I watched the first moon landing in a bar in Vacaville, California. We were returning from a birthday party in Redding, California, for Marshall Salzman, a friend who was not only celebrating his 26th birthday but the fact he was now too old for the draft. Instead of being a soldier, he became a lawyer for the government.
In the Vacaville bar were a few drinkers and some cowboys shooting pool. As the ghostly image of Neil Armstrong descended the ladder to the lunar surface and we heard his famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” not many customers were watching the screen. Some of my generation had protested that the money spent on the moon project should have been spent on programs for the poor in America, but I was fascinated with astronomy, and the moonwalk was thrilling if hard to completely comprehend.
We know now how dangerous the journey was. Coming in, Neil Armstrong saw the designated landing area was a deep crater with rocks the size of cars so they had to improvise flying over the moon’s surface with fuel running low searching for a safer landing site. The lunar module touched down with 20 seconds of fuel left.
One conspiracy theory denies it ever happened, but a radio signal can pinpoint a location anywhere in the universe. Two astronauts walked on Earth’s moon, and it is a daunting thought.
That same moon that has charmed poets for centuries would now have a human footprint. What would it feel like to look back to Earth? One astronaut on a later moon mission expressed a sudden overwhelming emotion watching an “earthrise,” despite the fact he was an objective scientist sent to explore.
The images of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin cavorting on the bleak lunar landscape were shadowy, but one comment by an observer was significant: “Two men like us are now exploring the moon.” (Three women were in the command center guiding the astronauts.)
E.B. White, who wrote the wonderful children’s book, “Charlotte’s Web,” had this to say about what flag to plant on the moon, a controversy at the time:
“It is traditional, of course, for explorers to plant the flag, but it struck us, as we watched with awe and admiration and pride, that our two fellows were universal men, not national men, and should have been equipped accordingly. Like every great river and every great sea, the moon belongs to none and belongs to all. It still holds the key to madness, still controls the tides that lap on shores everywhere, still guards the lovers that kiss in every land under no banner but the sky. What a pity that in our moment of triumph we did not forswear the familiar Iwo Jima scene and plant instead a device acceptable to all: a limp white handkerchief, perhaps, symbol of the common cold, which, like the moon, affect us all, unites us all!”
I am not sure a nose rag would be appropriate to plant, but appreciate the sentiment. Certainly, a United Nations flag along with the American stars and stripes would be an inclusive symbol. For a brief moment, the American astronauts did unite the world.
I remember that when we left the tavern and drove back to San Francisco, I looked out the car window and seeing the moon in the night sky, it suddenly seemed different from the shining surface I had seen so many times in my life. Two human beings had actually touched the moon’s cratered surface while Michael Collins orbited above them for the return ride home.
By the time the sun becomes a red giant, or if the Earth becomes uninhabitable because of global warming, our race of humans better find another planet to live and survive.
Michael Corrigan of Pocatello is a San Francisco native and a retired Idaho State University English and speech communication instructor. He studied screenwriting at the American Film Institute and has authored seven books, many about the Irish American experience.