The Real Thing

We were sitting in the den, which was a converted one vehicle carport, so common in the middle class neighborhoods of the Sixties. My father and I were watching the television screen, hypnotized. A black and white image flickered across the room, something unusual in those days since Bonanza brought color to TV viewing.

Neil Armstrong on the lunar surfaceA man in big boots and a white suit struggled down a ladder and tested the sand-like surface below. He finally dropped to that surface, still clinging to the ladder. A voice came from the television screen. My dad and I leaned forward in synchrony, a rare occurrence in those divided times.

One small step for man: A giant leap for mankind.

I can recall the feeling even today in my rusted and worn memory bank. Like only two or three other times in my life, I can vividly resurrect time, place, and feeling. I was covered in chills. My dad probably was too.

I thought of H. G. Wells and Ray Bradbury, and wondered what they would write about now that the ultimate science fiction story had come true. Neil Armstrong was standing on the fucking moon.

I also thought about John Glenn and Gus Grissom and Wally Schirra and Alan Shepard. Those guys were heroes, real ones at a time when we understood and appreciated what that really meant.

When Neil Armstrong passed away, it reminded me of how far we have moved away from those gloriously optimistic days in 1969 when things were so different. It reminded me of how much promise we have squandered in the four decades since. It also reminded me of my father; my real hero.

When our president announced nearly a decade earlier that America was going to the moon, it triggered a technological boom that fueled our country for thirty years, financially and innovatively. Engineers led the way but everyone seemed intent on achieving the goal, making the effort.

The real goal was to beat the enemy, because we had one; a nasty, flesh and blood evil presence that scared the crap out of all of us. We knew if Russia controlled space we were toast. The idea of letting someone kick our ass in anything was also an incentive. And so we figured out a way, despite significant obstacles and spectacular failures, to plant the Stars and Stripes on the lunar surface first, primarily because of a large cast of heroes.

We knew of the dashing young astronauts but there were so many working behind the scenes, figuring things out, forecasting contingencies, doing the math. Except on mission telecasts; then we got to see them, too. Sporting flattops and black rimmed glasses, short sleeve white shirts, and ever present cigarettes, these super men agonized over every flipped switch, every checklist item, every second of every countdown.

Astronaut Neil Armstrong

Today we have to manufacture heroes; using reality TV to transform firemen, prospectors, and crab fishermen into poor substitutes for the real thing. Innovation has long since been replaced by greed as the fuel for national commerce. Since we no longer have a common enemy, we spend our energies turning each other into heartless adversaries and crazed ideologues.

For whatever reason, we are not the nation most thought we would become in those heady days after the moon landing. We aren’t even the nation we were then. And along the way, we’ve allowed the magic of space travel to become as quaint and distant as the flickering image of Armstrong’s first steps.

I wonder how many young Americans had to google Neil Armstrong when informed of his passing. That there are so many more of us who still recall that day, that special day, with such fond vividness, solidifies his historical place.

I hope they have ticker tape parades in Heaven.

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Mike Cox

Mike Cox

Mike Cox currently writes a weekly column in South Carolina for the Columbia Star called "It's Not a Criticism, It's an Observation." He is trying to grow old as gracefully as possible without condemning the current generation in charge to doom. Each day this task gets harder as the overwhelming evidence mounts. He currently has two published books; Finding Daddy Cox, and October Saturdays. His columns have won three South Carolina Press Association awards since 2003. Mike has three sons and two grandchildren and lives in Irmo, Sc, just outside of Columbia.