I’m older now, so there are only a few things I can say I remember with certainty, and even fewer that I remember not seen through the lens of a small boy’s perceptions.
That filthy swimming pool in the back pasture of my pre-school? In reality it was a small natural pond on the property. And Frisky, my first pet dog wasn’t really sent away to a “farm” so he could run free. RIP Frisky. Even my grandmother’s home-cooking turned out to be take-out from a local restaurant plated on the family china. Children see life differently than adults.
But there is one childhood memory that was not obscured by time, or by a child’s eye. It is my memory of sitting on the floor in front of the family television set, watching Neil Armstrong step on the Moon for the first time on July 20, 1969. I had just turned six years old, but I remember as if it was yesterday—me, sitting cross-legged on the shag carpet of my childhood house, inching up as close as I could to the screen of our rabbit-eared black and white television. It was me, my family, and most of the nation (and perhaps the world) sitting silent and breathless as the lunar landing craft came to rest on the moon’s surface. “Houston, Tranquility Base here,” we heard astronaut Armstrong report back to earth; “The Eagle has landed.” It is a phrase that lives in our common vernacular today, but was uttered for the first time—beamed from the Moon, into the homes of a collective America on that date.
Young and old, Oregonians and Floridians alike, watched with child-like wonder at the live telecast of an event few thought possible only years before. The idea that a human could step foot on another planet was fantastical to anyone of any age. But Neil Armstrong was there, representing the collective American dream that John Kennedy had laid out just years before—“to achieving the goal, before the end of the decade, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to earth.”
These memories of our collective achievement come pouring back today, as I learned of astronaut Neil Armstrong’s passing at age 82. We joined Neil on the Moon that day—he represented all of us and all of our dreams and aspirations. So today, with certainty and clarity, I remember the man, his life, and our collective achievements on that amazing day in 1969.
Thinking back, there are few collective memories with such positive influence. Others memories, like the death of Robert Kennedy, the fall of Saigon, the resignation of Richard Nixon, and the more recent September 11 attacks, all have a sad meaning behind them—we were brought together over tragedy, not achievement. Even the recent landing on Mars—despite its technological feat, did not have the same collective draw.
I don’t think child-like wonderment is behind me, nor is the idea of collective national achievement, but remembering that day in 1969 and Neil Armstrong, remind me of how precious those moments are.