I had a hard time deciding what to write about this week. So many things seem to be happening that are pulling on my psyche. It is almost impossible to ignore the political vitriol that is present in the country at this moment in time. Since this blog is written under the auspices of the Center for Aging and Values, I am constrained in what political commentary I can make and still keep within with the laws and regulations that grant this organization its tax-free status. Still, it is getting harder and harder to stay silent.
This is also the anniversary of Apollo 11. Truly, one of the most amazing achievements of our nation in my lifetime. Fifty years ago today (as I write this), I remember sitting spell-bound in front of our black and white TV listening to Neil Armstrong say to the Universe, “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” At the same time, Teddy Kennedy walked away from his car, leaving Mary Jo Kopechne behind to drown. Both these events made the front pages of many newspapers that Sunday in July.
I scrolled through the Chicago Tribune for July 20, 1969 in preparing this blog. It brought back incredible memories. This is how we used to get the news! While the front page and a good portion of the rest of the Sunday paper was devoted to the moon landing, it still contained the basics that we all needed. Weather, sports, gossip and horoscopes. The Tribune’s forecast that Sunday was “Cloudy in morning; becoming partly sunny; high lower 80’s, lower near lake; fair tonight; low 60’s; north to northeast winds, 10 m.p.h.”
I loved looking at the ads for clothing, shoes, and furniture from stores that in my memory are still intact and doing great business, but in reality no longer exist. Stores like Carson Pirie Scott (and Company!), Lytton’s, and Best. Fashions for women included bell bottoms and short skirts. Shoes were priced at $2.99. Sears was selling color TVs for $388.00 (23” diagonal screen console; no trade in required!), but still had plenty of Black and Whites in stock ($89.88, convenient payment plans available!)
I went to Costco today to pick up paper goods. There were gigantic flat-screen TVs with incredible clarity and color for only $2,499.00. Food, in quantities unimagined back in 1969, was there for the taking. Carts were filled to overflow and packed into vehicles that are almost the same size as the lunar lander (or possibly even bigger), and get about the same mileage. The computer and GPS systems on those cars are more sophisticated and powerful than the entire computing systems used to send those three astronauts to the moon and back.
Was life simpler back in 1969? Not really. Politics, as I remember it was incredibly tumultuous. Richard Nixon was in the first year of his Presidency. He had not yet fallen from grace. He had inherited an ugly war and was faced with young people who wore long hair, shouted obscenities and encouraged overthrowing the government and who had the audacity to march in Washington in protest. His measured (some would say constricted) response was to attempt to impose paternal shaming using a teleprompter while sitting behind a desk. It wasn’t effective. We marched on Washington, camped out in front of the White House, waded in the reflecting pools and demanded an end to war.
The Generation Gap was a topic of concern, as the Greatest Generation saw institutions they fought for become winnowed with greed and corruption. Older Americans worried what would happen if Hippies took over. Hippies worried what would happen if the Older Generation stayed in power too long.
I have lived these intervening 50 years and have learned that the more things change the more they stay the same (“plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”). Yes, I now get my news via tweets and streaming (or screaming, depending on which channel I watch). My cell phone contains more memory than the Apollo 11 spacecraft. I no longer wear bell bottoms. I am concerned about Millennials because I am not sure they are prepared to carry on. I yearn for predictability and have become way too accustomed to the chaos that currently substitutes for governance in this country.
Fifty years ago, our nation came together in awe of the unbelievably bold and unimaginable drama that was known as Apollo 11. Three white astronauts, all Catholic, put their lives in the hands of untold numbers of engineers, mathematicians, computer designers, dreamers, and schemers and were blasted off into the unknown. There was no guarantee they would survive the liftoff, much less actually land on the moon. There was a chance, even though it was minuscule, that all the systems, back-up systems, and prayers would not be sufficient to insure that they would leave the moon’s surface intact and dock with the module. There were moments when, in the darkness of outer space, communication was impossible, and we held our collective breaths until that calm voice made its way through the atmosphere and said,
“HORNET: Apollo 11, Apollo 11. This is Hornet, Hornet. Over.
SPACE CRAFT: Hello, Hornet, this is Apollo 11 reading you loud and clear. Our position 133:0, 169:15.
HORNET: 11, Hornet, copy. 13301675. Any further data? SC 330, 169, 15.
PAO: Hornet has voice contact. Aircraft reports visual with 3 full chutes.”
They were home. Collectively we let out our breath, having been changed forever by this event.
I have never been able to look at the moon the same since Neil Armstrong set foot on it. And I am grateful for that. I know that no matter how I fear for our future, how disappointed I am in my fellow Americans, how despondent I am at times because of how we have lost our way as a nation and as a people, there was once a time when I witnessed greatness.