First, a memory:
To tell you the truth I wasn’t overly impressed.
I was eight years old and, except for the sheer number of people lining the banks of the Indian River, Apollo 11 looked like any other space launch. God knows I had seen enough of them to be jaded by then. If you’re eight and you can see something you’ve seen a dozen or more times before just by walking into the front yard, it’s hard to get your mind around any possible reason why people would travel thousands of miles to bear witness this time around.
And, like most of the locals, I was never much into astronauts.
Gus Grissom had been the one everybody really liked and we all knew he would have been the first man on the moon if NASA hadn’t been into cutting corners and burned him alive (along with Roger Chaffee and Ed White) in the training mission for Apollo 1.
As far as the locals were concerned, Neil Armstrong was just a stand-in.
Of course, what locals know is rarely the whole truth and often not the truth at all.
I’m just saying the vibe on the ground–and the fact that my friends’ dads built the things–left me less than awed by the spectacle of another space rocket leaving the launch pad even if, for once, we did actually go down to the river bank ourselves and see the thing off the ground instead of waiting that extra second for it to clear the tree line.
If my own dad (who had nothing to do with the space program beyond being the first official visitor when the Kennedy Space Center opened, huckstering some rather nice Moon Maps to the tourists on major launch days, winning the prize at a local art contest which was subsequently withdrawn when he revealed that the subject was a view of the planet Earth through the space-mask of a dead astronaut and making sure I continued watching launches, from the front yard at least, even after the edge went off the ritual excitement, which had probably happened some time around the occasion of Armstrong’s first trip into space with Gemini 8 when I was five) hadn’t made me stand out by U.S. 1 and write down license plates, I probably would have no distinctive memory of being present for the great occasion at all.
As it was, I tallied (if memory serves–I’m not in a position to look up the record at the moment) forty-eight states, five Canadian provinces and two foreign countries.
I might not even remember that, except I got my name in the paper for it.
* * * *
I suppose along about now is when I should be telling you I eventually outgrew my youthful ignorance and learned to fully appreciate the genius and sacrifice that was required to put a man on the moon, and the personal heroism of Neil Armstrong, who really was everything we want our heroes to be.
All I can say, is…yes and no.
First off, I certainly did learn to be in utter awe of the engineering feats my friends’ dads accomplished between Little League coaching assignments. One trip to the Kennedy Space Center as an adult took care of that.
And I certainly don’t have any trouble admiring Neil Armstrong’s courage and discipline, which he had in quantities no society can ever have too much of. Not to mention his genuine modesty–his willingness to be Bradley (and not even the real Bradley, who was apparently pretty vain, but the modest Bradley of legend) to Chuck Yeager’s Patton and John Glenn’s Eisenhower.
From this distance, though, I have to say the whole thing looks basically like one of the government’s cooler jobs programs but not necessarily one of its more useful ones.
I know we are supposed to have gotten benefits from space exploration that would not have been otherwise available (though I don’t have the scientific expertise to judge just how much of a role actual space travel played in these breakthroughs and am not inclined to take anyone’s word for it given how likely any government’s really cool jobs programs are to be intertwined with said government’s propaganda interests).
And–speaking from an age when professional football has become the national sport and we have ungodly trouble even so much as cooking a decent cheeseburger (two facts I do not consider unrelated)–I can hardly scoff at a time when we could put a man on the moon.
Still, I have to say that the mission which made Armstrong immortal basically represented a vision of mankind–and specifically mankind’s American division–that never took hold of me.
* * * *
Philip Blondheim, who was born nine years after Armstrong and passed away a week earlier, represented, albeit nowhere near as definitively, another vision of “Mankind America” that never took hold of me.
As Scott McKenzie, he recorded a catchy number called “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers In Your Hair)” which reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1967 (roughly equidistant between Armstrong’s space missions).
I have no idea if McKenzie’s song was ever embraced by any real hippies, but the speed and efficiency with which the song’s composer, John Phillips (the chief songwriter in the Mamas and the Papas and an old bandmate of McKenzie’s from fifties’ doo-wop days and the early sixties commercial folk boom–they were men committed to the pursuit of fame)–by then as definitively “El Lay” as anyone could be–cranked out a chart-scaling ode to the epicenter of the Summer of Love, was something my friends’ crewcut, Bud-drinking dads could have readily identified with.
That’s gettin’ in there and gettin’ it done!
Somewhere in there, not because of any harm intended by Scott McKenzie, who seems to have been a genuinely nice and rather self-deprecating man, but perhaps because of something he was willing to represent if there was sufficient cash lying about, death-dealing drugs attached themselves to those life-affirming notions which had broken loose on the world in the previous decade.
Namely sex and rock n’ roll.
So the Summer of Love–with its inherent contempt for rules–was as big a reality-dodge as the Space Race with its inherent reverence for rules. In that respect, they ended up being two sides of the same coin–two brands of hucksterism that were always separated far more by degree than kind, no matter how much their respective adherents got along like cats and dogs.
So I’m glad Neil Armstrong and Scott McKenzie were nice men with competing visions who lived to reasonably old age and, for what it’s worth, I think they led lives about as worthy as we could have expected.
Part of me, though, remembers the America that could make a cheeseburger and that still knew baseball was the worthiest game.
And that part of me wishes we had expected a little more.