Forty-one years ago today, I was almost four years old, and men walked on the moon.
I had gone to bed already, but my parents woke me up for the occasion. It was nearly ten o’clock, Nashville time, but my parents and I sat on a black leatherette sofa bed, watching the television in the corner of our living room. Dad was 26; Mom was 25, ages that now I still see as being a kid in our ever expanding adolescence, but that then seemed impossibly grown-up. It was our first house, in a working-class neighborhood near Dad’s office and the drugstore where he bought his science fiction paperbacks and the comic books we’d both read. And we knew that we were watching the stuff we had read about in those books and comics, but that now it was real, and it was adventure, and even if we weren’t there ourselves, we could drink Tang and be just a little part of it and part of the future that came with it. After all, Dad worked with computers, and those were pieces of the future as well, weren’t they? I couldn’t have explained it then as the excitement of a seemingly infinite expanse of possibility, but I know I felt it, and my parents felt it as well. Yes, it was dangerous, but that just made doing it that much more of a triumph.
I wish I could say that I remember all the details, but of course, I don’t. I remember my dad telling me that the astronauts had to walk very carefully, because if they fell down and tore their suits, they would die. I think I remember asking if we were the boss of the moon because we had gotten there first, and my folks told me that Americans didn’t want to be anybody’s boss, but getting there first meant that no one else could be boss either. I don’t remember how much of the two-plus hours I watched, but I remember telling my dad, when I went back to bed, that I wanted to go to the moon one day. He said he’d like that, too.
We don’t seem that interested in going to the moon anymore, or much of anywhere else either, having chosen to turn inward, away from risk, away from adventure, feathering our society’s nest as best we can. Perhaps that’s more mature — I don’t know. And maybe this opens the door for private efforts, driven by wills that aren’t responsible to electorates. Maybe that’s good, too. But what have we as a nation given up by making that choice? My friends and I wanted to go to the moon, or to L5, or at least to help others get there. I don’t think any of us wanted to be apparatchiks of the welfare state when we grew up. And while there may be virtues to what we see as social welfare, I’d argue that it’s not the stuff of adventure, and it’s not the stuff of greatness.
Mom and Dad are gone now, somewhere far beyond the moon, where Dad never got his chance to go, and I know I’ll never get there either — I’m too old, too fat, and have the wrong sort of smarts for the job. And as I said, my compatriots don’t seem to care about it that much anymore, and prefer to expend their efforts elsewhere. But I’m grateful that one night, the three of us had a chance to feel like a part of us had made it there. And I hope that one day my daughter and the generations of Americans to come can feel the way one ordinary American family felt in Nashville, 41 years ago.