People often remember what they were doing the exact moment a major historic event took place.
For instance, I was walking from my junior high school building to the neighboring high school where a cafeteria lunch was served for both schools at different hours when a classmate sprinted past, shouting, ‘Have you heard the news? Kennedy got shot with a machine gun!”
My appetite for high school cafeteria food was never what I would call ravenous, and what little I had went away when I heard that news, which turned out to be mostly correct. I reversed course and headed for my homeroom, worrying about how the country would recover from such an unthinkable event.
A much more pleasant historic event took place on July 20, 1969, as I was wrapping up my first year of college in Yellow Springs, Ohio, living in a small home the college had rented on the town’s main drag to augment student housing. It came equipped with a huge black-and-white television with a rabbit ears antenna, to which an elaborate web of channel-attracting coat hanger wire and aluminum foil was attached, and a comfortable, 1950s-style sofa, both designed to make homework deferment a snap. On that night, instead of keeping up with my classwork, I was binge-watching Walter Cronkite’s marathon coverage of the Apollo 11 mission.
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had safely landed on the moon nearly five hours earlier, making the famous “the Eagle has landed” announcement I still borrow when texting my daughter that my car has arrived at her house. But I was getting impatient for this “First Man on the Moon thing” to happen. One of the concerns at the time was the possibility that moon dust could be volatile. I understood why the astronauts might be concerned, but I was urging them to suit up, open the hatch, and lob out an empty Tang container to see what happened. It would have speeded up the process — and been good television.
Among those watching along with me was a scroungy, free-roaming town dog named Muttley, who racked up sofa time in the house whenever he saw an open door. He may or may not have agreed with my analysis, since he was lightly snoring at the time. Also on hand, if memory serves, for at least part of the evening was a guy named Christo, a maintenance worker at the college who went to Wright State, and Giff Whitney, perhaps the rudest and richest, yet still entertaining, college student I’d ever met.
All of us watched, awe-struck (except for Muttley), as Armstrong’s blurry image appeared at the top of the stairs outside the Eagle and descended in low-gravity awkwardness to the surface of the Moon, as Cronkite described the scene. We tapped cans — possibly multiple cans — of Stroh’s together and downed them, but before long I was the only one left in the room. The night’s coverage must have had an effect on Giff. Ten years later, he married Cronkite’s daughter.
I kept the television on and the door open, walked onto the lawn and stared up at the moon, then at the images on the television screen, and thought about my grandma having watched Indians’ horse-drawn travois raise dust clouds in the distance near the Oregon-Idaho border during her childhood. Then I looked back at the moon and marveled that two fellow earthlings had managed to get all the way up there unscathed. I wondered how much more the world would change by the time I reached grandma’s age.
I spent a few moments standing barefoot on the grass, staring at the moon and eating a generous slice of fresh watermelon.
The day had brought about one huge step for mankind and one giant slice of melon for me.