I’m always a little sentimental on July 20th. All right. A lot sentimental. It’s impossible for me not to remember the high pitch of excitement in our house the afternoon that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
Mom and Dad, like most parents back then, grew up during the Great Depression. My mother still looked up every time an airplane flew across the sky. The atmosphere still boomed regularly as military jets zoomed through the supersonic sound barrier. To her, these remained miracles almost too great to take in, but a man on the moon? It was the stuff of science fiction.
My father, the engineer, was fascinated with the science of propulsion, the calculations of orbit, the use of centrifugal force to propel a spacecraft back into space. He taught us about anti-gravity. “If you drop a hammer and a feather at the same time on the moon,” he said, “they’ll hit the ground at the same time.” Later, when we saw the astronauts demonstrate it, our skepticism diminished as our respect for our father’s intelligence bloomed.
The 1960’s were all about America’s space program. Prince Charming appeared as an astronaut in my 1963 kindergarten rendition of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. We begged our mother to buy us Tang, the artificial orange drink, because it was developed for the astronauts. My 1968 Sears bicycle was marketed as “The Spaceliner.” And the Russians? They may have beaten us into space with the first satellite, but the moon would be ours, dang it all!
Prior to Apollo 11’s historic flight, we’d watched as many of the other Apollo lift-offs as we possibly could— if not live, then on the evening news with Walter Cronkite. The four Lundquist kids would gather around the television set and watch as Mission Control updated us on the departure time. “We’re T minus whatever minutes from ignition,” a NASA spokesperson would alert us. We formed a chorus for the final ten seconds of count down. Three…two…one…ignition… Lift off! We have lift-off! On one hand, we were completely spellbound by the rocket there on the launch pad, smoke curling out from the thrusters at the bottom. On the other hand, we could barely contain ourselves, wanting to race around the room or simply jumping up and down.
Later Apollo flights lost none of their allure for our family. I‘ve framed a crayon picture my little brother drew of Apollo 13. “Lift Off!” exclaims the caption in the cartoon bubble coming from the capsule. He had drawn this picture before we knew that, “Houston: We have a problem.”
But in 1969, there we were, an entire family gathered around the TV, Daddy adjusting the horizontal hold knob when necessary. Commander Neil Armstrong was about to step out of the lunar module and onto the surface of the moon. Tears brightened my parents’ eyelids.
One month later, Hurricane Camille would tear through rural Nelson County, killing over 120 people, catching meteorologists completely by surprise as more rain fell in 3 hours than they had (until that night) thought possible. America had put a man on the moon, but early warning systems for storms such as this were still years away.
The Viet Nam War raged on, Virginia had yet to integrate its schools, the Clean Water and Clean Air acts were prospects for the 1970’s. Personal computers were decades away. For all practical purposes, NASA engineers used slide rules to send men into space.
One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. Who could ever gaze at the moon in the same way? Some fundamental hope hung in the air, and we had a new American hero among heroes. Yet here is what he had to say as he stood on the moon looking toward home, “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”
Neil Armstrong died last year and it still chokes me up to think of it. Jazz singer Diana Krall sang at his memorial service, “Fly Me to the Moon,” which seemed so perfect. But it’s the last line from another song of my parent’s generation that plays in my head these days
I’ll be looking at the moon…. but I’ll be seeing you.