There is history you study, history that you live

The moon looks a little closer this month. Have you gazed at it lately? You can Google it, peer at it through a telescope and note the phases, but you can’t drive there. There are no Airbnb getaways available cheap, at least not yet, but you can look up at it and remember, people from Earth walked there.

Bill Graham

Bill Graham

We’re at the 50th anniversary of the first man to walk on the moon, the Apollo 11 flight, July 20, 1969. I recently vicariously lived it with the American Experience three-part series, Chasing the Moon, on PBS. I watched at first out of curiosity, but by the end, I was surprised at how emotional it felt to watch the real-time rerun of Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon. So many times we’ve heard the words he spoke on a live TV broadcast: “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

It made me realize something about history. There are two kinds. Some history you study, some history you live and some you do both. Only one kind is deeply embedded inside your soul and that’s the history you have lived. Moments that move you deeply may lie quietly buried inside the mind, but the right triggers can move both the emotions and the memory to the forefront of conscious thought.

I can watch a documentary film about World War II and understand the history, and I can feel some emotion watching it, such as the horror, sadness and bravery. But I can never, ever feel it to the depth that my father felt. He saw extensive combat in Europe. He often said, “I don’t want you know exactly what it is like.” Nor can I know how the bittersweet joy my mom felt on VE Day, riding down into Kansas City to hear the horns honking and see people cheering at Union Station.

Some things you have to be there to truly know, deep inside, how it was. My children can learn about the first moon landing, and be bemused by the primitive computers and technology. But they can never feel the anticipation, nervousness and satisfaction that came with watching the first man walk on the moon on live TV.

The lunar landing had a black and white TV camera mounted on the landing craft. The astronauts positioned the lens, turned it on and sent the signal 239,000 miles back to Earth. Then Armstrong moved down the ladder and took that first step. A few minutes later, astronaut Buzz Aldrin followed. He bounced around in the weak lunar gravity in front of another camera.

My family didn’t mind that the picture coming from the moon was only in black and white. We only had a black and white television set. It was on a frame that had rollers. We had carried it to the basement, the only somewhat cool part of the house in late July. We did not have air conditioning. So summer television watching was in the basement.

Tension about the moon landing had built for years. How do you explain tension that has built up year after year, if not century after century? A relative had told us a story at a family dinner that someone had found a Biblical passage that said the world would end when the first man stepped on the moon. None of us believed that. But it spoke of the times, and of people who were raised in the horse-and-buggy era, who thought the gasoline engine and the crank telephones were marvels.

The same summer that mankind reached the surface of the moon I was frying under the sun in hayfields to earn spending money, tossing those old-fashioned square bales.

My father didn’t ask much of me that summer, but for the moon landing, he wanted the whole family to be together. It was serious, an incredible thing. And perhaps he and the whole world were just not certain what would happen when a man’s boot left an imprint in moon dust. So we unfolded the aluminum-framed lawn chairs that we used for outdoor picnics and summer basement TV watching. A box fan made a breeze because even the basement wasn’t all that cool. The rabbit ears were adjusted for better reception. Somebody turned the plastic dial on the front of the TV to whatever channel of three choices seemed to provide the clearest picture.

We watched and waited, and then it happened, the small step and the giant leap. And we watched into the night, rooting for them to make the moon liftoff and rendezvous with the lunar module. We tracked them home, watched the astronauts get plucked from the sea, and we hoped they had not brought back any deadly germs.

Our earthly world seemed different after that night. I remember watching other Apollo journeys to the moon that followed. But they were of passing interest. I can’t tell you much about them.

As a matter of fact, I realized this week how little I’ve thought lately about a space station circling the Earth. So many remarkable things we take for granted, like the international cooperation involved with the space station. You want to watch live space station video, go here: https://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/iss_ustream.html.

Something else, it took precisely true facts and knowledge to get astronauts to the surface of the moon and back. Alternative facts would not have worked. Some things are true as true can be, and with truth we walked on the moon. Let’s return someday.