Fifty years ago today we gazed skyward as a nation and realized hope was still part of our country. We looked at the sliver of the moon some 238,000 miles away that night while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bounced around on its surface, collected dirt and rocks, talked to President Richard Nixon on the radio, and planted a stiff American flag.
The landing came after we were rudely awakened from the American Dream that the idea of prosperity and goals were all easily within reach. Assassinations, political strife, demonstrators clashing with police, a war raging far away, and the realization that life may be harder than we first thought began prevailing. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were shot down in the spring of 1968, and police bashed protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that summer. The concept of hope was being replaced by cynicism and despair.
The landing came at the perfect time and served as a salve to our country’s wounds — at least momentarily.
A few weeks later in Los Angeles, followers of Charles Manson killed five people, including actress Sharon Tate. A week after that, 400,000 “hippies” flocked to farmland near Woodstock, N.Y., and writhed to music in a drug-fueled mud orgy, creating new fears that our youth were lost.
But Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, his static-filled message of the “giant leap for mankind” heard by more than 600 million watching on television, momentarily gave us back that hope that all things were possible.
It was a hard time to grow up. I had just turned the impressionable age of 9 while living in Bemidji, Minn. My father taught music at Bemidji State University, and I was subjected to the campus protests then that, while docile and minor, still made me question things. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up; I had some ideas of being a writer since I fared well in the subject at the college’s elementary lab school. I was so poor in Little League baseball that I knew any idea of playing for the big-league Minnesota Twins was out of the question.
My summer days that year were spent playing Wiffle Ball, failing to emulate Twins’ slugger Harmon Killebrew in my friend’s backyard. Evenings were for watching Twins’ baseball and playing with my Major Matt Mason figures, a cheap knock-off of G.I. Joe that featured astronauts who lived on the moon.
My parents let me stay up to watch the moon landing on July 20, 1969. Then, it seemed like it occurred in the wee hours. It was a special event because I was allowed to stay up well past my bedtime. Years later, I was stunned to read that Armstrong stepped on the moon at 9:56 p.m. Central time.
The next day, the routine returned. We played Wiffle Ball again and enjoyed our summer freedom from school. But that night, I looked at the moon differently, and my Major Matt Mason toys took on a more realistic realm as I played with them on the lunar-like surface of our dining room carpet.
Possibilities were endless then.
Now, half a century later, life has left me somewhat cynical and out of hope. I did get into writing; I was the northeast Arkansas correspondent for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newspaper for 20 years before I became a victim of journalism economics and was laid off in October 2017. I now work as a communications person for our county’s prosecuting attorney.
Fifty years after the landing, hope is fleeting. There is talk of sending a manned mission to Mars one day. The event, I’m sure, will be watched by millions again, but this time it will be sponsored by some corporation. Instead of Walter Cronkite taking off his glasses on camera and shaking his head in amazement at Armstrong and Aldrin, Anderson Cooper will discuss the boondoggle costs of sending them to the red planet. The feeling of hope of 50 years ago is all but gone.
But there are evenings when I step outside into the backyard of my small Wells Fargo-mortgaged home and look upward. The moon is still there, shining, waiting, representing that hope. I think of the moonwalk and, despite my age, I still hang onto a sliver of that hope. A sliver, much like the moon was when we gazed upon it in 1969.
Kenneth Heard grew up in Bemidji, Minn., and is the communications director for the Craighead County Prosecutor's Office in Jonesboro, Ark. He was the northeast Arkansas bureau correspondent for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for 20 years and has worked in journalism as a reporter and editor for more than 30 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.