That summer day in the late 1960’s was like many others in Walnut Creek, California. It was hot, as it normally is during the summer months in this moderate sized city east of Oakland. Mount Diablo shimmered gold as it stood firm against the eastern fringes of the valley. Simon and Garfunkel’s song ‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters’ played on the radio from one of the popular AM stations that found it’s way over the airwaves from San Francisco. I made my way to the living room to watch my favorite morning program, Captain Kangaroo.
I was excited. This day would be special. I had reached an important milestone in life. Soon, I would be going to school. Soon, I would be finding a different, yet more meaningful set of social situations. I would be exploring the world at a different level. Today was my birthday. I had just turned the wonderful age of five.
Anticipating a day of parties and celebrations, I settled down on the couch and looked toward the television console. Someone had already taken it upon themselves to open the sliding front wooden doors that normally concealed the large 21 inch glass screen, and it was already turned on and the touchy adjustments were already made. After Captain Kangaroo, the festivities would begin. We’d first go out for pancakes and strawberry shortcake at Sambo’s, then either to the park, or since it was hot, the pool. Later on, there’d surely be a birthday party. The year previous, my parents had hired a clown, but this year, they likely realized that I had outgrown the clown. Maybe they’d get a magician…or a rock band.
But to my dismay, there was no Captain Kangaroo on TV that morning. Instead, the screen was occupied by that boring Walter Cronkite guy. Why was he on this morning? Wasn’t he usually on in the evening, with those horrible pictures of soldiers in the jungle? What would dare try to take the place of Captain Kangaroo?
The boring news man was talking to some other men over a radio or telephone. These men were in a cramped room with a bunch of buttons and dials on the walls. They were wearing these thick overalls that made them look fat. The picture from this little room was grainy, and the sound was so bad I could hardly understand them. I had no idea why this was so important.
We did go out that morning. My father had me get into the back of the turquoise Rambler station wagon we had, and that meant one thing. My hopes were up! The Rambler was capable of towing the boat! Of course that was the plan! We were going up to Clear Lake for the day!
But as we pulled out of the driveway, I made another horrifying discovery. The boat was NOT behind us. This meant one thing, and one thing only…if we were going out in the big station wagon without the boat, it meant the most horrifying thing possible. We were going SHOPPING! What a horrible thing to do to someone on his fifth birthday!
The first place we went was a store called White Front. This ugly dome shaped store was the most boring place in the world. There were boxes of grown-up stuff all over the place…and no toys. We spent an hour there…one long, miserable hour. Much of it we spent along the wall where several televisions were resting on the floor and on top of boxes. There were small black and white TV’s and a few really large ones in ugly brown cabinets…and all of them were on the same channel, the one with the men in the little ugly gray room!
Later we would go to another store, Montgomery Ward. I hated this place even more! I got lost here a few times, and now, whenever I was dragged here, my mom would hold my hand and scold me as I would lag behind when I got tired. This day, she dragged me into the clothes aisles, where she found several ‘cute’ outfits that had really no use to me. I never had any good memories of this place. Once again, we found ourselves over by the televisions, where everyone was gawking at the images of the same three men in the little cramped room. I tried to speak up and protest, but I was told to be quiet.
The last stop on the endless trip about the town of Walnut Creek was at the worst place in the world…the huge store called Gemco. This place was terrible, as it was bright, drafty, and absolutely huge! It took forever to go from one side to the other. This place was also the source of such abominations as eggplant, peas, and spaghetti…among other food items I couldn’t stand.
Making matters worse, Gemco sold a little of everything. There were some clothes, tools, washing machines, and television sets. As I got dragged about, I was forced to stand by quietly as mom and dad would carefully study all the hinges, doors, switches and knobs of these items they would likely not buy.
Once again, people were huddled around the corner, where the television sets were on display. This time, there was a different image on the screen. The television showed a huge gray field full of round holes. The field got bigger as the camera got closer to it. As it came down upon the ugly pasture, I could see the shadow of whatever this thing was growing larger and larger. A scratchy voice came with the image.
“One hundred,” it said. “Now Fifty feet…forty…a little more to the left…down six….”
Dust began to blow across the screen, and then it faded to all black.
“Tranquility Base,” said another voice. “The Eagle has Landed!”
This phrase was followed by a beep, and the picture changed to one of a ladder on the outside. One of the men in the fat white suit was climbing down the ladder, doing so very carefully and slowly, and talking about every step he made. When he came to the bottom of the ladder, he gently jumped off, and slowly landed onto the gray, ugly, dusty ground.
“That’s one small step for man. One giant LEAP for Man Kind…”
Everyone cheered. Everyone was so happy. Men jumped in the air and gave each other the ’high five’. Women cried and screamed with joy. Everyone was so proud of whatever happened. I even saw a hippie hug a soldier in uniform…that was so odd, as soldiers and hippies never got along!
Whatever had happened was surely a conspiracy! How dare they do this on my special day! Why didn’t they do this tomorrow?
It would be some time before I realized what was so great about that day. That moment, Neil Armstrong and the astronauts of Apollo 11 became the first human beings to set foot on the moon. That moment was one that defined history. Millions of hours of planning, building, meetings and training had finally achieved a phenomenal goal.
As I got older, I began to feel different about that birthday. Those three men who made it to the Moon would no longer be the reason for the cancelled birthday party. They would take their place in my list of heroes. I began to develop respect for the astronauts that made that historic leap. I began to appreciate the decision making capacity of the hundreds of men in Mission Control. I began to appreciate the hard work of the engineers and scientists who built this ship of dreams. I gained an admiration for the politicians who secured the resources to make it happen. I began to idolize the journalists who brought the stories from space to our TV sets and newspapers.
I didn’t get as much as a bag of marbles for my birthday that year. There would be no cake, clowns or magicians. Instead, I got something better. That moment ignited that spark that would grow to become my love of science. Walter Cronkite’s commentary inspired me to become a better communicator, writer, and storyteller. That day, July 20, 1969 set the standard for those individuals I would call ’heroes’. Much of who I am today has been built upon from that day.
True, it was not a shiny new Tonka dump truck or a brand new cap gun set. That would be just fine. This gift would never rust, wear out or be outgrown. That day I was given heroes and inspiration. I didn’t exactly appreciate it at the time, but as I look back now, I cannot think of a better birthday present a five year old could receive. On my fifth birthday, a man stepped foot on the Moon.