I realize I’m a little late to the “where were you during the moonwalk?” party. If I were going to write on the subject I should have done so a few weeks ago.
But I have something of an excuse. At this time a half-century ago, the moonwalk constituted but one attraction among many in my life. I was aboard something called a “teen tour” across the United States, the Moonwalk integrated into a personal odyssey that seemed almost as adventurous as taking a rocket to the moon.
Forty fifteen, sixteen and seventeen year olds boarded a Greyhound bus on July 2nd, 1969 and spent the following six weeks traveling from New York to Los Angeles and back again, hitting every national park and tourist hot spot in between.
I watched the moonwalk from the air-conditioned comfort of my room at the Hotel 6 in Fresno, California – Niagara Falls, Mount Rushmore, the Great Salt Lake, Yellowstone and Yosemite in the bus’s rearview mirror. With L.A., Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon yet to come.
And then there was the drama of social life on the bus – in particular, the heroic but failed effort I mounted to have Michele Farina reciprocate my affections.
What I’m saying is that the Apollo mission, indeed the entire Apollo program to the moon, all seventeen missions, didn’t seem any more audacious or improbable than the dream of falling in love and having a girlfriend.
In fact, the Moonwalk, at least to those of us watching on TV, was decidedly less cinematic than a lot of other stuff I’d witnessed over the previous weeks – Old Faithful erupting, the sheer 3,000 foot granite face of El Capitan, even the hippie scene in Haight-Ashbury.
“People may try to sell you drugs,” one of our leaders warned, as if we weren’t visiting the epicenter of flower power but a dangerous lion’s den.
Also, you have to remember this was the summer of Woodstock, the Manson Family and Chappaquiddick. The Vietnam War was in full swing. The Beatles were still going strong. There was a lot happening.
The Moonwalk, at least to me, just seemed part and parcel of an era, unlike the current one, sadly, where the country felt like it was still being born, where the sky was, literally, the limit.
And the TV reception wasn’t even that good. The images were grainy, spectral. It was hard to tell what was going on. When Neil Armstrong made that one small leap for man but one giant leap for mankind statement the transmission was garbled, the audio static-y. “What did he say?”
I’ve read that the astronaut claims to have uttered “One small step for a man,” rather than “one small step for man...”
Most remarkable is that the mission occurred fifty years ago. It served as a triumph of American ingenuity, reinforcing the narrative that this nation was chosen for great things, that there were frontiers left to conquer, that our national destiny, for all its shortcomings, was shared by all.
The stakes almost seem higher today when the soul of the nation feels up for grabs. Did that era mark not only my adolescence but also the nation’s, with all the attendant giddiness and desire? Are we now deeply settled into a middle age rut distinguished not by aspiration but cynicism and limitation? Not by leaping athleticism but by arthritis and hardening arteries?
Here’s the thing. I don’t think we are. I’m no less hopeful than I was at sixteen. I believe the next great achievement is just around the corner? The convulsions we’re experiencing at the moment are growing pains.
What proof do I have to support such an extraordinary claim? And in the face of so much evidence seemingly to the contrary?
The Sixties was also a time of conflict, upheaval and self-doubt.
I’m not going to offer some greeting card bromide about how we always emerge from these periods better and stronger.
There are no guarantees. I never did succeed in wooing Michele Farina.
Humanity is an experiment. There’s no guarantee it’s going to succeed. But the only reason we’ve gotten this far without destroying ourselves is because of collective effort, because the forces of light have ultimately triumphed over those of darkness, because the edge, even if it’s only a slight one, seems to reside with those who embrace love and compassion over hate.
And the next great mission – saving the planet from catastrophic climate change – makes the Moonwalk seem like a cakewalk.
As egregious as it may sound America may not even be the nation to lead it. But I don’t think so. I think we are. For those of us who lived through it, that may be the Apollo mission’s greatest legacy – the residual belief that anything is possible.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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