21 July 2006

Moon Day or, A Secret History of Neil Armstrong

It's the 37th Anniversary of "The Eagle Has Landed"
Reprint from Friday, July 22, 2005

I'm going to go a little way out here. But don't worry: it'll all come out in the wash.

Today will be "Moon Day" when we finally wise up and make it a holiday. Actual Moon Day was on Wednesday, but if it were a 'legal' holiday, this would be the Friday for the three-day weekend. Because, whether anyone else on Earth goes along with me, July 20th is a humankind holiday. It is, perhaps, a holiday that transcends species entirely. The shared recombinant DNA of the entire planet can celebrate the moment; perhaps, if the Gaia Hypothesis is correct, it is a sacred day for the entire, living, sentient planet.

And for the last two days, I've been trying to write this column. By Wednesday's end, I had a middling-piece, but it just was all; wrong. It tried to weave various histories, but it was missing the personal piece.

A funny thing about my writing: ever since I started writing in college, I have had a little technique that I call 'composting.' I read the material, or, in the case of fiction, think about the characters, and immerse myself in the subject, and then I just drop it. I forget about it, but I've always felt that terra incognita towards the back of the brain, perhap the subconscious, perhaps the soul (but then, what is the subconscious, if it's not the soul in scientific drag?) churning and doing SOMETHING, but what, I don't really know.

And then, at some mysterious point (usually a deadline) the oven timer goes off; there is a silent, mental chime, and whatever it was I was going to write about is "done."

For the past two days, the oven's been baking, and no words have been present.

The moon landing was a very personal experience for me. You know the landing itself: either you witnessed it, or you heard about it, or you read about it.

But it was one of those 9/11 moments: everyone knew where they were when it happened. It is a secret music that each of us carries. We all know the song playing on the radio, but each of us has a "secret" version: we remember a moment that is associated with that song, with that moment.

My secret moment was a life-long fulfillment: I am old enough to remember Sputnik, barely. Mostly I remember the tremendous agitation among the giant adults who supervised me. I had just learned to walk, recently, and I only really remember the emotions: the USA was behind the USSR. They were in space, and shortly thereafter, a month later, the USSR launched Sputnik II, with a dog namd Laika.

The USA was in a state of total shock (here, in Oregon, the Eugene Astromical Society was founded that year as a Cold War Sputnik watching group -- who knew what perfidy the Soviet Communists would rain down from space. It bore watching).

The USA rose to the symbolic challenge: we launched our reply, Explorer 1, four months later. (Explorer 1 discovered the earth's magnetic "shield" against the deadlier elements of the solar wind, the Van Allen belts.)

Thence the launching of monkeys and dogs, and then the USSR sent the first man into space: Yuri Gagarin. I well remember the consternation that caused. I was living with my grandparents in their Victorian Gingerbread house, in Kearney, Nebraska. If you've been to Harry Truman's house in Independence, Missouri, you'd recognize my grandparents' house, a slightly less accessorized version of the same model, but eerily similar in design, ornamentation and layout.

A lot of people used to tell my grandfather that he looked a lot like Harry Truman -- a "compliment" that he hated, having been a life-long Republican working for the Union Pacific.

The KEARNEY DAILY HUB had a picture on the front page, and the long discussion about the "space race" would continue for years thereafter.

The first Mercury shots were sources of unalloyed wonder, but through the 'Sixties, our space program was continually a day late and a dollar short.

In 1963 or 1964, a college buddy of my Dad's stopped by at our little ranch-style house (painted fuscia, to the consternation of the neighborhood), on his way back to his job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. He had a thick three-hole punch binder filled with Surveyor photos. Slow motion deliberate crashes into the moon, trying to find the best landing site; trying to understand that enigma that has fascinated ever since eyes have existed to see it.

Throughout my elementary school education, I was stricken with bouts of Gemini Flu. No one ever noticed that I went into my "sick" routine ("I don't feel good. Do I have a fever?") on the day of Gemini shots. I never had many sick days, and usually, dutifully attended school and only had the very occasional tardy -- invariably because of some Emergency Beyond My Control: my bike got a flat, or a group of Laramie bullies (my age) I cornered me, and proceeded to stomp my schoolbooks, stomp my bike, and then stomp on me. My illness was inevitably accepted -- especially in later years when I made sure that I heated up the mercury at the bottom of the thermometer to around 100 F by using the bedside lamp.

And I would follow the non-stop coverage of the Gemini mission from the fold-out hideabed in the study, while remaining too sick to go to school. Usually, Walter Cronkite would explain the goings-on. There were no remote controls in those days, and you had to manually switch the channel. I thought Huntley-Brinkley on NBC were boring, and ABC's string of anchors were pretty dull, except for Jules Bergman, who really did the science explanations better than anybody else.

When Grissom, Chafee and White died in the fire on the launchpad simulation (Apollo 1), I grieved with the rest of the nation.

When we began to pass and pull away from the USSR, I was patriotically thrilled.

And then the flights around the moon. The famous Christmas Eve reading from Genesis, which was very, very cool. The Madeline Murray O'Hare law suit, which I agreed then and agree now was correct. It was definitely an "establishment of religion" but it sure as heck was totally cool. Ironically, we were back at my grandparents' home for Christmas that year, and I watched the Earth as seen from lunar orbit on Apollo 8 in the same place I'd seen the newspaper announcing Yuri Gagarin's space flight what seemed a million years earlier.

I had been watching the space race from earliest childhood. And the landing on the moon seemed within our grasp.

It WOULD happen. It wasn't just crazy science fiction.

It's hard to remember that there was a time (reported to me, because I wasn't there) when all sober, reasonable people knew that the idea of going to the moon was sheerest lunacy.

And, until 1969, they were entirely correct.

But those who dreamed of going to the moon were either wildly imaginative, dangerously delusional or suffering from delerium tremens, or all three.

The science fiction writers who came of age in the 1940s have reported that it was not uncommon for them to be accosted by total strangers -- seriously sober and reasonable people -- who were happy to share their unshakeable opinion that anybody who wrote stories about going to the moon was a couple sandwiched shy of a picnic basket.

It was a shameful thing to write science fiction (or sci-fi), because the idea of traveling in space was nutty. So only kids and nuts would read the stuff. Many parents issued blanket prohibitions against their kids reading SF, considering it a sort of literary pornography. It enfeebled the mind, it was immoral -- possibly due to the profusion of exceptionally busty women on the covers, usually wearing the skimpiest spacesuits this side of Frederick's of Hollywood.

And, happily, when they landed on the moon, the science fiction writers were honored guests. They had weathered the long trek from outcast status to hero status.

I read a lot of SF. It only seemed natural in a "Space Age." And, I read a lot, anyway. I had a subscription to SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, and thought I was going to be a scientist "when I grow up."

So I was keenly aware of just what a profound moment in the life of a species, in the life of a planet that the moon landing represented.

In Arthur C. Clarke's novelization of 2001-A Space Odyssey, he makes the point (using different language) that the Black Monolith buried on the moon was the perfect pons asinorum. Pons asinorum literally means "bridge of donkeys" and it was a test meant to separate the teachable from the idiots. It's an idiot test. If a species can't develop space travel to their nearest neighbor, then they're not interesting to us. The test of the black monolith is a sort of galactic SAT on a pass/fail system.

To have actually travel the terrible void that separates the Earth and the Moon in a series of tin cans powered by special lighter fluid was a lot more than just a symbolic "war" between the world's two super-powers. It was a happy accident that their vanity had channeled the pot-World War Two rivals into a strange quest -- John Kennedy's stated goal of landing a man on the moon and bringing him safely back by the end of the decade (the 1960s).

For awhile, it looked like we were going to make it easily. And then the Apollo 1 fire.

Here is my secret history of the Moon Landing.

Grandpa had died the previous winter. The whole extended family had taken over the Fort Kearney Hotel, then. The joke made the rounds about when our Great Aunt had asked my Grandfather if all that weight wouldn't make the moon fall out of the sky. And he'd just looked at her, disgusted. (You had to have been there.)

We had moved to our new, dream house the summer before, during the Mexico City Olympics. My brother and I occupied the basement, with our own bathroom. We had a two car garage. I was about to enter the ninth grade, the "senior class" of Laramie Junior High. We'd be the high men on the totem pole, as the then-current colloquialism went.

And "we" were landing on the moon. By "we" it was hard to pin down: was it us kids? we USA folks? Americans, North and South? Or was it everybody? By the end of the day, I would realize that it was everybody. But at the time, I was in an exultation of State: The United States of America had won the race to the moon.

We're Number One! But it was far more than that. I wouldn't realize it until Apollo 13, but even then, I had a feeling that this was a Day for the Ages.

It was a perfect summer day, with clear blue skies and gentle sunlight. It was "hot" by which I mean that it might have been in the eighties. I had finished my pony league season, the highest point of my baseball career. In the last game of the season, at my last at-bat, I had hit the center field fence halfway up -- which would be the best I ever got. I never hit a home run, and I have often reflected on the little twist of fate involved: had that ball carried another couple of feet, I'd have won the game for my team, and we'd have been in the playoffs.

It would have been Michael Jordan moment. Instead, I only managed a stand up single, and was thrown out (sprinting was never my forte) on the only stolen base attempt I was ever given by any Third Base Coach. Such is life.

I didn't know it then, but that's as close as I'd ever get. It was the best summer of my childhood, but I wouldn't know that until much, much later.

It's funny how we never realize that the best moments of our life are happening when they're happening. Only years later do we understand that we'd been on a mountaintop but never realized it.

My brother had finished his career in little league, and the sponsor of the team, the "Circle S" motel across from the Wyoming "War Memorial" stadium, invited all the families to his cabin near Jelm, Wyoming, thirty miles west of Laramie.

They had a bar-b-que, and the obligatory gallons of potato salad, the beans, the hamburgers and hot dogs, the relish and mustard, and lots and lots of catsup. They spelled it "catsup" but everyone pronounced it "ketchup" for reasons that were mysterious then, and remain so today.

There was a mini-bike that all the kids were supposed to take turns riding, but the line was too long, so I hiked out in the woods, through the Ponderosa Pine and the sagebrush, with the meadowlarks calling, along the dusty dirt road the minibike roared back and forth on. I was always looking for arrowheads, but I never found one. instead, I found a couple of those old green-glass insulators from a nearby power pole, which I took as a souvenir. The linemen had probably just dropped the old ones and replaced them.

And the clock ticked. There was a radio on in the cabin, and I listened to the reports from the moon. The men were playing penny-ante poker, joking and yakking above the tinny sound of the radio, and the mothers were in the kitchen, cleaning up the remains of the day, chattering about this and that. The only subject that was missing from the day, oddly enough, was baseball, or the team, or the little league season.

When it was time for us to get back for the moonwalk, I told my parents, neither of which were very much interested.

I was astonished.

This was, perhaps, the most profound piece of history I'd ever witnessed, far more profound than any voyage of Columbus or Magellan; mor important than wars or elections. And the adults were oblivious.

Perhaps it was because I was peculiar -- I've always been a "collector" of history -- or just because this was the final payoff of a national odyssey that had begun barely after I'd been born. It was that home run I'd missed weeks before, but in a much larger sense.

What was astonishing to me was that, in a room, full of businessmen, civil servants, professors from the University of Wyoming, housewives, filling station owners, etcetera; in this whole cross-section of Laramie society, what was important was penny-ante poker and sharing recipes for potato salad.

The strange sense of disillusionment that I felt then is still with me: they didn't know, and they didn't care. Just another day, another picnic in the woods.

So, I took that youthful strategem that we all learned so well: I began to pester them, a gadfly stinging their good time, just at the edge of being swatted, until they finally became so annoyed, or disgusted, and reluctantly left the party.

We drove east, back to Laramie, in the sunset of a perfect July day. We got back in plenty of time, and I watched the CBS Eye himself, Walter Cronkeit, as he wiped a tear away and, later, after Neil Armstrong blew his line: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

At the time, I simply accepted its absurdity. It was profound BECAUSE of where it had been spoken. It didn't matter what Neil was actually saying. We got it. It was supposed to be "one small step for A man" but Neil was evidently so nervous that a couple of words dropped out.

We can forgive him for that. Here was a fundamentally NON-stage center person in the sharpest spotlight, with the biggest audience in the history of "mankind," and he had just enough stage fright that he flubbed his line.

No matter.

Neil was that fellow we'd been looking for all those centuries: he was the Man in the Moon.

If Cyrano de Bergerac had beaten him to it, Cyrano was hiding that day. Green cheese suddenly dropped out of our lexicon. The mystery had vanished in the face of the majestic fact.

We'd made it. We'd gone from the savannahs of Africa, domesticated animals, learned agriculture, built civilizations and empires that rose over and over again, and the cumulative effort, the collective effort of millions living and dead had placed two fragile human beings on the face of the moon that had inspired our wonder and curiousity ever since we first looked at the heavens and asked: What is that?

And, in the years since, I have celebrated that moment every year for the past thirty-six summers, and like those parents, oblivious and happy with their beer and their potato salad, we have still not embraced the epiphany of that moment.

So I spent the last couple of days celebrating Moon Day. It is my holiday until enough others accept it that we celebrate it as a "holy" day.

Because such moments come very few times in the life of a species, and, if one is very, very lucky, once in our brief lifetimes.

And I don't blame the adults. They didn't realize that it was a peak moment, just as I never realized that I'd gotten as close to a home run as I'd ever get.

Each of us, who was alive then, has their own secret music: we have personalized the moment; we remember where we were and what we were doing. We remember, but our memories are seldom jogged. And it's a shame.

Now, as we watch the weather satellite images to see whether we should evacuate, or when storms are rolling in; as we use our "space-age" materials and computers; when we're hooked to bio-telemetry devices to do computer diagnostics on our bodies; when we see a satellite catch the sun, far above the sunset, when we watch old episodes of "Leave it to Beaver" on our satellite dish service's basic channels, we don't really remember that moment when we first touched the man in the moon.

But I still do.

Happy Moon Day.



Anonymous Kevin Hayden said...

It certainly was a day of achievement deserving of awe. As it occurred in the midst of a time when the country was reeling from social unrest, war, progressivism and division, it struck me as a singular moment when the nation and the world could forget everything else and just marvel at a moment of applied magic.

And ever since, the moon has not looked so distant and the impossible has never looked hopeless. From Shepard and Grissom to Armstrong, it was quite a progression of journeys. In the annals of human endeavor, it was more than one should expect in a lifetime.

I can't speak for Laramie, but I know everyone around me when I was 16, family, friends and strangers, were completely transfixed by the moment. I recall thinking of just one sadness at the event, that JFK was not around to enjoy the finest fruit of his vision. But I was there, and I was completely wowed.

7/23/2006 05:09:00 AM  

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