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Neil Armstrong, 1930-2012

It was possibly the ultimate “where were you when you heard about it” moment, maybe because it was a rare universally-shared experience that didn’t involve a tragedy like an assassination or accident or terror attack. Anyone who was alive at the time and old enough to know what was going on remembers where he or she was when Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon.

I do. Strange thing, though, how minds work: I remember more when the Lunar Module set down on the moon then the step. I was with my family at a friend’s house in New Jersey, it was late afternoon, and they had a little black-and-white portable TV on a ledge in the garage, and we got the news about the landing that way. After dinner, we headed home, and I remember staying up late — it was July, a Sunday night, and I didn’t have school or camp or anything the next day — and I remember it was on our big blurry console black-and-white Capehart TV with the record player under a lid on top. We watched, and then I went to sleep.

That under-reaction was probably because I wasn’t old enough to grasp how big a deal this was at the time. The idea that a human might set foot on the moon was not new, but for older people, it was still far-fetched until not too long before it actually happened.  But for kids like me, it was a different story. By the time I was born, the space race was well underway, the operative idea planted by JFK was that someone WAS going to walk on the moon within the decade, and it never occurred to me at that age that it was a huge feat to send people hurtling into orbit and setting down on another planet, because there were, for me, always astronauts and always space missions and always NASA. Tony Nelson and Roger Healey on “I Dream of Jeannie” were astronauts. The baseball team in Houston changed its name to “Astros.” “2001: A Space Odyssey” was, well, that. A kid growing up back then would assume that we’d be on the moon, and Mars, and everyplace else soon enough. We had no other reference point.

But our parents did. They were children of the Depression, and space travel was comic book stuff until they were already adults. To them, landing on the moon was the pinnacle of human achievement, because they’d lived when it seemed like an impossibility. “They’ll put a man on the moon before (fill in the blank)” was a still-common expression of “that’ll never happen” in their lifetime. To see it happen, well, that was beyond comprehension.

Yet, there it was, in the fog of the sketchy, ghost-ridden pre-cable signal on our big old TV set, Neil Armstrong stepping foot on the moon, making his statement, achieving immortality. Today, with his passing at 82, we know that he wasn’t literally immortal in the human sense, but his name will be one of the few to remain known and relevant and important to generations of the future.  That kind of immortality, the history book kind, he’ll have as long as history continues to be recorded.

Dude walked on the moon. You can’t top that.

 Thanks to Brian Walton for contributing to this post.

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3 comments

  • Where was I for lunar landing? I was a kid overseas and had asked to be woken up in the middle of the night to watch the landing. I was barely awake but I was so determined to watch it I was crumpled on the couch with a throw pillow proping my head to watch the black and white TV. It was glorious!

    RIP Neil Armstrong

  • Truly an amazing man. And super well written piece! I think it’d be the coolest thing to look up at the night sky, see the moon, and be able to say “yeah. I WAS THERE.”

  • Apollo seems almost surreal to me now. I was eight when they landed, and me and Major Matt Mason relived it over and over again. I, too, wanted to be an astronaut, but things didn’t quite work out. Something about hard work academically in math and other things not talked about on Jeannie, Lost in Space, or Star Trek. The saddest thing about Apollo is we gave it up just before it could really get us somewhere like lunar colonies and a Mars landing. The potential lost from the cancellation of Apollo is heartbreaking, and makes the accomplishments of the Apollo program that much more fantastic to me considering it was 1969 when Apollo 11 made history.