By Sam Garfield

Feb 25, 1958

(Edgewater Beach Hotel) –What’s it been, four months since the Russians launched their first Sputnik? Four months –shorter than a baseball season; one semester of school; about the proper amount of time to fashion a good nervous breakdown. And that’s what we’ve done ever since the first tiny Soviet light began to glide over our heads. Collectively, most every American, from sea to shining sea, has looked up into the sky –not in wonder, but in fear.

“Control of space means control of the world,” Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson told us at the start of this year. A few days later, President Eisenhower said, “Most of us did not anticipate the psychological impact upon the world of the launching of the first earth satellite.” How ‘bout that for New Year’s understatements.

But our fears did begin to dissipate somewhat this month following the successful firing of our own satellite, Explorer-I. There’s a new spring to our step. Gone is the massive hysteria, gone because of the Army’s mighty Jupiter-C rocket, whose shoulders propelled its Explorer payload, a six-foot-long metal tube, to speeds of 20,000 miles-per-hour on its journey around the world. Of course, we’re still behind the Russians in space technology, but we now sleep better, knowing that every 100 minutes or so Explorer is completing another orbit. The Russians sleep better, too, because our satellite does not pass over the Soviet Union. So, the race to capture space –capture the world– is on. In four short months, a space fear has turned to a space race. And the two most powerful nations in the world –both led by former military men– now have a new platform for war. Pick your horse. Eisenhower suddenly has a deeper stable. Now he can negotiate with the Soviets from a stronger position, and hopefully, Jupiter-C will also be able to lift peace talks with the Soviets to a safer place.

Meanwhile, on the chilly roof of the glamorous Edgewater Beach Hotel, Johnnie McGrath spends his nights watching the sky. He remains part of a special group of Americans –teenagers, housewives, retirees– who watch the skies for enemy aircraft. The Ground Observer Corps began during World War II as this country’s air warnings system. At one time, some 800,000 volunteers at more than 16,000 rooftops and search towers across America looked through binoculars and telescopes for hostile airplanes. But these days, we have the DEW Line (Distant Early Warning). And Russian ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missile) capable of delivering atomic warheads are our biggest threat. Not the manned bomber. Right?

“Then why do we still have Nike Ajak missile positions along the lakefront?” answered Johnnie McGrath, who has manned the roof of the Chicago’s tony Edgewater Beach Hotel for the past several years. “These missile batteries go from Gary to Jackson Park to Montrose Harbor. Not only that but we’re supposed to get the Nike Hercules, bigger missiles, soon. Look, as long as the Russians still have strategic bombers, we’ll still be up here looking for enemy planes.”

Last week I spent a night skywatching with McGrath, who’s a Chief Andy Frain usher when he’s not plane spotting. He’s a serious fellow, a smart fellow. He proudly wears his G.O.C Air Force wings, but he knows the world’s changing. He knows all about our sophisticated guided missiles. Names like Sidewinder, Redstone, Rascal Dart, Thor, they roll off his lips as easily as a promise from an alderman.

“With the cold war and all, the Ground Observer Corps has a feel-good nature about it,’ McGrath said. “And even though we’ve been reduced from 24-hour to ready-reserve status we believe in what we’re doing is necessary.”

McGrath and his crew operate from a small shack atop the hotel. They receive no pay and all their equipment –binoculars, telescopes, short wave radios and tape recorders, electrical installations– is donated from Chicago-area businesses. And the Edgewater Beach charges nothing for its penthouse space.

When McGrath spots an aircraft that looks suspicious he’ll check an Air Force “Soviet Aircraft Identification” chart. Then he’ll plot the time-and-coordinate and check the official Air Force manual for instructions. He’ll then call the Museum of Science and Industry, the GOC’s Chicago filter center. “Then it’s up to them,” McGrath said.

McGrath never said  –“we’re not allowed to”– how many reports of suspicious aircraft he’s reported to the Museum of Science and Industry. These days he’s tracking Sputnik II and space dog Laika. “I’m laying eight-to-five the Russians never see that dog again,” he said.

Johnnie McGrath’s skywatching nights appear to be numbered. He admitted there’s talk in Washington that new defense technology will replace the Ground Observer Corps by next year. Then he smiled, and said, “What in heaven’s sake is going on?”

Copyright © 2011. John Theodore — All Rights Reserved. Text may not be reproduced without permission.

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