The counselors woke us from our bunks and led us down the hill to the mess hall. It wasn’t that late, maybe 10 at night, but we were kids and they sacked you in pretty early back in 1969.
We yawned as we took our places around the dining tables. Someone handed out Popsicles. Then, as we licked the icy treats, our tongues turning purple or raspberry, we watched a big black-and-white TV set. The reception wasn’t great in the woods of summer camp. And since the picture was coming from the moon, it was particularly fuzzy.
Still, we heard a tinny voice say “one giant leap for mankind” and when the shadowy spaceman seemed settled on ground, we all clapped, because it felt like that’s what we should do: clap for something great.
And it was something great.
I have been trying to figure out why that moment, July 20, 1969, still resonates with me, still gives me goose bumps 40 years later, and why, on the anniversary of that event Monday, it seems as if I’ll never feel that way again.
I think there are a few big reasons: The wonder years
Back then, there was still a sense of wonder at what man could accomplish. The first human heart transplant had taken place two years earlier. Olympian Bob Beamon had leapt an astounding 29 feet, 2 1/2 inches in Mexico City. We were still in the same decade that a man first orbited Earth in a spacecraft, and now this – the moon!
Today, man’s limits seem to be broken every day. We send probes to the farthest reaches of space. We clone sheep. We restore eyesight. We smash sports records with every new stud – or we find drugs that let us cheat our way to it.
Wonder? How can we have a sense of wonder? We’re too busy dazzling ourselves every nanosecond with biotech, high tech or the newest iPhone.
Also, remember, in 1969, we all watched that moon walk together. There was no CNN, MSNBC or Fox News competing for a silly “exclusive” tag. There was just Walter Cronkite, wearing horn-rimmed glasses, behind a desk that he called “CBS News Space Headquarters.” And when Neil Armstrong planted his shoe on the lunar surface, Cronkite was so excited he actually exclaimed, “Wow! Oh, boy! Hot diggity dog! Yes, sir!”
Can you imagine today’s TV anchors being that unabashedly joyous? They would more likely be reminding you what network you saw it on, who sponsored it and what reality show was coming up. A time to explore
And then there’s this: We were simply more interested in exploring those days. Americans who rarely traveled dreamed of a once-in-a-lifetime trip to New York. Those who made New York dreamed of seeing London or Paris. An airplane was a big deal.
Today, an airplane is like a Greyhound bus – complete with bring your own sandwich. It’s a hassle to travel, not to mention scary, thanks to a word our kids didn’t know back in 1969, “terrorism.”
Instead, we seem much more interested in exploring ourselves. We use technology to spread the word about our Facebooks, our accomplishments, our blogs. We look in more than we look out. To be fascinated by the moon is to be fascinated with something larger than us. Many today would rather focus on how smaller things – singing, dancing, losing weight or eating bugs – can get you famous.
I remember leaving the mess hall and looking up at the moon, thinking if I squinted hard enough, I might see Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin. When I got home from camp that summer, my mother had saved all the newspapers, and I meticulously cut and pasted the stories into a blue scrapbook. My father bought me a plastic model kit of Apollo 11, and I put it together, fitting the lunar module inside the rocket.
There was, on that table of decals and model glue, a sense of history, and while I was too young to define it, I knew it was bigger than me. I basked in its glow. I was hopelessly, wonderfully, childishly impressed. I guess it’s just not as easy to impress us anymore, which is a shame, because if you go outside Monday night and look at the moon, it’s still pretty far away, and going there is a hell of a thing.
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