Open the scrapbook of your mind and look back to your childhood. Do you remember the first organization or club you joined as a child?
Perhaps it was the Brownies, Cub Scouts or 4-H? I became a Brownie and then a Girl Scout, and it was through this organization that I learned how to properly set a table and how to make a “nurse’s corner” when making a bed. But the Brownies was not the first organization I joined.
While a first or second-grader in Cook, Minn., my family served our country by joining the Ground Observer Corp (GOC), a volunteer civilian group of sky watchers that was organized by the U.S. Air Force during the Cold War under the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower. Volunteers were sought in all the northern states along the Canadian border and states along the east and west coasts.
Since the U.S. was only protected by an inadequate radar network, volunteers were recruited to watch for planes while a stronger radar network was being constructed nationwide. As volunteers, my parents and over 200,000 volunteers were trained in identifying enemy planes, mainly Russian, including the altitude and direction the planes were flying. Volunteers were assigned to shifts of sky watching, and many times my mother would take me along.
We climbed stairs up to the roof of the city hall in Cook where we stood in a small shack constructed on the roof with an unobstructed view of the skies. I brought books to read and coloring books, while mom would periodically look through binoculars at the sky and wrote letters if the shift became boring. My parents used small plastic cards that had transparent circles of various sizes on it. When a plane was spotted, the volunteer would hold the card up until the entire plane could be seen through one of the circles, which determined the altitude of the plane.
I received a brief training in spotting planes from my parents, but since I was so young, I wasn’t allowed to call in any reports of planes sighted, but I was still able to help watch for planes. As a member, I received the silver wings Air Force pin. And even if I wasn’t on duty with mom, I always looked up if I heard a plane, whether it was while playing outside or walking to and from school.
Fortunately, I recall that no enemy planes were spotted and no fighter jets from the nearest air force base were ever sent to investigate. By the mid-1950s, there were 400,000 volunteers at 16,000 outposts from which the skies were watched.
I always had the yearning to report a plane, and one day I did without my parents knowing. While outside, I spotted a plane, and I ran inside to make the phone call. Having heard my parents, I knew what to say, “Aircraft Flash,” and the code which identified our outpost site, “Papa Charlie zero four black.” I told the woman at the other end of the line that the plane was flying low. When she asked the direction of the plane, I said, “Towards the beach.” Obviously, I didn’t know my directions, and I, the blonde, still have problems today deciphering which direction I’m going.
I also reported that the plane had pontoons on it. The woman thanked me for calling and told me that the plane was probably a small private plane.
But I didn’t care, I had made a call and I finally felt like an official member of the GOC! I was excited to share my phone call with my dad when he came home from work. When he heard the direction it was flying with its pontoons, he laughed, patted my head, and said I did a good job.
By the late 1950s, the defensive technology had been improved. The Air Force began closing the many outposts, and the GOC was taken off 24-hour alert status. The organization was disbanded in 1959. Every member of the corps received a certificate of appreciation signed by President Eisenhower, which I brought to school to show the students in my class.
Thinking that the certificate was actually signed by the president, I wet the signature with my finger and was disappointed that the ink didn’t smear. That certificate is still taped into the scrapbook that I kept as a child.
So again, I do feel older as I experienced an era of history that I realize that I have never told my children or grandchildren. It’s another story to share . . .