Especially during the day, there wasn’t much on TV back then, especially for a 15-year-old boy. Soap operas like “The Edge of Night,” “As the World Turns,” “Search for Tomorrow” and “The Guiding Light?” Yuck. Most of the news? Blech.
So during the summer when school was gloriously out and we were reveling in the absence of teachers’ dirty looks, we were outside (even as teenagers … we didn’t grow up too fast in the sixties), snapping photos of garbage can lids tossed into the air to see if we could make a reasonable facsimile of a UFO. We had to wait a week to get our pictures back from the drug store to see if my best friend and I had caught just the right instant and the best angle of that lid so we could convince our friends – maybe even the USAF’s UFO study “Project Bluebook” – that we had photographed a real UFO.
Space was the rage. There wasn’t a plastic jet airplane model-building boy worth his weight in salt who didn’t want the “right stuff” to become a fighter pilot and then an Apollo astronaut.
Growing up, yes, but time moved more slowly in the 1960s too. Waiting for our UFO pictures to be printed, a windy summer day offered another space adventure. A small glass vial in which we’d trapped a few hapless ants was scotch taped to a kite. Our “antronauts” were launched as high as our length of kite string would permit, the experiment intended to determine – scientifically – if the ants could survive in the thin, cold, turbulent and rarified air way up there at the edge of space around 70 feet above our backyard.
The ants did survive … and were released back to their anthill after their sub-orbital space flight. I have to admit that some of their kin were not so lucky, a magnifying glass “death ray” from the planet “Zoog,” frying them to crisps until a McDonnell F3H “Demon” Navy fighter jet model I had built could roll in hot and take out the death ray, blowing it to smithereens and saving the ant queen from certain death.
But then the news – this inconceivable news – suddenly became very important to me. July 20, 1969, came along and even a no-kidding, actual flying saucer from the planet Zoog hovering in our backyard, posing for a perfect photograph, couldn’t have pulled me outside. I was breathlessly glued to the TV like 500 million people around the world with me.
Our TV, the room’s central and essential piece of furniture, was a wooden-cased, console-type, human- (as opposed to remote-) controlled behemoth. It was elevated almost 2 feet above and firmly planted in a sea of mottled gray-green shag carpet in my parents’ Mayfield, Ohio, living room that, like a space capsule, was a too small space in which six of us crammed ourselves to share in the earth-shattering event we were about to witness.
That TV, the first color set my parents owned, in some ways reflected the momentous event being televised that day. Like the Apollo Program, that color TV and marvel of the electronic age was high tech for its time. Just like our human-controlled TV, Apollo 11 mission commander Neil Armstrong himself piloted the final phase of the first manned moon landing because the remote control computer intended to land the “Eagle” had failed. Armstrong expertly “stuck” the landing of moon lander Eagle, firmly planting it in a crater called the Sea of Tranquility, echoed by that sea of shag carpet in which our TV was planted.
Armstrong’s step was one of those few events in life, those about which we can indelibly recall exactly where we were and what we were doing when it happened. Was it really possible that we had broken the iron chains of gravity that had bound us to earth for eons and were actually about to take a step on another world, a step humankind had dreamt about for centuries?
CBS correspondent Walter Cronkite’s soothing voice calmly guided us to the final landing at 10:56 PM Eastern Daylight Time and to Armstrong’s remarkable report to mission control that, “The Eagle has landed.”
Holding our collective breath my family and I sat motionless as Armstrong took his first step to the surface of the moon and recited his historic words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It was a giant leap. And is.
No longer was the moon untouchable, “a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas” as poet Alfred Noyes penned about it. No longer a spirit floating in a black sky, the moon was reachable … touchable by human hands.
Even 50 years later, the fact that we touched the moon hasn’t diminished the wonder of the human animal’s ability to conceive of something so impossible and then actually accomplish it. And the moon’s glow, dimmed a little perhaps in its mystery, flared up in blinding brightness at the possibilities for our future – both in space and here on earth – on that July 20th day in 1969.
Newspaper columnist Barry Fetzer lives in Hubert.