Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Moon landing: through a ten-year-old's eyes on 20 July 1969

News of astronaut Neil Armstrong's death this past weekend inevitably brought to mind the question: where were you on 20 July 1969?

I was at summer camp north and a bit west of Madison, Wisconsin. My family lived in Chicago at the time. It was my second summer at sleepover camp, and there were exactly two working televisions inside camp boundaries. One was installed in the director's cabin; and the second, a portable set, belonged to the assistant kitchen manager. I can't say I understood at age ten the friendships and alliances among our teenage counselors, but somehow or other my counselor was close enough to the assistant kitchen manager to be invited over to watch the moonwalk. Because he was responsible for watching over our cabin, we got to tag along.

Shortly after lights-out, while most of camp stared up into the darkness and wondered whether the momentus event had already begun, my counselor -- I think his name was Ari, but it was a long time ago, really -- Ari violated every rule in the summer camp book by quietly rousing the dozen of us in his charge, swearing us to perfect silence, and sneaking us through the woods to the assistant kitchen manager's quarters on the far side of camp.

The room was not much more than fifteen feet square. I strained with fifty-some others to see the tiny black and white screen set on a milk-crate in the corner. It was hot, crowded, and almost impossible to follow the tinny voices transmitted through NASA headquarters in Houston.  We shifted to ease our cramping legs, and whispered as we tried to make sense of the broadcast.

"Is it real or are they just acting?" my bunkmate asked. I didn't know, but I thought the voices were real but the pictures were simulated.

"Shhh!  It's real guys, now listen up!" Ari hissed.

"At the foot of the ladder the left foot pads are only depressed in the surface about one or two inches," said the TV, "although the surface appears to be very, very fine grained as you get closer to it.  It's almost like a powder..."

"Going to step off the LEM now..."

The world held its collective breath.  An owl hooted somewhere out in the Wisconsin night.

"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," said the disembodied voice as the astronaut on the screen stepped down to the surface of the moon.

I was sitting cross-legged on the hard wooden floor and the muscles in my legs felt as if someone were wringing them out like a dishtowel. I shifted slowly in the packed space, careful not to knee the surrounding campers, and hugged my legs to my body.

When I glanced over at the assistant kitchen manager, the young woman whose generosity permitted me live witness to this historic and miraculous moment, I saw in the bluish light that tears were coursing down her rounded cheeks.

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