“PawPaw,” he excitedly reported, “rockets go up in the air, whoosh!”
The image took me back, instantly, to when I was 14 and for six months lived for almost nothing but waiting for Apollo 11 to take off and turn the type of whooshing-rockets science fiction I loved into reality. If Apollo 11 managed to make it to the moon, who knew, maybe someday we’d arrive on Mars and learn that the haunting stories Ray Bradbury told in The Martian Chronicles were more history than fiction.
“Did you know, Kadyn,” I asked, “that a long long time ago rockets took off and landed on the moon?”
His eyes widened. “They went up, whoosh, to the MOON?”
“Yes, can you believe it? You know what? There are videos of it. Do you want to see one? We could Google it.”
“Yes, yes! Mom, Mom, PawPaw and I are going to watch videos of rockets going to the moon.”
So we Googled Apollo 11 blast-off videos. Of course there they were, link after link. We clicked. YouTube came up. A rocket was sitting there on the screen in the blue day, wisps of smoke puffing out every now and then.
Kadyn was transfixed. “Is it going to go up?”
He had just been singing a nursery song the day before that included “5-4-3-2-1 blastoff.”
“Yes,” I reported, “see those numbers on the screen? They’re counting down to blastoff, and when you hear them get to 5-4-3-2-1, up it will go.”
5-4-3-2-1 goes the count. A great cloud of fire, burning yellow and white and orange and who knows how many colors, surges around the rocket. For a while it just sits there, fire raging and raging.
Then slowly slowly, startlingly slowly given the fury of the flames, story upon story of that Saturn V rocket crawl up past the holding arms.
We watch until the rocket is too far up to see except for the faint contrail.
Then the YouTube screen switches. We’re circling the moon. “Is that the moon, PawPaw? Did the rocket go all the way to the moon?”
We watch and watch. We see the moon lander detach from the moon orbiter. We see Neal Armstrong’s eyes, startlingly steady as they gaze at his flight instruments. We watch the moon’s surface grow closer and closer as Mission Control, down on Earth, monitors the countdown. We watch as the camera steadies. The Eagle has landed.
I found it hard not to shed tears, which I didn’t want to do, given that it would trigger “PawPaw, why are you crying?” and what in the world would I say to that?
I’m still not fully sure why the urge. Maybe because just like that I felt 14 again, before all that was to come, wonders and terrors, had befallen me and the planet. Maybe because it still stuns me that when I was a boy science fiction always primed us to expect more and then yet more. In 1969 we could only imagine what unbelievable things would be happening by 2016. Maybe not spaceships to the stars yet, but surely a colony on the moon? Some people on Mars at least long enough to lay a copy of The Martian Chronicles on the red sand like Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left earth equipment on the moon as Michael Collins waited above for them?
But no. When Kadyn and I watched the Eagle pop back up from the moon to return to Collins, it felt almost more like science fiction than when it first happened. So did it as the cameras panned over people of all races and nations and colors, all over the planet, gazing spellbound at TV screens. How did we do that? How did we manage to be unable now to do it again?
So maybe the tears were about the fading of some dreams. But maybe also about a few more things.
For one, even as Apollo 11 blasted off, people understandably wondered if this was the right way to spend the countless dollars and energies it had taken in a world so awash with deprivation and misery for so many. Barely more than months before, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. had been killed. Race riots blazed across U.S. cities and napalm burned the flesh off those we considered our enemies in Vietnam.
Maybe the tears were partly awe that, so many decades later, the world could still produce grandchildren.
Above all, I suspect they were caused by the gift of being able to witness the fresh wonder of a child gazing at images that thrilled his budding mind and spirit. As so much unravels today, his face fixed spellbound on the screen made me pray that, though I’ll be long gone, half a century from now he’ll be in my role. He too, I dream, will share with a grandchild what happened, oh so amazingly, back when he was a boy and the world was in such trouble yet look, yes, here we still are—and can you believe it, this really did happen. Let’s watch!
—Michael A. King is dean at Eastern Mennonite Seminary and a vice-president at Eastern Mennonite University; Mennonite World Review “Unseen Hands” columnist; blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC.