This is a big year for 50 years. The anniversary of Woodstock is coming up, for example. Fifty years. At the time, I had no idea about it until long after it was over. That probably worked out for the best.
The walk on the moon was a different story. It was the culmination of a decade’s dream, the fulfillment of a challenge brought forth by John F. Kennedy. It was a patriotic mission to win the Cold War, at least symbolically.
Fifty years down the road we know how it turned out, but there was no certainty at the time, and lots of reason for doubt.
We kept losing: The Soviets had the first satellite in space, the first man in space, the first woman in space, the first spacewalk. It was not fun to be behind all the time.
But then we won the big prize, and all the losses became little losses the moment Neil Armstrong set foot on another world.
We were able to bring the American spirit of competitiveness into play, like we were playing some kind of game that just had to be won. The space race was not far removed from the Olympics in this regard. Americans are very good at seeing things in terms of sporting events.
And it worked. An American setting foot on the moon is the most significant achievement of this country. It is the most significant achievement of any country.
How’s that for superlatives?
Like everybody else, I watched it on television — gathered around the set with my parents and siblings, the way people don’t do now.
The funny thing is, though I remember the images, and a thrilling sense of tension that comes with a mission that can’t be taken for granted, I don’t really remember much else specific about it. I don’t remember what I said or what anybody else said. If I tried I’d risk making it up.
The American space program was the splendor of my childhood. As we often get reminded, it was a very tough decade, of assassinations and civil unrest, a most unpopular war and a Democratic national convention in 1968 that showed a nation coming apart at the seams. But through all this was the consistent resolve traveling through space demanded.
In the midst of discord and uncertainty, the nation was able to achieve a transcending accomplishment. It was rockets without military action, it was heroes in uniform who were not out to fight anyone. Their mission was on behalf of everyone.
Years before Armstrong set foot on the moon, I’d gone to Shea Stadium to see the Mets take on the Los Angeles Dodgers. Sandy Koufax was pitching for the Dodgers, and I have a very specific memory of making an unusual mental note. It was like sending a message to my future self. I recognized that I was watching the greatest pitcher of all time and, sitting in the stands that night, I told myself not to forget it. The old person who will be you one day, should you be so fortunate, will be grateful, is how I figured it.
I didn’t have to do that with Neil Armstrong, obviously. There was no way I was ever going to forget that moment. My grandfather’s life had gone from the horse and buggy to a human on the moon.
We’ve come even farther in the 50 years since, though in some ways it doesn’t seem that way.
There’s divisiveness and discord that can appear worse than ever. Fifty years later, the moon landing still serves as a reminder of the nation’s transcending strength.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or firstname.lastname@example.org.