Thursday, May 19, 2005

How Francis Gary Powers changed my life

Walter Cronkite, in an NPR commentary, reminded us that it’s been 45 years since the U-2 crisis. It happened the spring of 1960, and was the first crisis in that decade of crises. Eisenhower was president, and the nation was still reeling from the Soviet Union’s Sputnik and Lunik space missions. Although I was a child at the time, I remember it well, because of the effect it had on my family. In the fall of 1958, my father, frustrated with the low salary of an instructor at the University of Iowa, took a job teaching technical writing at the Sandia Corporation in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The job paid well, and my family moved into a nice house in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights. Sandia Corporation was a defense contractor. Its scientists were in the business of designing the nation’s most fearsome weapons. Working for Sandia, my dad had a better idea of how close we had come to nuclear war when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev announced that an American spy plane had been shot down over Russia, and proved it by producing the pilot, Francis Gary Powers.

After the crisis, my parents mortgaged the house to the hilt in order to build a fallout shelter in the backyard. Lots of people in Albuquerque were building fallout shelters--there were at least three on my block. Everyone knew that the city was the Soviets’ Number Seven target, thanks to Kirtland Air Force Base and Sandia Corporation.

There were a number of contractors building fallout shelters in those days, but the best was Powers Construction Company. It was owned, or so my parents told me, by the brother of Francis Gary Powers. I don’t believe anyone thought there was a conspiracy, but it seemed ironic, to say the least, that the terrible luck of one brother would lead to the prosperity of another.

The financial strain caused by the fallout shelter must have put a great strain on my parents’ marriage. Later, my father left Sandia for a lesser-paying teaching post at the University of New Mexico because he didn’t want to contribute to the building of nuclear weapons, however peripherally. And my mother, to try to help the fill the income gap, got her teaching certificate and began teaching high-school English. That should have helped things, but it seemed to drive my parents further apart. There were other strains, the principal one being my dad’s failure to pass the PhD exam at Iowa. One of the professors on his committee had a longstanding grudge against him. And there was an underachieving son named Steve. My father became depressed, talked openly to my mother of suicide, and eventually left the house.

When my parents divorced in 1965, my brother and I went with my mother to Iowa City, where the obsession with nuclear annihilation was far less pronounced, and political liberalism was the norm.

My father found happiness in his second marriage, went on to complete his PhD, and taught English at several universities. He and his wife (also a noted English professor) returned to New Mexico after their retirement. He died last December.

My mother taught English, worked for Paul Engle’s International Writing Program, and eventually became a psychiatric social worker. She also retired to New Mexico, but died in 1989.

So Francis Gary Powers, without knowing it, changed my life when he bailed out of U-2 spy plane and into the national headlines. Would my parents’ marriage have survived had it not been for the fallout shelter? Perhaps not. But it would have broken up at another time and under different circumstances. And I would not be the same.


robin andrea said...

The very fact of Francis Gary Powers changed a lot of lives, but perhaps none more as intimately or significantly as it did yours, and your parents. This is a very moving post, Steve. It makes me wonder if you were reconciled with your father, and certainly you have become so much more than an underachieving son. Your writing is quite evocative.
I look forward to reading more of your blog.

Susan said...

When are you going to post some more! Missing you.

Peter said...

Very nice essay here. Thanks.

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