A British-American bluestocking living in the UK writes about politics, pop culture, and emerging new paradigms as they unfold on both sides of the Atlantic. (New content.)

Monday, 20 July 2009

Moon Landing Summer

Forty years ago today, I sat glued to our family black-and-white television set armed with a tiny Brownie movie camera. I was going to film the landing on the moon as it happened ....on the tv set. I had been looking forward to this great event for weeks. Because you see, when I was a kid in grade school, I wanted to be an astronaut more than anything in the world. Never mind that women had never been astronauts. When I was laughed at, I retorted, "Well, the Russians sent Valentina Tereshkova..." and of course, no one in my class knew what the beezus I was talking about. I lived in a tiny town in Texas and no one dreamt of moving more than fifty miles away, much less going to the moon.I became enamoured of the space program through astronomy. One day, in class, we started to read a chapter on the solar system and I was hooked. That Christmas I begged my father for a telescope and he bought me one at Sears. I was probably the only kid, and certainly the only girl in my hometown with a telescope and I remember taking it out on those semi-cold (for Texas) winter holiday nights and fogging up the lenses with my breath.

But I was in love with anything having to do with space. Then, I discovered Willy Ley and Werner Von Braun and the amazing picture books that they put together with artist renditions of what the planets "might" look like. I also read books on UFO's and the possibility of life on other planets. My school hero was Mike Jesurun who was in the sixth grade and a year older than I was. I might have even fancied him a bit. He wore button-down Oxford shirts. But more importantly, he had actual model rockets that he launched from his backyard. I was invited to his house to a launch, but my parents wouldn't let me go. "Girls do not go to boy's houses after school if there are no parents there..." my mother insisted. "It doesn't look right." Those were the days. Even the nun patrolling the halls caught Michael and I in a hand-off of a catalogue of rocket models. "What do you think you are doing, you two?" We were caught, red-faced with a dog-eared rocket catalogue. "I was ju-ju-st borrowing a catalogue...from Michael.....sister....he has rockets.....I like rockets...." The nun looked at me (as nuns did in those days) "Likely story!" And she pushed Michael away from me and back to his classroom. I remember feeling as if I had been caught kissing or doing something that was a bit naughty. I was deeply embarrassed. It's amazing how the nuns had such low thoughts of us. I caught sight of Michael as he glanced back at me with this face also mottled in scarlet. I never spoke to him again that spring. I desperately wanted to talk "shop", but alas all that was squelched thanks to the nuns who were out attempting to bottle our hormones. But my friend, Rosario had a party at the end of the school year and I caught sight of Michael across the patio with a group of his friends. I hoped he would ask me to dance. He finally did. I remember he smelled of aftershave, though it didn't look like he had much to shave. He only danced twice once with me and once with Rosario. And since it was her party, I felt honored. We slow-danced to "Crimson and Clover" by Tommy James and the Shondells. We might have been in Catholic grade school, but we had some good dance parties.

So, for years I had followed the space program. I had a subscription to "Air Progress" magazine and "Sky and Telescope". I started a club in my class called "The Nasa Future Astronauts and Astronomers" that was the "NFAA Club". I made little badges. I basically recruited anyone who would listen to my spiel. That spring and summer I clipped articles from "Life" magazine and the local newspapers. I knew that M.I.T. trained the best aeronautical engineers. I had tested high for engineering aptitude. My mother told me I was crazy and should just be a teacher. That's how it was in those days. Girls became nurses and teachers. It took an extraordinary parent to push their children into something that was out of the box.

Everywhere there was nothing but talk about walking on the moon. Mrs Stone, my piano teacher saved clippings for me. I was prepared to make my film with my tiny box movie camera that my dad had since the 50's. One day, I went with my mom to the local Ben Franklin, the five and dime and I caught sight of a print of a painting of the Apollo 11 astronauts. I remember praying under my breath, "Please, please, please...don't be too expensive...now..." And I turned the framed print and it was a whopping 99 cents! I was thrilled. I carted my gorgeous "painting" of the three astronauts home and promptly hung it up on my wall. Never mind that it was a cheap print on cardboard with a tacky plastic rococo frame. It was, to me, as valuable as an etching by Rembrandt.


But on the day that the moon landing dawned I found out that my cousins from the ranch were coming to visit. "Can't entertain them, mom,"I declared. "Moon landing...sorry." Of course, my mother protested. So, in the end, I recruited my cousin Harold and my other cousins to hold up a big sign I had made while I filmed it. Harold was a bit artistic and he held the sign up with quite a flourish. It was the title frame: "Apollo 11 Moon Landing."And then we all went in to watch the landing. I filmed the TV and used lighting from some lamps to illuminate the screen.

It was surreal.

My heart was pounding and I remember that I was close to crying. My cousins were just babbling and jumping and dancing and I told them to " hush up....this is REALLY important...." and they did get a bit quieter. I remember my dad being in the room, just as he had been there during the JFK funeral some years before. But my mother was probably in the next room reading a Harlequin Romance. To me, landing on the moon was the most romantic story happening in the world...I couldn't understand why she wasn't interested. It might have been the screaming cousins that kept her away.


Everyone had wondered what Neil Armstrong would say when he stepped on the surface of the moon. "That's one small step for (a) man and one giant leap for mankind." It was perfect. He said the most perfect thing. Of course there was nothing imperfect that Neil Armstrong could do. Did I mention I also had a crush on Neil Armstrong? I did. It was much later as an adult that I ended up in love with another Apollo astronaut, but you'll have to wait for the movie on that one.

I watched the television set way past the time that everyone else wandered out to enjoy the summer evening. I could hear the shrieks of my brothers and cousins playing in the yard. And then eventually, I went outside, too and I looked up into the sky, so amazed that there was someone up there. It was a glorious night, I could hear the cicadas singing. I remember how I felt so tiny, small and inconsequential looking up at that moon hanging like a big silver pie in the widest inky sky in Texas. I was so proud that someone from our country had kept President Kennedy's promise.

I never made it into space...though I keep hoping that Richard Branson might save a ticket for me. I never made it to the moon. But I think that perhaps one day someone carrying my family's DNA will fly, not just to the moon, but perhaps to Mars or even further. And perhaps I will get a chance to talk to them about the day that I watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon on a black-and-white TV with my cousin Harold dancing in circles round me. (Yes, he danced.) And maybe, just maybe, another dream will spring wings, but this dream will actually come true. There will be an astronaut in our family one day. That's a promise.