Thursday, April 12, 2007

Non-Music post - Yuri Gagarin Anniversary

Non-Music post - Yuri Gagarin Anniversary

Occasionally I'll do a non-music, non-Bill Evans post. This one is a little auto-biographical. Please ignore if you don't care for it. Bill Evans' mother was Russian and his early exposure to music was at a Russian Orthodox Church in or near North Plainfield NJ.

Today is the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's trip to space, the first person to circle the Earth in orbit. See stories here.

I was thirteen years old on April 12, 1961 in the eighth grade attending Maynard Evans (no relation to William John Evans) Junior/Senior High School in Orlando FL. That evening I was listening to short wave broadcasts and happened to have the family reel-to-reel tape recorder (which my mother had on hand to record her organ and piano playing in order to become a "pop music" musician) nearby when the English language version of Radio Moscow was broadcasting the news of Yuri Gagarin's successful orbit. I immediately put the machine into record mode and placed the microphone near the radio speaker as the station started to play a recording of Yuri's first words from space, simultaneously into English.

My adrenalin shot through the roof as I listened to the four minute segment over and over, imagining myself in the cockpit of the first real spaceship. I was very much into things scientific at that age and kept myself occupied for hours listening to short wave radio from far away places such as Quito Ecuador, Havana Cuba, the BBC, and especially Radio Moscow since it was in the middle of the Cold War and the very idea of communist countries was a sort of forbidden fruit to a rebellious thirteen year old. Also I was a little weird in that I liked the strange whistles, static, and other short wave noises just as much as the strange languages and voices - maybe that was a precursor of my future interest and commitment to music.

On the previous day in Mr. Barber's Civics class, it was show-and-tell-news-item-day and I was unprepared as usual. Mr. Barber had really made his disappointment with my unpreparedness known to the entire class as well as to me personally. I came up with the bright idea of taking the tape I had made of Radio Moscow to class to play as a belated completion of the assignment.

I guess I had developed a sort of empathy with John Barber as he was the most rotund faculty member at that time and I had a propensity to be rather large myself. My only saving grace was that I'm tall and John Barber was only medium height and his rotundness was more noticeable.

When I arrived at school that day I did a little preliminary leg work during home room. I chased down the location of the Audio-Visual room and affirmed that I could use one of the school's Wollensak tape recorders for a project in fifth period, if I came and picked it up and set it up in the classroom myself. I convinced the AV manager that I knew how to use a take-up reel and thread the tape as the unit we had at home was similar.

Fifth period came and I explained what I wanted to do to Mr. Barber. He was hesitant at first . Communism and anything from or about Russia was sort of a specialized "tabu" and reserved for the "Americanism vs. Communism" course which all students were required to take in the ninth grade. Also Mr. Barber was doubtful when I told him about the Russian man in space. The news had not sifted down to local print or broadcast media. I assume that any news from Russia was treated very gingerly by the American press because of the Cold War. The media probably felt obligated to wait for official government (U.S.) confirmation of such an outlandish news item.

After I was given a hall pass by Mr. Barber to go get the Wollensak, bring it to the classroom and set-up the unit, the class was almost half over. I played the tape of a very garbled voice from far off outer space, speaking Russian, with accompanying English translation. The mellifluous female English announcer ended the segment with words to the effect that it was a great day for Mother Russia and that the great and powerful people of the Soviet Union were the first to put a man in space, showing the advanced stage of Russian technology over that of the U.S. Hearing the recording again thrilled me just as much as listening at home.

The student's reaction was again, boredom-as-usual. Mr. Barber was supportive but skeptical of the validity of the event since it was a Russian broadcast. He used the remainder of the class time introducing us to the word, "propaganda."

I went home with mixed feelings, not sure if I had earned the respect of fellow classmates, or more importantly, Mr. Barber. That same evening I listened to more short wave and especially the BBC. Around 10 PM I heard the BBC make a similar announcement about the Russian Cosmonaut. Finally, confirmation from another source.

On the next day the morning paper, the Orlando Sentinel, had the Russian Cosmonaut's journey as front page news along with a picture of Yuri. That morning at school, needless to say, I had a big smile on my face. When fifth period Civics rolled around I was feeling pretty good. The student's response was the same but Mr. Barber gave me a nod, a wink, and said, "good job yesterday." From that moment on, Maynard Evans Junior/Senior High school took me a little more seriously and I gravitated towards a college prep curriculum. The eight grade was also the year I started beginning band, on trombone, which was to have an ever greater effect on me than the scooping the local media with the account of the first man in space.

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