I was fortunate to have had two sets of wonderful parents each of whom contributed to my education and instilled within me an appreciation of history.
In my posting about poetry, there was a passage concerning Apollo XI and my father's reaction to this momentous event. At the time of the first moonwalk, I was visiting with my father's family at my Great Aunt Hopie's cottage in Gloucester Banks, Virginia.
But it was my stepfather's reaction that truly put this into perspective for me.
My stepfather was born in New York City on July 2, 1902. He was the first of three children born to Russian Jewish immigrants, and before they prospered and moved uptown to fashionable Harlem, he lived in a six story walk-up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
He was older than my grandfather!
When I returned home to New York from Virginia, we sat down for our first supper together after two weeks of separation. I enjoyed our suppers because it was the time I could talk about the day's events with my parents. My stepfather tended to sit quietly and listen to me ramble on; he made Calvin Coolidge seem talkative! However, when he did say something, it was usually well-considered and sometimes hysterically funny; there was a great deal of wisdom connected with his observations, Yiddish anecdotes, and biographical sketches. It's a Jewish tradition to teach with parables and jokes.
I spoke of my father and his family, the places we visited, and my first 'boyfriend'.
Before my mother could get in a word, he asked me, "Is that all you remember from your visit? Isn't there something you've forgotten?"
"No. I don't think so."
"What were you doing on July 20th and 21st?"
"I think we were in Gloucester."
"I saw a man walk on the moon."
"Oh, that! So did I!"
"But it wasn't important enough to you to mention it. You didn't remember the date. You took it for granted."
And I think he was right. Being one of the later Baby Boomers, I was born into the Space Age and it was a part of my early education. I knew the names of the original seven astronauts and the ill-fated Gus Grissom was one of my favorites. In fact, my mother allowed me to stay home the day before my birthday (her personal present to me) in order to watch the first American astronaut, Alan Shepard, launched into space. In retrospect, my mother displayed her wisdom in that she thought I would learn more by watching the launch than being in the classroom. I do recall vividly snuggling up with her in bed and listening to Walter Cronkite describe every detail. The stakes were high and there was a great deal of drama. Years later, my cousin Wilbur Bailey, who had taught Tom Wolfe, lent me his autographed copy of, The Right Stuff', and it brought back the memories from my perspective. The movie from that book is one of my favorites. But in reality, on July 20th and 21st and all during the week, my father, stepmother, brother, and sister were glued to the TV set watching the Eagle land; Neil Armstrong's first step; Buzz Aldrin following him; Collins orbiting; and finally, the safe landing and recovery back on earth. I simply neglected to tell him in my initial outburst concerning the events of past few weeks.
I was taken aback; he had never admonished me like that before. He looked at me intently as he had never looked at me before and very slowly and deliberately repeated, "I saw a man walk on the moon!". It was time for me to be quiet and pay attention.
He proceeded to explain, "You don't understand. When I was born, I lived in a tenement without running water or electricity. It was a year before the Wright brothers' flight. A telephone was a novelty; there was one at the corner candy store and they would send someone to yell up at your apartment when you got a call; it was an event and the neighbors would crowd around! Cars? Cars! Only rich people had cars. Trucks? My father had two horse-drawn wagons and a few pushcarts. And New York was was the height of civilization in respect to where most of the neighborhood came from. My own parents came from a farm five miles from the nearest shtetl."
"I was too young for World War I, but I remember being fascinated by airplanes and reading all about them. You couldn't imagine how thrilled I was to see my first plane flying over me. It was not a usual sight when I was a boy. Lindbergh. Now that was a hero! From New York to Paris in a little over a day! Alone! New York went wild. I was one of the thousands who saw him ride down Broadway during the ticker-tape parade. And then I remember seeing the film, Hell's Angels; I must have seen it twenty times. Jules Verne, Buck Rogers, that was fantasy; so who knew it would be reality within thirty years!"
He paused and shook his head. "I saw a man walk on the moon!"
He continued. "Silent movies were just beginning. Then there was radio, talkies, television. Television! What a miracle! In the past few years they have even invented big machines that can think, and now transistors. Jets and rockets! And we can even see these astronauts in space on the television, and they can talk to us!"
"In my 67 years, we have gone from gaslight to space. My generation was born in the Dark Ages and within this one generation, we have gone further faster than all other preceding generations. It's like going from the Stone Age right into the 1700's, in just 67 years! From now on, it is not, 'if', it is, 'when'. " He pointed his finger at me. "Never forget the date. Never forget the names of these men. These are true heroes who made history. Better than Columbus."
Neil Armstrong's, "One small leap for a man, one giant leap for mankind ", was indeed personally meaningful to this once reticent man. Up until that point, I had no idea how deeply passionate he was.
He stopped short. "Of course, there was Hitler and the atomic bomb. Maybe we're going too fast." He brightened, "On the other hand, I feel privileged to have been born in this century and in this country."
"I saw a man walk on the moon." He lit his cigar, and sat back self-satisfied.
There was nothing else to say and I proceeded to help my mother clear the dishes.
This was to be our second most important dinner together* because it was the start of a much closer, adult relationship. My stepfather and I would spend a great deal of time talking about his life, all the events he had witnessed, as well as the people he had seen or met. He had a lived a full and exciting life that witnessed so much history and American popular culture.
As a treat, the two of us went together to the ticker-tape parade in New York that August, in honor of the Apollo XI astronauts.
He died in 1972.
Dad, I haven't forgotten.
* The first dinner was when he asked a six year-old girl for permission to marry her mother.