July/August 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 4
It is always a bit surprising to be reminded of how compressed our national history is. Robert E. Lee was Light Horse Harry Lee’s son , after all, and there were men around in 1861 who had fought King George’s soldiers to establish the nation that they were seeing fall apart. And certainly our own century, even with a few years yet to run, has contained events enough to fill any number of epochs.
I spent the afternoon of July 20, 1969, with my parents in their bedroom, blinds drawn against the warm, thundery sunlight, watching along with the rest of the world while men edged toward the surface of the moon. My mother, sitting there next to me, had been born ten days before the Wright boys wired home to Dayton to say that they’d made four successful flights in their machine. The longest had been 852 feet. The particular one we were watching that Sunday afternoon had gone about 400,000 miles so far.
“I’ll be so interested to hear what your father says when they land,” my mother had told me sometime that morning. “He always puts things so well.”
It was true, and one corner of my mind stayed alert to this as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bucketed moonward. “Houston,” came the voice across a quarter-million miles, “Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” And my eloquent father said, “Holy cow.”
That was exactly a quarter of a century ago. Holy cow. Can this most modern of human events really be just as far away from us now as the Normandy landings were when we watched it happen? The Sunday Times that lay in wreckage about my feet as I watched Aldrin inch down the ladder from the lunar module carried news of a world that seems distant now: I Am Curious (yellow) and Easy Rider at the movies; The Valley of the Dolls clinging lubriciously to the top of the best-seller list; sunny, high-ceiling three-bedroom apartments on West End Avenue up for grabs at $325 a month; the war in Vietnam in a lull; skirts shorter than I imagine they will ever be again; and in all the close-packed visual jabber of electronics advertising, not a VCR or a PC to be seen: just 8-mm cameras and projectors, most of them made in the U.S.A.
But men on the moon—that scene has a magical power to retain its immediacy. It remains so fresh in the national memory that when the editors wanted to find a story to mark the anniversary, we went back to the beginning, to Alan Shepard’s vivid reminiscence of how he first carried America’s fortunes into space in 1961.
Eight years later a couple of his friends planted an American flag on the moon. Shepard’s flight lasted 15 minutes and 22 seconds; theirs lasted 195 hours, 18 minutes, 35 seconds. That stretch of capabilities in that span of time seems to me nearly as impressive as the evolution of aircraft from fabric-covered novelty to mature rocket ship that occurred in my mother’s lifetime, and the still bright memory of men gamboling stiffly in a powdery new landscape reminds us that along with the dislocations and occasional terrors our accelerated history pulls in its wake, it also bears some splendid satisfactions.