Writer Bill Cushing in Glendale, California, is mindful that it’s almost fifty years now since man first landed on the moon (and since then only took five more trips). But he looks back on that first moon landing as the heart of the decades that formed his personality.
I grew up in the Fifties, a time of conformity so prevalent that black-and-white television seemed apropos. I came of age in the Sixties, a time that birthed youthful open revolt. I matured during the Seventies, an age of malaise so bad that the government actually concocted a new standard of weights and measures: the “Misery Index.” Little wonder my default attitude is one of skepticism, which Spengler identified as the dominant trait of the 20th Century. Still, one memory gives me the sort of optimism Faulkner envisioned when he proclaimed that humanity “will not merely endure [but] prevail.”
It was July 20, 1969. Neil Armstrong, then Buzz Aldrin, stepped off the lunar module to walk on the moon. It’s safe to say that most if not all Americans bore witness to the event, giving people a new perspective on their lives. The lesson I learned that evening was also one of humility, but it took place here, on Earth.
At the time, my family was on its annual vacation at my grandmother’s house isolated in the mountains of Vermont. A friend of her London youth was visiting, who was probably about 80, a good long life in those days. I treated him like any teenager would treat the elderly, with aloofness bordering on contempt. I didn’t see that he had anything to offer me, so I ignored what he said during our time that night, which is why what happened following the moonwalk had such impact.
The event and the commentaries ended, and we settled into conversation around the fireplace. That was when he spoke directly to me.
“You know,” he said, “when I was your age, we heard about some contraption available to people with electricity. It was said you could plug this box in and watch people in other places right there in your flat. Of course, I didn’t believe it. It was ridiculous to think that such a thing could be.”
Then, sweeping his arm toward the television, he continued, “Now I just watched some Yank walk on another planet on the same box I thought couldn’t exist.”
The revelation from this brief conversation didn’t hit me so much as seep in. Quick mental calculations allowed me to realize that this guy had seen the start of the 20th Century, the one I entered at its midpoint. He saw days without widespread indoor plumbing or electrical service. He watched transportation by horse and rail turn into automobile and plane. Now he was witnessing space flight and organ transplants.
That was when I understood the enormity of events a person can witness in any given lifetime. That was when I understood the wonder of human capacity, realizing that given enough time, the right materials, and proper knowledge, there isn’t much we can’t achieve.
Excluding the internet, I think I haven’t felt the wonder he felt during his lifetime.
Still, I have another 15 years to catch up. Wonder what’s next.