Sunday, 26 August 2012

On the death of Neil Armstrong

In July 1969 I was on holiday with my family in Cape Cod.  I think I felt uneasy about that.  I was a teenager already; why was I still hanging out with my parents?  Not to mention my three younger sisters.  I felt developmentally challenged, or something.  But there I was.  Always a slow developer.

Mostly on Cape Cod we went to the beach.  There was a television in our cottage, and the four of us kids would’ve been happy to watch it – for one thing it brought in American channels we didn’t get in our cable-less Canadian home.  But kids just like to watch TV, even if their parents are saying, We didn’t come all this way for you to sit in front of the television; you can do that at home (not that it was encouraged at home either).

But on July 20, 1969 it was different.  My father actually wanted us to watch TV that day – to see the Moon landing.  This surprised me for a number of reasons.  There was the idea of watching television, and also the idea that it was important to watch a couple of Americans set foot on the Moon.  We weren’t a particularly science-y  family, though my father was a doctor.  The humanities were more our thing.  I didn’t grow up wanting to be an astronaut or anything like that.

More importantly, in our household the United States was more or less the Great Satan (though we didn’t use that term, of course).  They were the villains in Vietnam, and a bunch of racists to boot, oppressing the poor black people, not to mention all the capitalist exploitation of working people.  And their president was Richard Nixon.

And yet here was my father saying the Moon landing, the American Moon landing, was a great achievement.  I’d been prepared to dismiss it as more U.S. imperialism, but if this was the Party line, then I was entirely able to go that way instead.  I was a great follower of Party lines in those days (not so much anymore).

So we sat and watched the fuzzy, snowy pictures on the old television set in the cottage on Swan Pond River Road.  I suspect that the snowiness of the reception had less to do with the pictures being beamed a quarter of a million miles from outer space than that the cottage we were in had poor reception.  And so I saw Neil Armstrong take his famous step and utter his famous words.

I can’t remember what I thought about it now.  Was it a great achievement?  Perhaps.  I’ve become skeptical of achievement over the years.  What is achievement?  Does it matter?  It was certainly the culmination of a great aspiration.  Aspirations, I like them – maybe the aspiration is the achievement.  Or not.

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