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50 Years Ago

Tomorrow marks the momentous 50-year anniversary of the first moon landing.  It's one of those moments in my life that I remember vividly, despite being just 12 years old.  I shared this post ten years ago and rereading it once more I feel the absolute awe and wonder I felt that night...50 years ago....
Originally posted July 24, 2009
Sunday, July 20, 1969.  
10:51 p.m.
American astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped out of his Apollo 11 spacecraft onto the surface of the moon.
"That's a small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind."
Armstrong's words reverberated throughout the world and into history.  And our lives were changed forever.  Man had escaped the confines of Earth to venture into another world.
On July 20, 1969, our family was camping at some campground, the location and details of which I have forgotten.  We had one of those fold-out campers that were popular in those days, that looked like a small trailer that Dad pulled behind our car and then when we set up camp the tent part folded out with double beds on either side and a storage area in between.  If we planned to stay more than one night, Mama and Dad would zip an awning onto the front side to cover our table and provide some shade.  
On this hot summer evening it was way past our bedtime, but apparently our parents realized the momentous significance of what was about to happen and let us stay up long after we would have normally been shooed to bed.  The only lights around the campground were those of our Coleman lanterns, the campfires, the luminescent moon shining in the night sky...and a very small black-and-white television set at a nearby campsite.  The TV had been propped up high and people from the surrounding campsites slowly began to gather around it, strangers drawn together by this incredibly impossible event that was unfolding right before our eyes.
I had heard mention on the news of a moon landing, but hadn't really paid much attention.  In those days, America was racing the Soviets to see who could conquer the moon first.  President Kennedy had issued the challenge in the early days of his brief presidency to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, and the race was on and continued to build steam as the 1960s were coming to a close.  Space launches had become rather commonplace and not all that exciting.  The only time we paid much attention to it was each time when the space capsule reentered earth's atmosphere, breaking all communication with the astronauts, and everyone watched the fuzzy images on television with bated breath as the capsule would make its huge splashdown into the ocean.  The capsule would bob in the waves for what seemed an eternity as everyone wondered, and eventually the astronauts would open the hatch and wave their arms, a signal to the nation that they had made it home safe and sound.  But beyond the splashdown, I really didn't pay much attention to the whole space race thing.
But this night was different.  In the still darkness of the campground, dozens of faces were spellbound by the staticy images on that tiny screen.  Between the constant lines of static, I could barely see the outline of the lunar module Eagle that held the three American astronauts.  Occasionally a soft murmur would echo through the group, but all eyes were glued to the television.  I was twelve years old, tall for my age but not yet adult, and I can remember watching those people who were watching history unfold.  The white light from the screen illuminated the darkness and reflected off the mesmerized faces of those witnesses.
And then, after what seemed like a very long time, the hatch door of the Eagle slowly opened and Neil Armstrong climbed out.  The watching crowd rustled with anticipation, but no one said a word for fear of missing out on what the commentators were saying.  He very slowly and methodically made his way down the ladder and just as he set his foot onto the moon's surface, this group of strangers at a campground hundred of thousands of miles away burst into cheers and then quickly quieted again, eager to hear more. 

Apollo11_1444949cThey did hear more, as Armstrong spoke his famous words, crackly though they were in those infant days of electronic communication, "That's a small step for a man, but a giant leap for mankind."
So vividly I remember that very moment that he took his first awkward, bouncy steps on the moon.  And I remember at some point gazing up into the dark sky at the moon, trying to imagine that at this very moment on that very same moon there was a man walking around.  It seemed impossible, yet I knew it was true.  I wondered what he was seeing, if he was looking back down to Earth and thinking the very same thing.
We watched a few minutes longer, then the crowd began to disperse to their own campsites and we left too.  My sisters and I crawled into the camper bed we shared, unwilling to close our eyes on this miracle we had just witnessed.  The upper tent canvas was partially zipped away leaving only the screen and a quarter of a million miles of vast emptiness separating us from the moon.  I stared through the screen at the moon until I fell asleep.
I don't recall that we talked much about it.  I'm sure my parents must have, but it's one of those times in your life that don't really need words.  The events speak for themselves, and the memory is so deeply etched into my very being that it is part of me.
Many years later, when I teaching second grade, I gave my class an
assignment which involved using their imaginations to think about and draw what the first astronauts may have seen when they landed on moon.  The children immediately went to work, as elementary children are fascinated by outer space and such things.
As I walked through the room, I would ask the children what they were drawing and they would excitedly explain their aliens and weird moon creatures and spaceships and such.  Very creative, they were.
But I will never forget the picture that a darling little quiet blond-haired boy named Jason was working so diligently on.  It wasn't like the others and I asked him what he was drawing.
His big blue eyes just shone with amazement as he smiled up at me and said, "Miss House, I know exactly what the astronauts saw when they landed on the moon.  They must have been so surprised to see an American flag waving at them!"
And that's what Jason was drawing, an American flag on the moon, just like in the photo that I'm sure he'd seen countless times.  I was amused and thought how cute his response was, and then I realized that to every child in my classroom, it was simply a fact that astronauts flew to the moon where an American flag was apparently waiting to greet them.  Man had been visiting the moon since before they were even born!
Fifty years later, so many of the details surrounding that July night have long been forgotten, if I ever knew them in the first place.  But what I do know is that on a tiny television screen outside at a campground who-knows-where-or-why, my 12-year-old eyes watched in amazement as the first man walked on the moon.


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