As a parent, you never know what events in your family’s lives will plant themselves into your children’s memories far into adulthood. You imagine, for instance, that vacations and holiday celebrations will be there. Maybe even a family ritual you shared together. In reality, though, children carry far more memories with them later into life than just merely of those occasions. Memories of big things, and perhaps more importantly, even small things, that as parents we didn’t give much thought to at the time. With regard to those moments, we can’t predict they’ll be special when they’re happening; they just have to play out before we can see what, if any, impact they have.
This brings me to Monday, July 20th, 1969, at 4:18 PM (EST). 2019 marks the fifty-year anniversary of the moment American Astronauts Commander Neil Armstrong, Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin, and Command Module Pilot Michael Collins landed their spacecraft on the moon in the Sea of Tranquility. Technically, Armstrong and Aldrin landed the Lunar Module, referred to as “The Eagle,” on the moon’s surface, while Collins piloted the Command Module circling the moon’s orbit during this time (there was only room for two astronauts in the lunar module, and he volunteered not to go.)
For a young child growing up in the 60s and 70s, space travel was still pure amazement to witness. It was on May 25th, 1961, as a matter of fact, that President John F. Kennedy addressed Congress and made the famous statement that the United States “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” So you can imagine that by the year 1969, the public was beginning to get a little nervous about whether this would actually happen or not in that time frame. And yet it did.
But for a young boy growing up in a small town in southern Virginia, this timeline wasn’t the important element. Because you see, for me, as that young boy at the time, I was very much simply enjoying the moment of each Apollo Mission. I was too young to be caught up in the hype of the timeline, as many in Washington and NASA were. Instead, to me, this was one of those special moments I would share with my mother again and again. For as long as I can remember, each time the rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and upon returning, landed in the ocean, my mother and I would have our eyes focused on the television screen. She was always good about having me watch important events in history as they were happening. At least, as well as we could on television, given that the Internet hadn’t been invented yet.
Witnessing those famous first steps on the moon and Armstrong’s proclamation that followed, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” was something I would never forget. I remember draping a large quilt over my top bunk and hanging it down to the lower bunk as my imaginary space capsule, and making a makeshift astronaut helmet out of a cardboard box, in order that I, too, could be an astronaut that day. Many years later, after having children of my own, as a Christmas gift, I gave my youngest child an astronaut costume. Only this one looked official down to the sewn-on NASA and American flag patches, and hard plastic helmet with face shield and a speaker inside that simulated mission control commands. He even got an inflatable space ship that same year. This was quite a leap from a simple cardboard box and bunk bed with a quilt. He liked it, and yet he would never truly understand what I felt on that day.
As all the news shows pay tribute this month to this very special anniversary, remembering its great significance in our country’s rich history, I will be remembering a young boy sitting in front of the television screen with his mom by his side, witnessing history being made once again. One memory may be more important than the other, with the importance determined by which side of the story you’re actually a part of. The importance for me was having mom there to watch it with me.