Where were you when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon?
I can proudly say that I was 8 years old and sitting cross-legged in front of the TV set – my one solid historical memory of the ‘60s that I was able to fathom and digest in its entirety. There were many (as you might have heard), but so goes the saying, “If you remember the ‘60s, you weren’t really there.”
I’d like to add that you might have also been a child. Many of my memories of the 1960s are about as clear and vivid as the pictures sent back to TV from outer space, and eventually the moon. Fuzzy, garbled, surreal. Apparently, I took it all in about as well as most adults.
The lunar module touched down on the moon’s surface after 4 pm Eastern Daylight Time on Sunday, July 20, 1969. It was touch and go – would Neil and Buzz make it to firm ground? Would they accidentally topple into a crater? Or, worst case scenario, would they drift beyond the moon and out of reach of the Apollo spacecraft piloted by Michael Collins, who alone orbited the moon – the sometimes forgotten member of the crew?
The world held its collective breath. When the lunar module landed, it was as if it had undone all the mayhem of the tumultuous decade that was hurtling toward a close.
The Eagle had landed on Tranquility Base. We went to the Farm Shop for grilled cheese sandwiches and hot fudge sundaes to celebrate. The moon walk would take place hours later and the whole family needed sustenance. I also think we needed film. My parents were determined to take a photo of the TV set when the astronauts took their first steps on the moon. This was a serious pre-VCR tactic to ensure that this moment of human triumph was recorded for posterity. Six hours later, we were once again gathered around the TV set to watch Neil Armstrong take that one small step. Snap! went the camera.
It had just been the 40th anniversary of the moon landing. I was visiting my parents and asking about the copies of the Daily News my father used to save to mark important events. The attic had a stack of papers, musty and yellowing, headlines blaring horror - “President Is Slain”; accomplishment - “Men Walk on the Moon”; and malaise - “Nixon Resigns”. A treasure trove of Americana we took so much for granted growing up that my father had recently sold them all at a tag sale!
Where were you when you realized you could no longer hold a piece of the ‘60s in your hand?
My father, who has resisted the digital revolution by setting up an email account and then forgetting about it, said quite simply, “It’s all out there on the computer now anyways.”
“We still have that photo, though,” my mother said, and there was a sigh of relief that was nearly as palpable as that day over 40 years ago when the whole world exhaled again at the same time.
I left the details of whether the “moon shot” photo was a Polaroid (my father’s belief) or a Kodak snapshot (my mother’s recollection) and started the hunt. There are stacks of photo albums in a closet in the guest bedroom. There are boxes of photos in the den where my mother has set up shop to research family history and sort through the estates of her recently dear, departed aunts.
I sat cross-legged on the floor, not as easy to do as it was 40 years ago, and sorted through stacks of photos. My mother kept finding more boxes and albums and bringing them to me. I alternately sifted through Polaroids and Kodachrome and even older stuff that I probably shouldn’t have so callously tossed aside in my quest to find the photo that I felt sized up my childhood and dictated my future. If you were old enough to remember the moon landing, it epitomized all that came next – microwave ovens, CD players, iPads.
And suddenly, there it was. The moon shot. My mother saw it first, in the next stack of photos I had taken from a shoe box, as she leaned over my shoulder. A black and white photo of a TV set with a bright, glowing orb in its center.
“This is it!” I shouted, “It’s the moon!”
The effort had been like finding a needle in a haystack. The floor around me was littered with some 100 years of family history that for me all boiled down to this one photo. The day the men landed on the moon, the day the New Frontier came to fruition. The future belonged to me and my sisters and our friends. The torch had definitely been passed.
And then I looked more closely.
In my initial excitement several dots remained unconnected. So what if this was just a photo of the moon on TV? It looked like it had been taken from our front yard.
On closer examination I could see that this wasn’t a photo of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon. Behind the orb now, as my eyes adjusted to the reality, I could see a dark necktie and a white shirt and maybe a gray suit jacket. I think this is Walter Cronkite, in the news studio, reporting the moon landing between the live images. The orb – well, that’s just the camera’s flash.
“Oh, you’re right,” my mother said. Taking the photo from me and laughing.
My father had come into the room now. He tried to insist the moon shot was a Polaroid, and that I should keep looking, but I had been through the Polaroids several times and it simply wasn’t there.
This was it. The family moon shot. A photo of Walter Cronkite, his face obscured by a flash on the night the men landed on the moon.
Neil Armstrong, who died last week at the age of 82, was by all accounts a modest man. After you walk on the moon, there’s really only one of two ways you can go through the rest of your life and Armstrong chose a quiet and dignified path rather than living his life out loud. In his obituaries, his family issued this request to remember him: “Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the Moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”
I think he’s winking back.