So many of my friends were either in diapers or yet unborn 50 years ago this week. Their memories are blank where mine are etched in gray dust, burned with kerosene and liquid oxygen.
Words can’t fully capture the electric tingling that ran through my nervous system, the rumbling of my young heart. We were going to the Moon! Never mind that “we” consisted of three American men (with help from thousands of other humans). After the years-long unrelenting drumbeat of bad news, something representing an indisputable good was about to take place. Yes, the mission was all planned out, but that didn’t ease the suspense.
The morning of the Apollo 11 launch, I stayed home from my unpaid “job” to watch the liftoff on TV. (Since I was so advanced in reading skills and was generally a well-behaved child, the teachers at my elementary school arranged for me to come in every other week and tutor the first-graders who had to attend summer school because they were behind in reading.) My family’s living room was in chaos because my parents were redecorating it, but I pulled up a chair in front of the color TV and gripped the armrests and, afterward, kept a grin on my face, like a rictus. At dinnertime, I heard a distant rumble and thought it might be the phenomenal roar of the Saturn V as it dissipated over the entire Eastern seaboard. (I vastly underestimated the speed of sound. If any sound made at the Kennedy Space Center could be heard in central Massachusetts — and I sincerely doubt that — the wave would have rolled in at lunchtime.)
Not until I was an adult living in Maryland did I realize that the voice of Launch Control belonged to a fellow from Boston. Back then, he was speaking in my native accent.
I spent the next few days in a buzzy state of anticipation. I was vaguely aware of bad things that happened in parts of New England that I’d never visited — a big fire in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, and a car accident on some Massachusetts island named Chappaquiddick. Mostly, my ears and eyes were laser-focused on any nugget of news about the three brave astronauts rising out of one gravity well and falling into another. Especially exciting: the local paper reported that a fellow who grew up in my hometown actually pushed the button to start the Apollo 11 liftoff! How cool was THAT?!?
By Sunday my parents strongly wanted me to help my father with the yard work (raking up the freshly mown grass that he cut). But I nervously kept an eye on the time — I’d worn a watch for a couple of years already — and I dragged Dad into the kitchen as the possible landing time drew near. We sat in front of the little black-and-white TV and watched as the primitive animation depicted Eagle landing on the Moon … but the soundtrack indicated that Armstrong and Aldrin were still on their way. What was happening? It was the most suspenseful moment of the week. We held onto every spoken number and word and beep and, once we heard “Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed,” we hugged each other.
The actual moonwalk was SO late! My mother made sure I was in my pajamas and bathrobe beforehand. Once again, I pulled the Boston rocker in front of the TV and munched popcorn and breathed so hard and happy when Armstrong uttered his immortal first words. I could feel the history. It was as tangible as writing one’s name into wet concrete.
Of course, little girls were not meant to stay up past midnight. I dozed off around the time President Nixon phoned the astronauts on the lunar surface. The excitement had worn me out, but it was the happy kind of tiredness. I felt secure in a vision of a spacefaring future.
I insist that John F. Kennedy’s full charge to our nation — “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” [emphasis mine] — was not fulfilled until July 24, 1969. Those Apollo command modules needed to hit the atmosphere at just the right angle, at a violent speed. Much could have gone wrong. Safety was not assured until those red and white striped parachutes popped out against the azure sky.
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At first I hesitated over writing this, because admitting that one remembers something half a century ago marks the admittee as an oldster, a geezer, someone who should get out of the way of the younger generations. But in this day and age, anyone with access to a search engine can type in my name and figure out my approximate age anyway. Age discrimination will happen to me whether or not I bear witness to having watched the first moonwalk.
The highlight of my personal commemoration of Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary was visiting the National Mall to see the awesome high-definition project of a Saturn V rocket on one side of the Washington Monument. It’s true that the gantry was missing, but the rocket itself looked gorgeous!
Why, yes, I do have a Saturn V rocket perched atop my head. Doesn’t everybody?? 🙂
My visit to the Mall was Thursday, July 18. I would have liked to see the special show on Friday and Saturday nights, but I went on a road trip to Delaware to visit a high school classmate. I’ll just have to content myself with the video.