Where Were You 40 Years Ago? (Part 2)
July 19th, 2009
I don’t remember the moon landing so much. Well, a little, mostly the sounds, but it’s kind of a long story. You see, a family friend had arrived into town that day. Pearl was her name, a barely 5-foot tall, kindly elderly woman behind the wheel of a one of the largest Winnebagos I’d ever seen in my eight years on this earth. (That’s right, eight years in 1969. I’ll pause here while you do the math.)
Since her husband passed away a few years earlier, Pearl declared that she had no intention of sitting at home getting old. So she decided to buy an RV and see the world. She joined a Winnebago club and took trips with her friends, caravanning across the continent and down into Mexico. They even arranged trips across Europe in rented RV’s and once took a trip to Moscow, although that wouldn’t be until much later. We always looked forward to Pearl’s visits so we could hear about her latest adventures on the open road.
And that’s what we were doing that day on July 20, 1969 when Pearl came into town. We were at my great-grandparents’ house, helping Pearl load the RV with groceries while she did some laundry. Then sometime after lunch, we all packed ourselves into various cars and coaches — me, my brothers and parents in our car, my grandparents and great-grandparents in their cars, and Pearl in her Winnebago — and we headed out to a state park outside of town. I remember that Dad didn’t think she would be able to back the RV into the tight camp spot. I mean, you could barely see her above the steering wheel. But she backed it right in like the seasoned pro that she was.
We spent most of the afternoon around the picnic table under the outstretched awning beside the RV. It was hot that day, and this was before RV’s were air-conditioned. Heck, this was even before most homes and cars were air-conditioned, so an afternoon out at Shawnee State Forrest was quite a treat. At about 3:30 that afternoon, Pearl went inside and came back out with a small, portable black-and-white television. She washed the dust off the screen and plugged it into an outside outlet. Dad fiddled with the dials and the rabbit ears until he was able to pull in a snowy picture from an ABC station in Huntington, WV. (The preferred CBS station in Charleston, which would have featured Walter Cronkite, was just too far away.)
The sun was so bright that day that we couldn’t see the picture very well, so someone turned up the sound and we listened to the play-by-play as Apollo 11 slowly descended to the moon. We heard someone giving a countdown before landing, and we held our breath after that voice quit counting down. After what seemed like a lifetime of not breathing — we heard Houston barking out, “we’ve got to get down!” in a voice verging on panic — we finally heard what we were waiting for: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
Whenever I hear those words today, I get goose bumps all over again and sometimes even tear up a little. I was — and still am — that excited. I remember jumping up and down laughing and screaming and celebrating with my brothers while the grownups commented on their own amazement. My great-grandmother, Easter, often remembered that day as an important milestone for her. Being born in 1898, she used to say, meant that she had lived through the most exciting transformational advancements in human history. Those weren’t exactly her words, but she explained it this way: “I’ve seen everything from the horse and buggy to the moon,” she said, “And no one will ever live a different lifetime in history with more progress than that.”
I wasn’t so reflective of course, so my brothers and I rushed off to a playground where we played astronauts for the rest of that hot summer afternoon, “beeping” between all of our transmissions in imitation of what we had just heard.
The moon walk itself wouldn’t be until much later that night — way past our bedtimes. But our parents promised we would get to watch it. Even so, my parents put my brothers and me to bed thinking that maybe we’d get a short nap before the moon walk was scheduled to begin. But of course there was no hope for that. Finally sometime before 11:00 p.m., our parents called us downstairs and we gathered around the Zenith console and waited impatiently as one talking head after another reviewed the events of the day and talked about what would lie just ahead.
Looking back on these images now makes it all seem so primitive. But to my young 8-year-old imagination, these pictures presaged something else: the long-awaited future was just about to arrive. Finally the CBS studio broke away to the live, grainy pictures from the moon, and we watch speechless as Neil Armstrong made history.
This is what the future looked like in 1969. It’s amazing what we were able to accomplish with such primitive technology by today’s standards. It’s also remarkable considering how difficult it still would be to pull off the same feat today.
People often talk about where they were when they heard John F. Kennedy was assassinated or when the Twin Towers fell. There are moments in history which serve as profound landmarks in our lives. I was too young to remember JFK’s assassination, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968 somehow passed without my notice at the time. That was a very frightening year for my parents, and they wanted to shield our innocent childhoods from it. The events of 9/11 will always remain seared in my memory, but there is no moment of history that transports me back, body, mind and spirit, as does the Apollo 11 moon landing. Whenever I watch it today, I’m eight years old again, sitting upright in rapt attention on the living room in my pajamas, watching the grainy images flickering across the Zenith console — the fancy one with the “Space Command” remote control — and seeing the future finally arrive. I knew then and there I was going to be an astronaut. I still will be someday. You’ll see.