Monday, July 20, 2009

One small step

1969, as we're being told by the media, was a big year for the country (Woodstock, Charles Manson, Altamont, and the Moon, for starters) but it was also a big year for me; at 13, I hit puberty, began to think I might be a homosexual, got my braces on, and discovered rock music. Frankly, in the middle of all that personal ebb and flow, the moon landing wasn't all the crucial to me, though of course I understood its historical importance. I did, however, get quite caught up in moon-landing fever for a week or so.

One reason why Apollo 11 may not, at least in the run-up to it, have seemed terribly momentous to me was that I grew up reading science-fiction. Bradbury, Clarke, Asimov, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Amazing Stories, Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine, and Stanley Kubrick had already taken me to the moon and beyond. I knew all that was fiction, but the 60's was a time of change, when so much seemed possible, and I guess I assumed that, of course we'd get to the moon, we're Americans! My dad was a navigator in the Air Force, and though never close to being an astronaut, he wore zip-up flight suits that didn't seem all that different than what the Apollo guys wore, which maybe gave the Cape Kennedy missions more of an everyday feel to me.

At any rate, I don't remember giving the July mission much thought until a day or so before the launch. In preparation for getting on my braces, I had a couple of wisdom teeth removed just a few days before the launch, and at that point, getting put under by the dentist seemed scary and perhaps more exciting than watching a moon landing. School wasn't in, but my neighborhood friends (and my younger brother) were all caught up in the moon rage, so once I got past the dentist, I got swept up in it as well. We played Astronauts, formed a science club, and put together a little hand-made science magazine, of which 3 or 4 issues were "published" during that July week.

The real kicker was the media. There were books and magazines about the moon, and soon even all the networks (all 3 of them--Public TV barely counted since it came in spottily and often with lots of snow and static) had lots of coverage. What might have finally sent me into real teenage-boy enthusiasm about the moon landing was that my favorite author, Ray Bradbury, was interviewed and served as a commentator for one of the networks. I guess I thought if he was excited about this, I should be, too.

The bulk of the action happened over the weekend, and our little science club went into overdrive spending every moment we could either watching the TV coverage or, when the talking heads got too boring, talking about how cool it would be when we'd go to live on the moon when we were grown-ups. The actual landing ("The Eagle has landed"), which I think took place Sunday afternoon was quite exciting; we all jumped and cheered, and even my normally taciturn father seemed thrilled. But it was Neil Armstrong's first step onto the lunar surface, that night around 11:00, when I finally really did feel that this was a remarkable and momentous occasion. Of course, one reason I felt that way was because it was way past my bedtime, and Mom and Dad let my brother and I stay up for this, but by now, I knew that real life was catching up with science fiction. I'm not sure I've ever felt quite so excited about and proud of being an American as I was that night.

In the long run, I have to leave it to the scientists and cultural commentators to determine what the moon landing really meant, because right now, it seems very much like a last gasp of colonial glory that was done, rather like climbing Everest, because the moon was there. But I'm happy to have been the age I was at the time: young enough to get swept up at least briefly in the event without having to worry about a job or a career (or even, since it was summer, homework) and old enough to have vivid memories of it that will last the rest of my life. I do have to say, however, that we watched 2001: A Space Odyssey this weekend to commemorate Apollo 11, and in some ways, that film seemed more real to me than the actual landing.

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