(This is the first of a non-concurrent three-part series on major events in our recent history which will be commemorating their fiftieth anniversary this summer. As they approached, it turns out, for me, the memories of these significant dates brought vivid childhood reflections that have remained with me and would be integral to my view of self, America, and society at large.)
I’m a rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone.
– Bernie Taupin, as sung by Elton John
I am six years old in July of 1969. Living in the middle apartment in a three-family pre-war brownstone owned by my mother’s parents in Bronx, NY. So far this has been a year of awaking for me. There has already been a moment etched into my psyche forever. It became a bit of an obsessive one, back when I still watched professional football, back when Joe Namath was more than a mere mortal. Actually, that second part more than lingers for me. The New York Jets won the Super Bowl in January of that year. This happened. Really. I still harbor the most unerringly strong recollections of the last few minutes of that game. Mostly through the nervous joy my father experienced. I was there, with him. This giant, this hero, Namath, a cultural and athletic professional lighting rod—and also sometimes the Jets quarterback, with his white shoes, eye-black, and tufts of hair peeking out of his helmet—would become something of an avatar of my father, as he paced in and out of the room mumbling to himself about time. We watched that day as Namath obliterated myths to create his own. And now, six months later—an eternity for a kid—I am wrapping my mind around a human being walking on the moon. So says my mother, since, in a way, this is her Super Bowl. The ramp up, the launch, the whole thing. Man, my mom is way into this.
Years after these sweltering hot NYC summer evenings, while rummaging through boxes stuffed in attics and garages throughout our constant moving around NJ into Westchester, et. al., I would find the Life magazine cover with Buzz Aldrin standing on the lunar surface. The camera and the man who joined him as the first humans to traverse the moon, reflected in his space helmet, was always an eerie sight. My mom even kept that week’s TV Guide. For you kids, this was the Internet for television when people still watched it on a screen housed in a piece of furniture that was the centerpiece of your living rooms.
This is a woman who kept nothing. If I turned my head for a moment, it was gone. My mom was no hoarder. But of all the stuff that happened historically when I was a kid, beside Lee Harvey Oswald being murdered on our box inside the furniture, the Apollo 11 moon landing was my mom’s touchstone.
From a six-year-old’s perspective, this whole concept is kind of out there. So much so, I stand for an inordinate amount of time in front of our front stoop looking up into the illuminated night sky on the evening of July 19 staring at the moon. I cannot be sure it was a full moon that evening, but it was more than half-visible in the city glow above our street. It was so stark white against the ebony background, so flat and two-dimensional. Almost fake. My mind races. There are people heading there to hang out. Right now. This is as much as it was understood by me, with all of my Major Matt Mason stuff, my green alien figures, and plastic spaceships. When you’re six, you assume people have been flying all over space like in the cartoons you’re fed, or the science fiction that passes for actual news. But even so, it is odd to see this glistening orb up in the sky and to know that someone… tomorrow… is going to be tooling around on it.
Now, forget me for a minute—which I know is hard in this space since I more or less interject myself into everything I write here—but try and consider the world without having at least conceived of space travel? Today, we don’t even give it a second thought, since we went to the moon pretty much every year after 1969 until the mid-seventies. We actually took for granted having humans playing golf and driving buggies up there. Or, at least we told ourselves that and maybe even (and I am one of the occasional skeptics here) told ourselves it never happened.
My pal, author Rich Cohen, who I got to know a few years ago when we were both working on music books—his, the Stones, mine, Warren Zevon—just had a piece published in the latest Paris Review about these ubiquitous conspiracy theories regarding the events of July 20, 1969. Much of this hoo-ha surrounds fellow Bronx-native and film genius Stanley Kubrick and his masterworks, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining, the former being the first anyone had seen of weightlessness and the cold, frightening, soul-crushing, nothingness of space, and the inhumanity of the computers and machines that take us there, and what that entails for our species in the long, long, long run. That film was released in 1968 and what it foretold was eerily familiar to those who eventually would travel there.
To that end, this is what Cohen wrote as a sidebar to his theme that got on top of me while I was working on this column: “I’ve met three of the twelve men who walked on the moon. They had one important thing in common when I looked into their eyes: they were all bonkers.”
This is where the imagination of that six-year-old boy and the grandiosity of America in the Cold War era meets the flesh and bone of those who were actually a part of the Apollo 11 mission. How much of this seeing the earth as a fading marble in the distance, the silence of space against the instruments beeping and flashing around them in their “floating tin can” (as David Bowie would write and release that same year as “Space Oddity,” a nice musical play on Kubrick’s horrors of rapid, mind-bending technological and spiritual evolution) would mess with their, well, everything. Later, this idea of taking the deep-seeded fears of isolation within humanity and the constant battle waged between the ego of the hairless ape and the vastness of the universe became part of our culture. We, the searchers fueled by our Manifest Destiny, going beyond the stars, where we cannot comprehend, and come back different. Very different. Or, as Cohen, mused, bonkers.
We were all bonkers in 1969. Crazy shit happened. The Jets, eighteen to twenty-three point underdogs would win the first ever named Super Bowl and soon the NY Mets, having been the laughing stock of all sports the year I was born, just seven seasons earlier, would capture all of our hearts on the way to an amazing World Series victory that October. Then other crazy, crazy shit that will come in just a few weeks, which I will broach in parts two and three of these connected columns, illustrates how much humanity can simultaneously elevate and devastate itself down here. We were, in many ways, different. A seal was broken on us, on America, on science and faith and pride and fear, as it had on race and gender and generation.
And it is down here, on July 20, 1969 that we all watched a man in a weird, rumpled white space suit hop his way down a ladder and take “one small step for man, but one giant leap for mankind” and hang out on that translucent sphere perched high, high, high above Van Ness Avenue. The night you can view these crackling black and white images being flashed on the box inside the furniture while also looking out your window to try and rationalize all of this. How is this happening? It is pretty damn exciting. It is pretty damn frightening.