In 1952, when I was 12 years old, Dwight Eisenhower was elected president. In our 7th grade class debates at Mckinley Junior High School, I was a supporter of Adalai Stevenson. This was on omen. Many of my future political choices would lose. Salk Oral Polio immunizations began and I received one. My favorite television show was “Drag Net” starring Jack Webb as detective Joe Friday. In 1952 Ernest Hemmingway published his book “Old Man & Sea,” and U.S. Marines began training in atomic bomb explosion maneuvers in Nevada. A few years before this, prior to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we were dismissed from school to go home and watch the first atomic bomb tests in the Nevada desert on black and white television. “What a great show!” we all said. “How Wonderful!” we all said. No one knew much about radiation and fallout then.
Popular Culture in the 50’s focused around The Cold War with Russia, the Korean War, the “The Red Scare”, and Richard Nixon. Some of my friends’ parents had built Bomb Shelters in their basements and occasionally we would hang out there. I created a survival kit that I planned on using in case of atomic war. It had rope, canned soup, a compass, a pocketknife, maps, a first aid kit, an old Geiger Counter that didn’t work, and a variety of over the counter pills (aspirin, antihistamine, vitamins, etc.). UFOs, flying saucers, potential alien invaders were in my thoughts in those days. In popular culture they were metaphors for the Red Menace. Joseph McCarthy was in full flower on television. The 1950’s were a decade of mild paranoia.
The times were ripe for a host of science fiction movies about aliens and spaceships that I enjoyed immensely. One of my favorites that scared me tremendously was “The Man From Planet X” . In this film, a newspaper reporter flies to a remote island with a scientist friend to cover the approach to earth of a previously unknown world called Planet X. They discover a torpedo-shaped space ship in which an alien from Planet X has landed to make preparations for further landings of X-people. The scientist’s assistant crosses up the alien, who depends on a tank of X-atmosphere for survival. I was mesmerized by all of this. The alien looked just like I thought Salinger’s monster character in his story “The Laughing Man” would look if he took off his poppy petal mask. I loved the stories of Salinger and “The Laughing Man” had a boy character my age.
It was about this time that a circus came to town, and the whole family went. They had a sideshow there as well, which advertised “The Man with Two Faces”. I wanted badly to see this. It had the aura of “alien being” to me. But they wouldn’t let kids in without adults, and I had to get my father to take me. He had his doubts, but finally agreed. I couldn’t believe I would be so lucky – a man with two faces! I couldn’t imagine what it would look like.
We entered the tent and stood in the back of a large crowd of people facing a stage. After about 5 minutes a man came out and walked over to a microphone. He appeared to be wearing a mask, or at least a plastic face that covered his own face, and his speech was a bit muffled. He explained that he had been in a terrible explosion and that it had destroyed much of his face, so that he now had to wear a plastic false face in public. Then he took away the mask. The crowd shrank back. It was a terrible sight for a 12 year old, and I felt a bit nauseous. My father took my arm and we quickly left the tent. The ethics of such shows or the economic necessity that would motivate someone so damaged to do this, never concerned me at age 12. It was a more visceral feeling of dread that I felt. Sleeping that evening I had nightmares about what I had seen. The man with two faces was in a dark corner of my room that night.