study Committee3 were soon introduced in high school curriculums.  These were the precursors of today's advanced placement (AP) programs in the same subjects.   Junior high school kids, this writer included, were screened for "high ability in science, mathematics, and English" and recruited (impressed, in its British Royal Navy sense, might be a better term) for accelerated science, math, English, and history programs to fill the pipeline for the required professions.  To refuse entry into such a program was not only frowned upon, but was seen in conservative Amarillo as downright unpatriotic.


 

Thus began for me and many of my peers a long road of accelerated science and math courses, taken a year—sometimes two—before the customary time, along with all the English, history, and foreign language that could be packed into a high school curriculum.4  Along the way, I fell in love with physics and computer programming, and that infatuation grew into a reverence and respect that persists to this day.  It saddens me that I chose to lay aside almost equally strong interests in instrumental and choral music, as well as journalism, photojournalism, and flying.  How those might have developed in an atmosphere free of threat from almost-no-warning nuclear bombing from space, I don't know.  I'll always wonder what lay down those paths untaken. 


 

I believe the road I chose has been, on balance, a good one.  Its entrance was marked only with a shiny basketball-sized satellite emitting strange, slow radio beeps.


-- Prof. Oates

 

1 Kennedy's statement, "Why do we choose to go to the Moon? Why does Rice play Texas? … We choose to go to the Moon and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard," was part of the standard newsreel fair, but the phrase "why does Rice play Texas" and the material before it is often omitted from the newsreel coverage shown today.  The President's speech was delivered from a lectern backed by members of the Rice Owl Band, sporting the same Air Force-looking military hats with bizarre silver "Brillo soap pad" plumes that I would later wear as a Rice bandsman.  These shine forth in the often-shown news footage of Kennedy's stadium speech.

 

2 SMSG or Some Math, Some Garbage

 

3 PSSC or Pretty Sorry Science Course

 

4 Thousands of very belated thanks go to Amarillo Public Schools 1960s teachers, Mr. B.J. Mathis, General Science, who knew about literally everything ; Mrs. Emily Springer, Algebra I and Summer '63 Modern Math (I still convert decimal numbers to hexadecimal on a fairly regular basis, by the way.  I haven't continued the habit of falling to my knees with arms extended upward and bowing in mock idolatry to any other math teachers, however!);  Mr. Joe Norman, Algebra II;  Mrs. Atlanta Kaye, the scourge of Chemistry I ("If I propel this chalk through space [she then beans a back row chemistry student with a piece of chalk], it is still calcium carbonate, CaCO3 ; if I grind it into the floor [stomps the chalk into fine powder on the floor with great relish and flair], it is still  calcium carbonate, CaCO3...),  as well as her husband, "Dr." Kaye, a pharmacist, Physics I substitute teacher, and Russian language study inspiration, par excellence; Mr. Ted Lewis, Chemistry II;  Mr. Dalton M. Teague, Geometry and Trigonometry, an absolutely outstanding math teacher; Charles A. Campbell, Physics I and II, a physics teacher who has no peers;  outstanding English teachers, Mrs. Anita Hammitt, seventh grade English, Mrs. M. L. Matherly, English 21-22;   Mrs. Mary Connerly, English 31-32;  Mrs. Wanda Dement, English Composition 40;  and Mrs. Marian Shoen ("Shane"), Vocabulary 40;  "Uncle" Wayne Muller, Band and Orchestra; Mr. Ronald Charles Wells, a.k.a.: "Waldo," Band and Orchestra; as well as Texas A&M mathematics professor and 1965 National Science Foundation Summer Science Training Program director, Dr. William S. McCulley, a maker of mathematical wonderment, excellent homemade ice cream, and outstanding bagpipe music, also homemade.