January 26, 1982: I Repeat, This Is Not A Test

Growing up south of Rochester, New York, one of my regular childhood memories is of the tests of the Emergency Broadcast System.  I would hear these on a very regular basis over the radio as well as on television.

Today, for the only time during my childhood, the Emergency Broadcast System sounded with “This is not a test, I repeat, this is not a test.”  As a child I did not really understand the importance of the system.  I was not yet, at the age of six, acutely aware of how close we were, throughout my childhood, to serious war with the Soviet Union (USSR.)  This alarm was not because of a military warning.  This was an alarm triggered by a steam leak at the reactor at the Ginna Nuclear Power Plant in Ontario, New York just east of Rochester.

The leak at Ginna lasted only for 93 minutes but, for many of us, the event would stick in our memory.  I had not been aware before today that there was even a nuclear power plant in the Rochester area.  It is not something that I would forget.

At nine this evening, President Ronald Reagan delivered his first State of the Union Address which I would have been allowed to stay up to watch.  My memories of the State of the Union Addresses always make me think of the Reagan years when they were really worth watching.

October 25, 1981: Riding the Arcade and Attica

Arcade and Attica Railroad Steam Locomotive in 1981Today my family went down to Arcade, New York, in the southwestern corner of Wyoming County, to ride the historic Arcade and Attica Railroad.  Today was my very first time ever riding on a train and it was a real, working steam engine.

We rode the railroad with our friends the Hobbs.  Amy Hobbs is one year older than me and we pretty much grew up together.  I was five and she was six when we went on this train ride.

The ride on the train goes through a very rural piece of western Wyoming County.  It is actually not far from Buffalo but far enough out that the route is nothing but countryside.  You can learn more about the railroad on the Wikipedia: The Arcade and Attica Railroad.

Scott Alan Miller and Amy Hobbs Disembarking TrainIf I remember correctly the train still traveled up to North Java at the time that we road in in 1981.  It is 2009 as I write this “Looking Back” and I am not sure how far the train ran in my childhood.  Today it runs only to the very first station only a few country “blocks” away to Curriers, New York which is nothing but a country crossroad with an old train depot sitting along the tracks for the tourist excursions.  The train no longer even runs between two villages for passengers which is quite sad.  The line stopped running between Arcade and Attica in 1957 due to flooding so even though Attica is in the railroad’s name the village itself has not seen the train arrive in fifty-two years (in 2009 and twenty-four years in 1981.)

The line is still used for freight today hauling mostly agricultural products from the Arcade area up to North Java where it hands them off to Norfolk Southern to take out of the county.  The line was first formed in 1917 and was only used for freight until 1962 when passenger excursion service was begun.  So in 1981 when I first rode on the ARA line it has been taking passengers for only nineteen years.

The steam engine, shown above, is ARA #18 and is an ALCO 2-8-0.  In 2002 it would be taken out of service but returned again in 2008 on Memorial Day.

April 14, 1981: Columbia Lands for First Time

This afternoon I was glued to the television to watch the news as America’s first space shuttle, the Columbia, landed at Edwards Air Force Base in Calidornia.  This was the first ever reentry and landing of a space craft and quite a significant event.  The Columbia touched down, without incident, at 10:21 am, local time which was 2:21 pm on the east coast from where I was watching.

Today we knew for sure that the space shuttle program was successful and American’s presence in space was reaffirmed.  The 1980s were to be America’s decade in space.

April 12, 1981: The First Space Shuttle Launch

One of the most exciting things to children of my era is spaceflight.  One of the great disappointments of having been born in 1976 is that the National Air and Space Administration, NASA, ceased manned spaceflight on July 15, 1975 with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Flight.  It was an era still immensley interested and passionate about space flight.  Every kid talked about wanting to be an astronaut when they grew up and space flight was a very common topic of conversation even amongst adults.

To put the era into perspective, the first manned space flight by Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin happened exactly twenty years ago today.  In the past twenty years all of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Skylab missions happened – and that is only the missions sent by the United States.  The space race had been under full steam with the US and Soviet Union constantly working to one-up the other in space capabilities.  The space race was so present in everyone’s mind during my childhood that it never occurred to me that it was even a “thing”.  The space race was just a matter of fact and it seemed as though it would last forever.  Our goal was to create galatic starships for deep space exploration, colonize distant planets and create a massive stellar navy whose goal was to protect us from whatever was out there and, of course, the Soviets who would have a navy up there as well.

It all seemed pretty obvious in 1981.  First we put a man in space in 1961, then we orbited the earth, then we set foot on the moon and then we built the first spacestations, the Skylabs.  My father had even worked on the Manned Orbiting Laboratory project while at Kodak as an electrical engineer.  My entire life had been lived during an era when everyone talked about and thought about space travel and exploration and we had all been waiting for the next big thing – the reusable space shuttle.  The space shuttle project had begun in 1975 and, thus, had been underway for my entire life.  The leadup to today was something spectacular.  There was probably no event in my young life for which I had more expectations.

The first space shuttle build was the Enterprise, named for the ship in the popular Star Trek television series, but this first space shuttle was only for testing purposes and was never built to actually go into space.  Today the Columbia, the first true space shuttle was being readied.

The launch was televised and scheduled for seven in the morning – long before a barely five year old kid tends to get up, especially one who has not started kindergarten yet.  I probably got up around five thirty this morning just to get ready.  There was, of course, non-stop coverage on television as there was little else to show so early in the morning.  It was a momentous occassion and America was watching – as was the rest of the world.

I sat on the vinyl loveseat in my parents’ upstairs bedroom in the old farmhouse in Peoria, New York watching the launch on the tiny, thirteen inch black and white television that we had there.  It was my first live launch of any sort.  For the next few years, watching the space shuttles launch would be an important part of my life.

At seven we watched the countdown, T minus… and then it launched.  It was amazing, a defining moment of my childhood, one of my great memories of this age.  America was in space again and this time our spaceship was not a one shot, fall to earth, burnup on reentry deal.  We had a ship that would travel to and from space with a crew who were able to move about the cabin and even bring payloads with them.  Space travel had just changed significantly.  Flight STS-1 was underway.

Finally, we were in space again and I no longer had to dream of space exploration with nothing more than stories of space flights which, to my young mind, seemed long ago in the distant past, even though many of them had happened in the past fifteen years.  The space race was something in which I could now participate as an active observer and not something about which one could only read of historical triumphs.