The Parent Trap: With moon landing, the future was then

Tom Swift and the Race to the Moon was a book given to me by my parents, back when kids received such low-tech presents for Christmas. Even back then I was a voracious reader, and the mission of Tom and his spaceship was bunched along with my yearly quota of Hardy Boys books. I thought about Tom’s adventure on June 20, 1969 as I watched a real man – an American – walk across the moon.

The clock was inching toward 10 p.m. when the first step was taken. By this time, even on a Sunday in the middle of summer, I was usually in bed. But not on this night. Not on the night when a man stepped for the first time on ground not of this earth.

I sat on the living room floor in my pajamas, at my parents’ feet. My sister and brother were close by, and all of us watched the television screen, transfixed. Most of the time, we sat around the TV to watch entertainment, sports or soap operas. But on this evening, we saw history – as a family.

“That’s one small step for (a) man… one giant leap for mankind,” Neil Armstrong’s voice scratched from more than a quarter million miles away. “A magnificent desolation,” added his crewmate, Buzz Aldrin. We didn’t have to guess if he was right – we could see it for ourselves. It was desolate, and yes, it was magnificent.

Hardly a word was spoken as we marveled at the spectacle of men on the moon. It was as if we all knew the significance, from my 6-year old brother to my parents, in that rowhome in Morrell Park. We stayed up until well past midnight, passing out on the floor as Neil and Buzz gathered moon rocks.

Every bit as much as the war in Vietnam or for civil rights, the race to the moon held the nation’s attention in the 1960s. President Kennedy promised us that an American would set foot on the moon by the end of the decade and we believed him, even though his tenure ended violently before its completion.

We had to believe him. The same television that brought us this wonder from outer space had also continued to bring us news of violence in America and in distance lands. People were dying. The nation was divided between young and old, black and white. Families were fractured. It took a man on the moon to bring people and families together.

The moon might not be a planet, but it is a world away. It sits 238,857 miles from earth. That translates into approximately 241 trips from Philadelphia to Disney World. Landing on its surface is so special that only six human beings have done it, and nobody has tried again for 37 years.

I think about that night and wonder what our children would think of a black and white picture of a man in a big white space suit, bouncing along the Sea of Tranquility. My guess is that some would join the group of naysayers who continue to insist that the entire Apollo mission was staged in America. Some might be bored by the whole thing, the product of being brought up on a steady diet of technology.

But I also hope that now, on the 40th anniversary of that historic event, that some children would become interested in the wonder of infinite space. The sad fact is that, while the information highway has gotten faster, the itch to explore things beyond our borders has waned. Shuttle missions are treated less like exploration and more often like a floating repair shop.

Some things haven’t changed. Families still watch TV together, although the quality isn’t as good and the limits have been tested to the point that it is hard to find things everyone can enjoy. People are still dying, here and abroad. Age, politics and prejudices still manage to tear families apart. But the idea of men and women taking that “giant leap” with such a small step should still take hold of us.

Tom Swift would have been proud to see Neil Armstrong take the first step on the moon. But fictional characters can only be held in their paper boundaries. Maybe someday children – our children – will be able to sit in the dark and watch an American take another step. Maybe on the moon, maybe beyond.

The Parent Trap is a weekly column by Patrick P. McNally that will appear on every Tuesday. See others here. Read other NEast Philly columns here.

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