I was almost 6. It was hot. It always is in July, back in the Delaware Valley. I was just a little boy then. In a lot of ways, no different from little boys today the summer of their 6th birthday. But in many ways...very different. We were at war. We've been in wars since then, but this war was different.
Vietnam wasn't popular (not that any war is actually "popular" but at least other wars had a clearer provocation and popular opinion was mostly favorable) and instead of the news talking about victories, they talked only of our men being killed every day.
My mother and stepfather knew guys who were over there fighting. I remember them talking about going to the funerals of several of them. My father had served two tours over there and had been injured twice. But at five, I didn't know him and had only met him when I was a toddler and never remembered the visits.
My stepfather and I weren't close. That's me being kind. We didn't do the things little boys like doing with their dads, so I spent a lot of time imagining. I imagined I was a baseball player. I imagined I was a robot. I imagined I was an "army man" (by this time I'd gotten my first GIJoe.)
...and I imagined I was an astronaut.
To be a little boy in the 60's was to be surrounded by, and inundated with the Space Race and the dreams of landing on the moon. I could tell you my favorite baseball players, and I could tell you about the "Mercury 7" and the Apollo teams. I knew what a Saturn V was before I knew what Saturn itself was. I begged my mom for "Tang" because it had been developed for the astronauts.
I'd watched all the previous launches. Dry runs...practice for the real thing. Each mission taking measured, progressive steps closer and closer to the ultimate goal...the Moon.
I'd look up at the moon when I was a boy and wonder what it was like up there. On summer nights, when the moon was full, I'd swear I saw that cartoon image of Jackie Gleason, the famous closing credits shot from "The Honeymooners."
I had a GIJoe space man set, with a real capsule that Joe sat in, and the control panel glowed in the dark. I flew a million imaginary lunar missions with Joe and his space capsule.I launched water rockets that we'd bought at the department store, where you filled the body with water, pumped the handle to build air pressure against the water, then pulled the trigger and watched it lift off. Rockets and space were everywhere, and they were everything.
Apollo 11 had a different feel when it launched. I'd watched all the previous launches and they were special, but when this one left the pad that July morning, it was different. This was "the one." four days later we were sitting in front of our little Sears TV set, rabbit ears covered in tin foil, watching shadows and images that we could barely discern, become the lunar module...inching it's way down to the moon's dusty surface. Then, after a few moments of silence, came Neil Armstrong's first famous utterance: "Houston...Tranquility base here, The Eagle has landed."
Tranquility base was the name of their landing spot and base of operations. "Eagle" was the name they'd given the Lunar Module. Three long hours of waiting ensued. My mom let me stay up to see this historic moment. At 11:23pm, the grainy, shadowy images (the picture we were seeing was actually a broadcast quality relay of what the camera on the Lunar Module was filming. So we were watching a second generation...like someone doing a live feed on their cell phone from a movie theater so you can watch the movie...only the technology was so primitive back then that the images looked grainy and ghostlike.)
I watched in awe as Neil Armstrong navigated the steps in his bulky space suit and then spoke those amazing words. "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
I couldn't say a word. I don't remember breathing. Those words...that picture was a defining moment in my life. The history of the world broke in two on July 20, 1969...everything would be different after this day. Truly anything was possible.
For a few hours, we forgot about the war, we forgot about the unrest at home, we forgot about the civil rights battles still being fought.
We were all fiercely proud to be Americans. We were amazed at the effort it took. The cost of human life (Three astronauts had perished in a flash fire in the cabin of Apollo 1, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee) the brilliance of the scientists and engineers, all combined to get us to this moment.
To be an almost-six-year-old little boy that sweltering July night in 1969 was to live in the most fertile soil of imagination there ever was. This was my generation's "Star Wars" and "Star Trek." In hindsight -and I've never thought about this until writing this just now-- maybe that's why I just never got very deeply into either of those franchises. I enjoyed them both. I have no problem with people really being superfans or whatever. But for me...My Han Solo was Buzz Aldrin. My Luke Skywalker was Neil Armstrong. Men like John Glenn and Gordon Cooper were in their prime when I was a little boy...no movie character could ever hold a candle to these real-life sci-fi heroes.
Thinking about this right now...thinking how fifty years has come and gone since that steamy July night. It makes me glad. Glad that I will have these memories to cherish and that I was alive when this was happening in real time, not just learning of it from a Google search.
And it makes me sad. Sad because it's been far too long since we've had a national dream. A national goal. A national cause that forced us to break the boundaries of what we know, and learn something altogether unknown.
To take a theory on a chalkboard and turn it into two men bouncing across the surface of a celestial body other than the one we live on, and send the images of that back to us down here, where we could all sit in our living rooms and stare in wide eyed wonder. And...in spite of the war being fought, and the unrest in our nation, and the injustice our fellow citizens were fighting against, we could dream our own dreams. We could pick our own moon mission and dream about going after it.
For a while, we were united. We were one nation under God, and we'd just sent two of our own to that light in the night. I wish we could go back. I know people think it's a waste of money and effort. I am certain you only think that because you weren't around when we did this 50 years ago.
I could rattle off the list of things we use every day that came about as a result of this era; from cell phones to velcro and everything in between. But beyond that. Beyond any tangible benefits, stand the intangibles. The national benefit of just watching our best and brightest do something unheard of, something we thought was insane just ten years before...and make it look easy.
Every time I looked up at the moon before that night, I wondered about it. It was romantic and foreign.
Every night after that hot July night...I think about how we sent men up there. Men. Americans. Giant, heroic, legendary, daring, brave men.
That mission was everything America is. Bold. Gutsy. Refusing to accept less than excellence. Imaginative.
I wish we'd go back.
And I wish I could capture just an ounce of the spirit that filled that little boy's heart on that sweltering July night, when he believed -for a while at least-- that anything was possible.