Sputnik, water, diversity, Pasadena

Books Of The Region

October 07, 2001|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

The last time the world changed, color TV and automobile tailfins were big in the American mind. It was Oct. 4, 1957; suddenly, a metal spheroid was circling Earth, and beeping hello. A Soviet Russian spheroid, named Sputnik. Nothing man-made had ever before gone up that high, let alone stayed there. "Shoot it down!" roared Sen. John Marshall Butler of Maryland.

Many Americans had been assuming that whenever space travel arrived, it would have red, white and blue tailfins. Also, that if and when any Communists ever sent up a long-range object, it would be pointed west and its cargo would be nuclear.

In his account of that earlier day of huge headlines, Sputnik, the Shock of the Century (Walker, $28, 310 pages), Paul Dickson of Garrett Park has reconstructed the abrupt start of the space age, not only from letters to the editor but also from now-declassified government documents. Forty-four years later, the nation's awakening from ignorance and self-admiration still isn't all that amusing.

Army, Navy and the newly independent Air Force had separate, competing rocket programs -- with frequent launch-pad fizzles. At Baikonur Cosmodrome (which did not announce failures), additional Sputniks and then Luniks seemed to widen Russia's lead. Ultimate U.S. triumph, 1969's moon visit (under a later, civilian agency), was with large thanks to the Army's product, as realized in part by World War II engineers from Germany's V-2 rocketry, led by a former SS major.

Meanwhile, man-on-the-moon simply wasn't President Eisenhower's goal. He was instead promoting the principle of international open skies -- Sputnik represented just that. Since 1956, American U-2 stealth aircraft had been photographing Soviet missile bases. They knew; we didn't know they knew. Up Eisenhower's other sleeve was Corona, a super-secret surveillance satellite, still in early development.

Dickson, as a college freshman in 1957, stared at that 184-pound. super-beach ball as it overflew Middletown, Conn. Since then he has written some 40 books, many on baseball, but has long "been obsessed" with Sputnik (properly pronounced Spootnik). Dickson is even-handed in his treatment of many clashing agenda and personalities, governmental and military. As Sputnik closes, with the liftoff of Apollo XI and then the exultant cry "Eagle has landed!" that earlier generation may be envied for the happy ending to its cataclysm.

Sputnik should climb far up the lists, and have a long ride.

Meet four Baltimore women: a psychiatric social worker, a client from the slums, a Minnesota-raised M.D., a medical records secretary. They intersect at the Charm City Community Mental Health Center. The loads on their minds aren't heavy enough already; the health center is closing.

Monday at the Charm, a first novel by Dr. Dinah Miller (AmErica House, 214 pages, $19.95 softbound), probes these four troubled women in sequence, investing each with warmth and plausibility. (Their menfolk, too, are three-dimensional.) In none of these lives is crisis a new experience. One woman's husband died young, another's turns out to be a transvestite; one woman's son has leukemia, another's is in jail. These women don't all like, or even respect, one another. All this on a single day, and in here-and-now, Carney-to-Pigtown, Baltimore.

Dinah Miller, a gifted writer, doesn't overdo the psychological disorders. The simple daily grind brings stress and to spare. Which of these persons will or won't cave in? Many a reader of Monday at the Charm will come away not understanding altogether why, but feeling better.

To any student of our hydro-sphere, Mick Blackistone's byline is a familiar one. Now when his topic is Chesapeake Bay watermen -- books about whom might already fill a bushel -- what Blackistone has to say is worth close attention.

Much of his Dancing With the Tide (Tidewater, 266 pages, $24.95) is given over to the actuality of crabbing (maybe 200 million of them a year, in Maryland and Virginia, and their life pattern is still unclear), oystering, clamming, eeling, seining for rock, shad and other fish. Blackistone, living in Fairhaven among watermen, can invite himself and his camera along, at ungodly hours and temperatures and deck tilts. To him, these are hunter-gatherers, almost from the Native American mold. From many sides their workplace, their livelihood are in peril.

Blackistone spotlights the many contrary forces, from recreational fishing to conservation to politics (is the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement doing any real good?) to polluted runoff to simple, basic overpopulation. Looking ahead, he doesn't weep openly for his friends. But he strives to awaken the rest of us to impending loss.

In which year, 1790 or 2000, did the U.S. headcount show a larger proportion of African-Americans? The answer is 1790. Name someone who is a Cablinasian? the answer is Tiger Woods.

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