Sometime in the early evening of July 20th, 1969, my family was gathered in front of the TV to watch the first human being set foot on the moon. The reception was none too good, both because of the transmission from the moon to Earth, and the transmission from Los Angeles to our home in the foothills of Orange County, some forty miles to the south. This was before the days of cable TV, of course; we may have had a rooftop antenna, but if we did, it was not, shall we say, the Mercedes-Benz of antennae. My stepfather played with the extendable rabbit-ears antenna atop the portable TV, moving it this way and that in hopes of getting better reception, as far as I could tell to little avail.
“I’m headed out,” I said, making for the front door, paying little attention to the real-life drama unfolding on-screen.
“The hell you are,” my stepfather retorted, looking up from his fine-tuning of the TV picture. “This,” he said, nodding at the TV, “is probably the most important thing you will ever have seen on live television in your life, and you are going to plop your butt down in that chair until it is over.” He motioned toward one of the several uncomfortable chairs that surrounded our dining room table.
I stopped in my tracks. “Oh, come on,” I replied impatiently. I really wanted to go out to meet my friends, most of whom didn’t have aerospace engineer parents, and thus would not be browbeaten into watching some clean-cut military-looking dude pontificating patriotically from far far away. Besides, several years before I had seen the Beatles on live TV, and what could possibly surpass that?
The issue had apparently been decided, however, as everyone’s attention was on the TV, and not on the potential disruption of my summer Sunday social life, so I reluctantly took a seat and glared toward the flickering screen. As with the first appearance of the Beatles, it was a black and white broadcast, although, to be fair, most of the colors on offer on the surface of the moon tend to be in shades of black and white anyway, so no great loss on that count. Despite my sneaking suspicions that I might be better engaged elsewhere, with a girl for instance, I found myself drawn in, although I was careful not to let that show to any of my family members, particularly my stepfather; in the days to come I would go back and reread several of the Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury space novels that had entranced me as a kid.
So there I sat, never dreaming at the time that it would become one of those life-defining moments for me, one of those times when, years later, I could tell you precisely when it was, where I was, what I was doing, who I was doing it with. To date, there are only a handful of those: the afternoon in Miss Skelly’s history class when I learned of President Kennedy’s assassination; the wintry night on a New
Mexico highway when I heard on the car radio that John Lennon had been shot; the late evening in Atlanta at my in-laws’ place, glued to the television for further updates about the unfolding drama in a Paris tunnel, where Princess Diana had apparently been in a horrifying car accident; the morning after a September 10, 2001 night-flight down the eastern seaboard when I was awakened by a phone call from my then-wife telling me to go downstairs (now!) and turn the television on. I hit the remote just in time to see the second airliner strike the World Trade Center in real time. Weird thing is, the only one of all of these things that would turn out to be a positive life-affirming event was the one I would have totally missed had my stepdad not insisted that I set aside a few minutes out of my busy social calendar to experience it.
My stepfather, Jack Pennock, was a hell of a guy. I think of him often, although he passed away several years back. I am relatively sure that I never thanked him for making me sit down and watch the moon landing, an omission brought back once more into the cold clear light of day by the recent passing of astronaut Neil Armstrong. So thanks, Jack, for making me watch it, and thanks, Neil, for the words that transcended the petty concerns of politics, race, religion, gender and borders, words that will still be taught to children a thousand years from now: “…one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”