Monday, August 27, 2012

Starry Night

Illustration borrowed for the occasion
from the blog Sweetpea Path

When I heard the news that Neil Armstrong had died
it took me back to that day, July 20, 1969, when the Eagle
was scheduled to land on the Moon.
The Moon, a place about 238,900 miles away
from anyplace on Earth I might be sitting. Ever.

I'd read an article in a magazine with instructions 
on how to take photos of the landing on the 
TV screen. I bought a roll of Kodak Tri-X film,
put it in my trusty Honeywell H1a 35mm SLR
and sat in the living room in front of 
the black and white television.
It was a warm, quiet evening. 
No one was in the house but me 
as I watched the events unfold in marvelous, 
fuzzy, flickering black and white.

I'd pre-focused the camera and set the f-stop
so I wouldn't have to worry about it, then waited.
Like the rest of the people, I sat and watched the screen
as one foot, then another descended the ladder,
taking pictures as it played out.

"One small step for man,
one giant leap for mankind."

 I watched as transparent images of
astronauts walked, skipped, and seemed to dance
on the Moon's surface. I was so proud of them,
and so happy for the men sitting in Houston
at Mission Control that I cried.

I wanted to do that, I wanted to be there
on the end of a rocket, like a giant
canned ham being launched towards the skies,
but what could NASA do with someone
whose only skills are drawing and maybe
splattering white paint on a dark blue canvas?

Forty years later, I would often sit at night
on the banks of the Muskingum River, listening
to friends chat around the bonfire while I
stared up at the night sky, strewn with the stars
of the Milky Way Galaxy. The beauty of 
those evenings was so palpable, I can still hear
Carl's voice telling a story as the fire's embers
floated up to meet the stars. Sometimes I saw 
a satellite speed across the sky,
another time the space station.

Several years ago, Carl and I visited Mission Control
at the Houston Space Center. We both were
surprised how small it was, at the tiny computer 
screens and the black telephones. I don't think it had
occurred to either one of us until that moment
just how momentous the achievement was because,
compared to electronics we have now,
NASA was able to send men to the Moon
and bring them home with today's electronic equivalent 
of tin cans, string, and aluminum foil hats.

As I contemplated myself on this small speck of sand
where we spun and swooshed our way through
space, I sometimes thought of Neil Armstrong,
when he looked back towards home, towards
Earth, and saw a beautiful blue planet.
When he came back, Armstrong did the coolest thing. 
In a world where he could have eaten out the rest of his life
as "The First Man to Walk on the Moon," he instead
came home, went back to school and became a teacher.
He didn't keep what he knew, like some special
double-double-secret information.
No, he taught other people to become engineers
so they might be able to explore the universe,
to look back and see the Earth as he had done
so many years ago. 

My pictures? They came out just fine, but
were somehow lost, I don't know how.
It almost doesn't matter, because I have those images
etched in my memory forever, along with the bonfires
and the Milky Way.


dive said...

Dammit, Speedway; you brought tears and sniffles to my breakfast table.
Thank you for the best tribute I have read anywhere.

Speedway said...

As usual, you are very kind. I've had sniffles off and on all weekend myself. I sometimes thought about writing to Armstrong, but never did, thinking he probably wouldn't respond to a woman whose only knowledge of the stars was from horoscopes. Now I'll just think of him riding around amid the stars above our bonfires.