Throwback Thursday: Importance of July 20, 1969 lost on new generations

This is a column from 2014 on the anniversary of the historic landing on the moon.

How I came to be talking about the moon landing of 1969 to a group of third-graders whose parents weren’t even born when it happened, was sort of an accident. After all, I’m seldom in the company of kids in elementary school, although I’ve most certainly worked with people over the years who fit that description in terms of maturity.

Now, I found myself before this particular group of kids because I was asked to be a guest reader as part of a weeklong day camp hosted by the Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter and in partnership with Newlin Elementary School. It’s a free camp for children from that Title I school who will be in the third grade this fall. For those who don’t know, Title I schools are those where 95 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

So the kids last week had the opportunity to check out cool places like Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill or the nearby Children’s Museum in Graham — sites they might not otherwise be able to go to. The church and its camp made this possible. It’s a learning experience and a fun one, too. They were stoked. It’s a fabulous program.

The kids also had the opportunity to have people from the community read aloud to them. That’s where I came in. I was honored to be chosen to promote literacy in this way but scared to death after I accepted. The last time I read out loud in front of more than two people had to be when I was in college.

Anyway, the book selected was one I hadn’t seen before. “The Energy Bus for Kids” is based on a book written for adults in the business world and revolves around positive thinking and visualization. I took turns reading with District Court Judge Brad Allen, and the students ate it up. They were highly engaged and more than happy to participate in all the places they were asked to do so.

After the reading, a question and answer session followed. One girl asked me when I knew I wanted to go into newspaper work. I told her that it happened when I was about 12 years old and I started submitting sports stories to the local newspaper. I explained that I was from a very small place, with a population of about 175 people.

“The place where I grew up had no McDonalds,” I told them. “It had no Wal-Mart.”

An audible gasp filled the room. It was about the most amazing thing they had ever heard in their lives. Imagine, no Wal-Mart.

“Where did you get food?” one asked with a hint of worry in his voice.

In the same conversation I also told them that before deciding to pursue becoming a newspaper writer, I, like most kids of my generation, wanted to be an astronaut.

I don’t believe they had ever heard of such a thing. “Astro-what?” I got crickets in response.

“We were landing people on the moon back in those days,” I added, trying to help them out.

Crickets again.

They had nothing on it. Zip. Nada.

So much for one giant leap.

HOW WHAT was among the most stunning achievements of the previous century has been relegated in cultural importance to light-years behind the emergence of Super Wal-Mart and 24-hour shopping seemed to be a question filled with irony and coincidence, especially since last week was the anniversary of Apollo 11’s historic departure from earth. Forty-five years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk upon the surface of the moon.

And just about every single person in America who had access to a TV — not everybody did — watched it happen on one of only three networks available at that time. There were no other options, not that anybody wanted something else anyway.

This moon landing was everything.

On July 20, 1969, I was almost 10 years old but had already witnessed miraculous achievements by America’s space program, which had been challenged by President Kennedy in 1961 to land on the moon. In context, the first powered flight of any kind had occurred in 1903. Space seemed impossible.

I remember going to an aunt and uncle’s house to watch it all unfold. They had a color TV, and we didn’t yet. Color TV brought new life to the launch itself. The images from the moon were black and white anyway.

What I remember most was the dramatic TV coverage by Walter Cronkite on CBS. Every moment was incredibly tense, from the explosive liftoff to the moon landing of the lunar module. Armstrong and Aldrin walking upon the moon’s surface was fraught with potential peril. The fiery re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere was always dicey. We had no idea what might happen yet.

There was lots of breath-holding around the nation until the astronauts splashed down safely in the vast expanse of an ocean. The astronauts were heroes.

But there was an equal amount of national pride, too. It seemed then that America could accomplish anything it wanted. It was a time of creativity, innovation and greatness.

In all, 12 men explored the moon in six landings through 1972, and then the program’s focus shifted. By 2004, the technology to go to the moon was simply gone. Imagine that. Poof, not there anymore. NASA then set a new mission to the moon, this time for a landing in 2020. It’s to be a springboard to longer potential missions to Mars, perhaps.

For his part Aldrin, now 84, has appointed himself as the “global statesman for space.” He’s reminding people to remember where they were 45 years ago when he, Armstrong and Michael Collins were on that landmark voyage those third-graders the other day knew so little about.

“I feel we need to remind the world about the Apollo missions and that we can still do impossible things,” Aldrin says in a video on YouTube.

I’m happy to help. How can I turn down Buzz Aldrin? After all, the guy’s an astronaut.


Official NASA portrait of Buzz Aldrin.

2 thoughts on “Throwback Thursday: Importance of July 20, 1969 lost on new generations

  1. That night I was on the campus of Hampden-Sydney in Virginia. My roommate in college and I were dating girls at Longwood College in Farmville , Virginia. The TV reception in the student union at Longwood was bad so we drove around listening to the radio coverage. We rode over to Hampden-Sydney and parked in a lot where the reception seemed to be at it’s best. A security guard drove up and wanted to know why we there. We told him we were listening to the moon walk which didn’t seem to impress him. We were told to move on. We were also at Longwood when Edward Kennedy drove off the bridge.


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