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Hey, Buzz, here's where I was on July 20, 1969. And ever since

July 19, 2014 - Paul Giannamore
Astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin has issued a call to people to answer the question: “Where were you when I walked on the Moon?”

Now 84, Aldrin was 39 that day when, played out in grainy black and white in my head, he followed Neil Armstrong down the ladder and onto the surface of the Moon at the Sea of Tranquility.

Here’s the long answer.

Unlike other major news events of my childhood, I remember this one directly, not from replays. It was a Sunday. The landing of the LM (“Lem,” we called it) happened in the afternoon, seems to me around 5 p.m. And then there was this interminable wait as Aldrin and commander Neil Armstrong prepared their spaceship, themselves and their environmentally protective suits for that first step.

And that came after what would have been bedtime for a six year old, but I wasn’t going to bed and nobody said I had to. My brother and I and my mom were glued to the old black-and-white Olympic TV in the living room. To prove this is actual memory, I have no recollection if my dad was working or at home in the living room. Surely the answer lies with my brother. But I don’t remember my dad smacking that crappy old TV on the side that day. I remember being anxious but not bored during those waiting hours.

Now, how do I really know I remember this directly and not through replays?

Because, like a lot of American boys back then, we were space crazy.

And for me, it was largely because my brother was certifiably space crazy. He was going to end up at Kennedy Space Center or Boeing or somewhere with wings and rockets. Anyone could have figured that out. Turned out that Cessna and the Citation bizjet lineup filled that bill nicely for him for nearly 40 years.

In my brother’s room were models. Models upon models. I remember them all. Gemini. Mercury. A little platform with every rocket the U.S. ever used, all hand assembled and painted to meticulous detail by my brother. A fairly large Apollo command and service module, with every tank and wire painted to detail. Walter Cronkite’s models he used on TV had less detail, I think, than the ones my brother made. When we learned what blew on Apolllo 13, we could point it out on his service module with the opening door that showed all the tanks and equipment inside.

He had a LEM. He had astronaut Ed White tethered to a Gemini, capturing the first space walk.

And the pride and joy had to be the impossibly tall, segmented model of the complete Saturn V and all the stages topped up by the Apollo command module and even the little escape tower rocket thing. Everytime he went out I’d sneak into his bedroom and inspect those models, very carefully because I didn’t want to break them. (He still to this day can kick my butt.)

And books. Piles of books. Books delivered one a month from some service my mom had ordered for John, with all kinds of science as the contents.. I remember looking at and reading the one about spaceflight a million times. The Mercury 7. It had a picture of Neil Armstrong flying this lunar module practice lander thing called the Flying Bedstead. It had Scott Carpenter in the X-15 research plane.

So, yes, when it comes to space, my memories are direct, from that old Olympic TV (we didn’t get a color TV until 1976) and Walter Cronkite (it was always Walter in my house) to my limbic file system. I guess you kind of shaped my career, too. I was as interested in Walter as in the space stuff.

When Armstrong took that first step, even to me as a six-year-old, it was a moment of absolute pride in being an American in a way that no song, no speech, no presidential declaration ever could, or would, recapture.

“That’s one small step for man…(static) ne giant leap for mankind,” is how Armstrong’s words sounded and replay in my head.

I remember Mr. Aldrin saying “Magnificent desolation” when he stepped down and surveyed the Moon.

About the only thing I didn’t remember directly was how short their stop on the surface was. They were outside for a little more than two hours and they blasted off in the top half of the Lem about 21 hours after the landing.

That’s less than a day out of my life of nearly 52 years, and it was so important to me that it always will seem like just yesterday.

Mr. Aldrin and Mr. Armstrong and Michael Collins, up in the command module in orbit of the Moon, the first human to be so alone, set in place the wiring that drives my political commentary as an adult closer to the end of my career than the beginning.

Once, when I was six years old, the possibilities were limitless and the United States of America could do what it set its mind to doing. Apollo 11 proved what happens when our nation sets its mind to doing something without second-guessing motivation and purpose, without being so divided it can’t even agree on how to pave a highway.

In my mind, it remains the pinnacle, the best moment in American history. Ever. And, like some really good drug, I’ve been seeking that patriotic high ever since. We’re not going there again in my lifetime, I fear, to the Moon or Mars but also not to that patriotic high, either.

Kids today don’t get what space meant back then. My son’s huge model of the Space Shuttle Columbia remains in a box in the basement, unassembled. We bought it when he was 10. He’s 23 now. I fear his generation and those after have no unifier other than Sept. 11, and the at least partially questionable war that followed.

Who are the their Mercury 7, their Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins?

The short answer, Mr. Aldrin, is that I was a six-year-old kid glued to a TV.


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