In the summer of 1969 I was almost twenty, between my sophomore and junior years of college, and working as a greenskeeper’s assistant at a public golf course in a remote suburb of Pittsburgh. Actually, “greenskeeper’s assistant” is a grandiose way of saying I was an untrained day laborer at a summer job that paid next to nothing in exchange for cutting large swaths of grass while riding dangerous motorized machinery.
My cohorts were mostly men who’d grown up on farms, never played golf in their lives, and regarded a kid who went to college as a sort of disabled person deserving of their sympathy. Once one of them asked me what I studied in college, and when I told him English literature, he cast his eyes downward, as though genuinely moved at my misfortune.
Everyone on the greenskeeper detail had a nickname. The actual greenskeeper was an extremely tall, lanky man not that much older than the rest of us who tended to wear plaid flannel shirts and blue jeans even in the hottest weather. We called him “Stretch” when out of his earshot, elongating the vowel while we vibrated our throats with our fingers. “Streeeeeeetch!” would echo across the fairways above the clanking of the gang mowers, like a tribal war cry.
It was the summer of Woodstock, it was the summer of Stonewall, it was the summer of the Manson murders, “Midnight Cowboy,” Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell. It was the summer of my sexual discontent, since nominally I had a girlfriend but neither of us had the audacity or the wherewithal to attempt intercourse or birth control, much less both at the same time.
But above all it was the summer of Apollo 11, humankind’s first attempt to land a man on the moon, and because I couldn’t stop talking about it as the launch approached, my nickname around the maintenance shed became, inevitably, “Space Boy.” As in, “Hey, Space Boy, go sweep the dew off six through nine.”
I didn’t mind at all.
It’s hard in these benighted times to recall the degree to which the idea of space travel once dominated the imaginations of teenaged boys, and how blithely we assumed that it would become commonplace in our lifetimes.
In the late ‘50s, before Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard made the first manned space flights, long before “Star Trek,” there was a short-lived TV show called “Men Into Space,” which depicted an American space program of the near future in which, among other activities, astronauts floated on tethers around an orbiting vehicle that resembled a large sewer culvert. I purchased and assembled a plastic model of this vessel and proudly sat it on my desk in my room. That space station, as we learned to call it, and what it represented, was as real to me as the Pontiac Fire Chief sitting in our garage.
For Christmas, 1958, I requested and duly received two gifts: a home planetarium that could project the constellations onto the ceiling of our living room; and a complete scale model set of all the ballistic missiles then in the U.S. arsenal, including, notably, the Redstone rocket that would later launch Alan Shepard (who, still later, would golf on the moon) on America’s first manned space flight.
Then came Sputnik and Gagarin, as inspiring as they were worrying, proof that all we hoped for and feared could come true. And then Kennedy – dear, doomed Kennedy – announced that our nation’s top priority was to put a man on the moon within a handful of years. Even a teenager can be patient for that long.
I read all the sci-fi greats – Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke – and was riveted by each episode of “The Twilight Zone,” which could usually be counted on to involve space travel of some sort or another. I was an aficionado of the Mercury and Gemini programs, a devotee of NASA, which I worshipfully regarded as a sort of secular Vatican. I became utterly proficient in the acronym-glutted syntax of the manned missions, from SECO to EVA, from LEM to TLI (for the uninitiated: Second Engine Cut-Off; Extra-Vehicular Activity; Lunar Excursion Module; and (perhaps my favorite) Trans-Lunar Insertion). I was more intimately familiar with the mission hardware – launch vehicles, suits, command modules and the rest — than I was with my brother’s bicycle.
I was a human facial recognition software program when it came to the astronauts, knew each of them by name and, of course, by service branch. (Many, many years later, I would join one of them, Tom Stafford, who commanded Apollo 10, in bearing my father-in-law’s casket to his grave.)
Despite all this, I knew I would always be a spectator, not a participant, in the pageant of the space program. Much as I loved science, I loved it with the heart of an English major, loved the stories and the concepts, but couldn’t master the math. And we all knew that the path to space lay through military service, specifically as a pilot, and as a boy in a middle-class suburb, learning to fly was as much a fanciful dream as joining the armed forces in the age of Vietnam was a nightmare. So I went to college and put away childish things. Or some of them.
On Wednesday, July 16, 1969, the morning a Saturn V rocket lifted the eleventh mission of the Apollo program toward the moon, I was clearing the aforementioned greens of early morning dew (a distinctly non-technological process of sweeping a long, thin bamboo shaft back and forth across the close-cut turf), and missed the launch. But there had been many of those, and they all looked the same: monstrously gorgeous, harrowingly majestic – but the same. The truly awful year of 1968, with its assassinations and race riots, had been redeemed by Apollo 8 flying to the moon and back. And only a few months later, there had been the almost unbearably tantalizing Apollo 10 mission, in which three astronauts orbited the moon several times and even launched the LEM to within a few miles of the lunar surface without touching down, the sort of near-consummation with which my girlfriend and I were all too agonizingly familiar.
That Sunday afternoon, July 20, I was at home in the paneled basement of our split-level rancher with my brother and our parents, watching Walter Cronkite and Mission Control sweat through the landing. There were simulations and explanations, but none of the video footage we would later associate with Armstrong’s hair-raising approach to the cratered surface, with his fuel running low and his feeble little onboard computer spewing out error codes. His heart rate, we were told, hit 158, but he was down, he and Aldrin, and Cronkite wiped his brow and we jumped up and screamed and ran around in circles. All except my father, who had voted for Nixon back in 1960 and thought all this space nonsense was a ridiculous waste of money.
That night, like almost every night, I borrowed the family car and drove to my girlfriend’s house some twenty minutes away and joined her and her parents in their little den, as we called it, where their black and white TV sat. Her parents could be relied upon to discreetly remove themselves to an upstairs room when I was around, and at some late hour, well after ten o’clock, they did so, leaving the two of us alone to gaze at the flickering screen, images as ghostly and impressionistic as in any dream, requiring an effort of imagination to make them whole and intelligible, as Armstrong set his foot upon the moon.
I don’t recall what we said or did that night, only that we sat together on her parents’ couch and saw those images, reached our hands out toward the gray screen in a kind of primitive awe, and heard the calm exchange of confident voices across the vacuum, with their unmistakable undercurrent of sheer joy.
There was a lot of geopolitical rhetoric around the landing, the whole world watching, a united humanity taking pride in a shared triumph. Armstrong’s words as he stepped off the lander said as much. But we all knew that it was really our achievement, we Americans,’ and more specifically the achievement of those three consummately brave men and the thousands who’d put them there. It belonged to no one else. Except, perhaps, to each of us, each solitary kid who’d believed in it and wished for it since the day he learned to read.
Next morning I got up early and went again to sweep the greens of dew. The sun was barely up, the moon a waxing crescent overhead, its pair of temporary inhabitants resting for their journey home. We’d go back a few more times, to make sure there was nothing to see, and tire of it, and give up the dream of space for other dreams. But it was mine that morning, and I wouldn’t have traded it, or its fulfillment that night 50 years ago, for anything.