A Walk on the Moon* Published in Intrepid Report September 5, 2012
In the 1999 film A Walk on the Moon, set in a Catskills, New York bungalow colony in the summer of 1969, the characters Pearl and Walker develop a relationship over the course of that momentous summer that saw the Woodstock music festival staged in nearby Bethel and the iconic actual walk on the moon by Neil Armstrong just weeks earlier on July 20. Pearl and Walker make love for the first time in Walker’s RV/retail “blouse shop” while an unwatched portable TV documents the first steps that Armstrong took on the lunar surface.
Like the day John Kennedy was shot and the attack on the World Trade Center, the day and date of Armstrong’s historic walk are etched indelibly in the minds of those who lived through that tumultuous era!
Last night, reading of Neil Armstrong’s death (August 25), I was immediately catapulted in my mind from the exquisite moonlit night in the Southern Berkshires of Massachusetts to a similar summer night so long ago in the rolling hills that meets the coastal plain in northeastern Connecticut.
I had just graduated from college and took a temporary summer job as a counselor at a school and camp in Connecticut that served a co-ed population of special needs children from the area. The school and campgrounds were unspoiled forested land dotted by two lakes. A farm was located just beside the first, smaller lake on the property. Boys at the camp lived in cottages just off of a baseball field, while the girls and their counselors lived in a dormitory on the other side of the baseball diamond that also served as the school and cafeteria.
Counselors paired off within days of the beginning of the camping season. I had arrived a few days late and became friends with a person who was a student at Mount Holyoke College in Western Massachusetts. The counselors often met as a group after the workday was finished and listened to rock and folk music in a lounge on the second floor of the dormitory.
The camp counselors were an irreverent group. We looked out for the best interests of the kids we worked with and wore armbands in protest when the quality and the monotony of the cafeteria food became apparent.
Nearly everyone was gathered around the TV set in a second lounge of the dormitory on the evening of the moon landing. My friend and I chose to ignore the historic event and took a moonlight walk to the nearer of the two lakes on the school’s property. We set a blanket out and chatted amicably while the lunar module descended down to the moon’s surface and Armstrong took the first steps down the ladder from the module and set foot on the thick dust of the moon.
Ignoring the event, from my perspective, fit into the political ethos of the 1960s. I believed that the space program had close ties to the military and I had long since become a critic of the military, the government, and its conduct of the Vietnam War. Astronauts were seasoned military veterans and often had taken part in sorties, the consequences of which seemed apparent, especially from the lens of the Vietnam era. I also believed that the space program was a monumental waste of resources that could have been spent on tangible scientific research here on Earth, funding schools, and eradicating the poverty that plagued millions of people throughout the US. When I asked my wife Jan what she did on the night of the landing, she said she also had avoided it because “I thought they were spending too much money on the space program…I thought that there were better ways to spend money.” I imagine that there were many who felt the same way on that night.
Recently released recordings from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library document a conversation between Kennedy, the top administrator at NASA, and Vice President Lyndon Johnson on the space race. The topic being discussed was the importance, according to Kennedy, of the race to get to the moon between the US and the Soviet Union. In unmistakable Cold War rhetoric, Kennedy addresses NASA Administrator James Webb. “This is important for political reasons, international political reasons. This is, whether we like it or not, an intensive race.” (“The Cold War Push Behind Neil Armstrong’s ‘One Small Step,’” Andrew c. Revkin, The New York Times, August 15, 2012.)
And so many years later, and after a significant cost in US treasure, Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the lunar surface followed by his co-pilot Col. Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin, Jr. Apollo 11 had done what it had been intended to do. And forty-three years later I stood in the silence of the forest looking up at the half waxing moon shrouded in mist. Now I can recognize that it took an enormous store of raw guts to mount the top of that Saturn V rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and blastoff on that immense package of scientific know-how and land four days later at a distance some 238,855 miles away. I don’t think we have moved one iota away from the waste of resources on war and economic hegemony from those days so long ago, but there’s something so irresistible of the photographs and film from that mission of the Earth rising above the lunar horizon in all of its blue and cloudy majesty. It’s a view that long ago needed to chasten us as a nation to begin to make things right on this vulnerable and beautiful spot in the cosmic landscape.
A Walk on the Moon, (Directed by Tony Goldwyn, 1999).
Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer.