July 20, 1969: Searching for Eagles

After doing some groovy zero gravity training, you got to ride on a specially built spaceship with two other guys, going to an exclusive never-been-there-before destination. Can you say red velvet rope?

Early in July of 1969 I proudly suited up in my blue blazer and bow tie for my very first airplane flight—a family trip to Miami from which I brought back pilot’s wings and my first case of sunburn. Only a couple of weeks later, Apollo 11 and its three astronauts would win the Space Race. This week, as pundits wax poetic about the cultural significance of the first moonwalk, I recall a slightly fussy and fastidious five-year-old who found three heroes in a time when they were in scarce supply for a future gay kid enthralled with the Huntley/Brinkley Report, Jo Ann Worley on Laugh-In and Benny Goodman’s more jitterbug-worthy compositions.

I was a constant source of amusement, even bemusement. “He’s so…creative,” my mother would explain, with a bit of a smirk, as anchored the news for my aunts and uncles, who probably would have been happier if I simply shot them “dead” with a cap gun and ran away.

So where were my heroes? OK, sure, I could take the easy pass and say “Dad,” one of my Uncles or my allergist, but I was a kid who thrived on a little drama and being larger than life. My brothers, both considerably older than I, were no inspiration. Joe Namath? I didn’t even understand football. Worse yet was the whole GI Joe thing, which I simply didn’t get: He’s was a World War II soldier, as had been my father, though he played sax in the Army orchestra. But in any case, why would I want to be one of hundreds—make that thousands—of guys, recruited to ride on a stinky ship going to a jungle or a desert? Worse yet, we’d all be wearing the same exact thing and eating food worse than what we’d get at the S.S. Kresge soda fountain. And let’s not even talk about the killing part. No, GI Joe was not the answer.

Astronauts, on the other hand, presented an entirely different proposition: After an extensive and exclusive screening process conducted by a new government agency, you and a couple other guys were picked from hundreds, maybe even thousands of applicants, because you were tough, smart—and totally photogenic. After doing some groovy zero gravity training, you got to ride on a specially built spaceship going to an exclusive never-been-there-before destination. Can you say red velvet rope? As if this isn’t enough incentive, you would wear specially designed white outfits and get all the freeze-dried ice cream and Tang you could eat and drink. To a five-year-old with a penchant for paisley, it was a no brainer.

On that Sunday the 20th, there was the same kind of feeling in the air that I knew from New Year’s Eve with Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians, just before the ball dropped—except I had no idea that the stakes were much higher. We watched the coverage in the den, me in my bright orange rocker, which not coincidentally matched perfectly with Mom's bright orange and yellow Danish Modern décor. The 23-inch TV screen was mostly black and blurry, and it sounded like a really static-filled version of a baseball game on the AM radio in my mother’s Impala. I just remember being amazed at how quiet my usually boisterous family was during those hours leading up to what was probably the most momentous arrival of someone anywhere since Carol Channing as Dolly Levi hit the stage in “Hello, Dolly!” a few seasons before.

And then, three hours past my bedtime, it happened.

“The eagle has landed.”

At five, you’re all about the literal. What eagle? I was watching Neil Armstrong land on the moon. Or at least I thought so. Why didn’t birds have to wear the cool suits with the bubble helmet too?

I ran to the patio doors to get a glimpse of the real thing for clarification. And while the moon beamed bright and brilliant over our perfectly fenced square of a backyard, neither Neil, Buzz nor Gus was in site.

“There’s no men on the moon!” I blurted in that petulant, wounded way that only a five-year-old can. After all, 11p.m. and I had been up for at least 17 hours and was full of pancakes, hamburgers and Nestle's Quik.

“You can’t SEE them up there, silly,” said my brother Bob, “They’re thousands of miles in space.”

I took it on faith, since the TV was showing them just fine up close. I just remember the happiness that filled the room. And heck, why wouldn’t they be happy, after all? Fabulous events had a way of doing that; astronauts had a way of doing that.

The afterglow would last for at least two years. For Halloween 1969, I was of course Neil Armstrong. I wrote to NASA in my best bad penmanship, and got his autographed 8 by 10 photo, which I know I still have somewhere wrapped in a Baggie. Now that I see he was a blond, it all makes total sense. In Kindergarten and 1st grade, I was in charge of bringing my brother’s 5-inch Panasonic TV to class so we could watch more Apollo launches and landings. Now Why an otherwise well-funded suburban school system asked a six-year-old to carry a portable TV across the street to his classroom is another story, but I was proud in any case to being serving my country’s space program.

Unfortunately, this Era of Good Feeling about Cape Canaveral couldn’t last forever. Sometime in the Summer of 1971, I was hanging out in my Sears Lunar Landing Module, which at the time was docked on the patio. Even though Mom told me not to sit on the ledge of the hatch, this astronaut didn’t follow orders and took a mighty tumble. While I avoided stitched or broken bones, my dispassionate kissing of the concrete doused my passion for the cosmos. Now, long after the ticker tape and interviews, I had fallen--for real. Besides, I was having trouble seeing the bulletin board in math class and was getting glasses. Astronauts just didn't wear glasses.

Being a hero now seemed passé, at least on this frontier, so I tendered my resignation to NASA. Though for a small time I liked to peg the demise of the Space Program with my exit, it ultimately didn't matter. Watergate sent me running from the government to the media business. Now there’s a place for heroes.

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