Although it happened fifty years ago, I vividly remember the night Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. I was eight and my brother was five and my father woke us in the middle of the night and hurried us downstairs to the family room and our large black and white television set. The screen’s blue glow was harsh on my sleepy eyes, and although it was summertime, the air conditioning gave me a chill as I stood there in my pajamas. Mom ran and got my bathrobe.
This was not the first time my father had summoned us to the television to watch the astronauts. I knew their names: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. I knew this mission was Apollo 11, and I knew that they had landed on the moon in a place called the Sea of Tranquility. My father loved this stuff. He read nothing but science fiction paperbacks by writers like Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury and he talked to my brother endlessly about UFO’s and what supposedly happened in Roswell. Me? I found the whole idea of space a little bit scary, but as I watched the contrasting images on the television screen – David Brinkley; the men in the control room, who all looked alike with their short haircuts, black-rimmed geek frame eyeglasses, white shirts and skinny ties; and finally the spacecraft itself, which was partially shrouded in darkness – I felt the same anticipation that comes on Christmas Eve. In a few minutes we were actually going to see a man walking on the moon.
Even in the best of circumstances, our television reception was only so good. Now add to that the quality of the moon-to-earth image, and it was no surprise the picture was snowy and no amount of adjusting the rabbit ears would make it clear.
“There he is! There he is!” my brother exclaimed when Neil Armstrong emerged from the lunar module. We couldn’t see his face through the shiny black face shield of his huge bubble helmet. Instead, we saw a reflection of what he saw – the spacecraft and the spotlights. When Neil Armstrong finally walked down the steps of the spacecraft and stepped onto the moon, we all cheered and clapped our hands.
As the coverage continued the next day, the clip of Neil Armstrong stepping from the ladder onto the surface of the moon was replayed again and again. And we all watched it as if we hadn’t seen it before. When I finally asked my father, “Why did you make us get up in the middle of the night to see this when we could’ve just seen it today?” he answered with a crack in his voice, “Because last night it was history.”
My father has always been a pragmatic man, but with his because last night it was history remark, he’d managed to be poetic. I took his words to heart, realizing that big things were happening in the world, many of which I was still too young to fully understand or take part in. Just like Roswell, the names of places had taken on new and deeper meanings. No longer simply locations, Vietnam, Chappaquiddick, and Woodstock referred to a war, an accident, and a concert. Even more than history, that summer I became acutely aware of pop culture, and began to understand how art, music, and literature reflected all that was happening.
I was twelve years old when knew I wanted to be a writer – something my practical yet perceptive father already surmised. He once admitted to me, “Ever since you were a little girl, I knew you marched to a different drummer.” I don’t know if this path is what he would have chosen for me; I’ve never asked him that. But he’d accepted it without question and, realizing why it was so important for me to witness the moment in history when a man walked on the moon, had encouraged it.