Forty Years Ago… walking on the moon and Woodstock
Forty years ago today Neil Armstrong stepped on the Moon. Assuming it wasn’t a hoax (the ultimate conspiracy theory…after Kennedy’s assassination that is) this was indeed “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
That summer’s evening of ’69 I was a teenager working a typical summer-job (for those who might remember the restaurant chain it was a Friendly’s). I can still recall the attitude of my shift manager towards the moon landing: “A guy may be walking on the moon tonight but we have customers to serve tonight!” Indeed, there were a few people in the restaurant that evening, much to my surprise and consternation. I eventually persuaded my manager to put out a radio so we could listen at least to this historic occasion. I guess the idea was if there was going to be a giant leap for mankind one might as well eat a burger and drink some coffee!
At the time it wasn’t all that clear what this leap for mankind actually would mean. That summer guys a few years older than I were being killed in Vietnam (in fact we had learnt that one guy from our town had been killed). It had only been a year earlier that Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Likewise, the country still reeled from the infamous Chicago Democratic Convention, race riots and Richard Nixon’s first election victory. Mankind wasn’t doing a whole lot of leaping in those days. Armstrong’s small step was certainly the culmination of loads of hard work, sacrifice, scientific and engineering genius and dollars. At the same time, things weren’t all that promising.
Later that summer a friend asked Tom, John and me if we’d like to hitch-hike with him up to a music festival in up-state New York. Tom had to work, John thought the idea rather ‘dumb’ and I didn’t have to use much imagination to know what my dad would say if I asked his permission. I’ve no idea if Gerry ever made it (at least I cannot remember if he did).
Later, when we heard stories about Hendrix, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and others who’d performed at the festival, there was a bit of disappointment. Then again there were other stories of way too much rain, mud, LSD and the like. Even our teenage male fantasies of “sexual freedom” that reportedly abounded couldn’t really offset our sense that a summer’s job was more important and John was right: it was all rather ‘dumb’. And when we heard all that happened when people “got to Woodstock” I knew I had experienced a rare moment of wisdom in not asking my father’s permission!
Forty years on now my memories of that summer and, especially that summer’s evening on 20 July 1969 when Neil Armstrong stepped off the L.E.M. ladder and on to the lunar surface, are still reasonably fresh. (Ironically, of course, I cannot really remember what I did yesterday!).
Have we advanced or leaped forward since 1969? I’m sure there have been benefits — technological, scientific, medical and so on — and it would be churlish to dismiss the whole Apollo efforts. I could also wish for a similar kind of intensity to combat AIDS, malaria, polluted water sources and on and on the list could go.
At the same time I’m afraid we of the Woodstock generation are proving to be considerably paradoxical, compromised and downright foolish. As Joni Mitchell’s song, “The Circle Game”, goes “we are captive on a carousel of time”. Her song has sprinkles of optimism or, at least, hopefulness. I am, alas, not so persuaded. Instead, I would want to take my stand elsewhere, as the Jewish King David wrote:
15 As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field;
16 the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.
17 But from everlasting to everlasting the LORD’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children—
18 with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts.
19The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all. (Psalm 103)
Forty years ago — but it doesn’t seem so long ago — so many changes were taking place. Forty years on and — with all the changes — some things remain troublesome and there are newer, more chilling problems. I’m not smart enough to know whether we should or shouldn’t undertake more space explorations (although it does seem to demand a huge, huge amount of money that, frankly, I am under the impression governments don’t actually have!)
Forty years ago — but it doesn’t seem so long ago — a man stepped on the moon and a music festival promised days of peace. Was this all a hoax? Woodstock wasn’t a hoax although it failed to deliver the goods. If the Apollo landing was a hoax (and this morning on Radio 4’s Today programme a gentleman insisted it really was) then I say let’s hire some of the surviving 4,000 government employees who’ve managed both to pull off this greatest of hoaxes and then keep quiet about it for the past 40 years. If they were able to do this then just think what they could do with our current economic problems, health care demands, environmental challenges and threats from terrorism. We could really use some “small steps for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
But that’s just the problem: forty years ago it wasn’t a hoax; and however great a feat it wasn’t really one giant leap for mankind. So the surviving personnel from the Apollo days would not be the answer to our problems forty years on. Will we see this reality forty years from now… or will we, effectively, on another summer’s evening ask for a cup of coffee and a burger?