Recalling moment of glory

Published 7:39 am Friday, July 2, 2010

It was one of those bland, middle-of-the-week, nothing-special meals. Ring bologna, noodles, a cut-up apple, with plates balanced on the rickety old coffee table while we watched the evening news. Just like every night.

Except on this night, they started shooting. The evening news routine was interrupted by live coverage of missiles and bombs as correspondents called in reports from their hotel rooms, peeking out the windows at something we had all expected – but not right now. The start of Desert Storm – the first Gulf War.

Now nearly 20 years ago, those moments are as clear in memory today as they were then.

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For the most part, it is the bad things – the disasters, the wars, the assassinations – that stick in our memories. The slaying of Bobby Kennedy. The Challenger explosion. Ronald Reagan being shot. Most of us can recall where we were when we heard the news. We remember what we thought, what we said, what our neighbors said.

But the good things are harder to pin down, the memories muddy. Does the Gulf War’s end have the same memory punch as its beginning? Not for most of us, although it was just as important.

Our tendency to fixate on the dramatic and tragic and to forget the good is so strong that there ought to be a name for it. Like “déj vu,” the demanding – if false – memory of having done something before. Call it the “tragic memory rule.”

There is one big exception to the tragic memory rule, though, and its anniversary is right around the corner.

July of 1969. Hot. Playing in the tree fort with the neighborhood kids, Kirk and John and Gary. Mom at the door yelling, “Get on in here and watch this.” Objections. Complaints.

But Mom insisting, “You’ll never forget this.”

She was right. I’ve never forgotten the odd combination of massive boredom – old guys talking, fake-looking little models and drawings – coupled with the real excitement of finally seeing Americans take a step onto the moon. July 19, 1969. A triumph that I’ll probably never forget. It’s one of the Good Things that we can all recall, can say where we were when we heard the news, which TV we watched on.

For most Americans, that meant clustering around the television. A person-on-the-street survey the day after the moon walk found no one who hadn’t watched at least part of the historic event on television.

It was huge, the topic of conversation for days and weeks.

With the anniversary of that giant step for mankind only a couple of weeks away, how things have changed. America’s space program has shrunk to near invisibility and the wondrous forecasts of space colonies and further exploration of the solar system have come to nearly nothing.

To be sure, some nifty gadgets came from the space program of the ’60s and ’70s. But Space – with a capital S — did not come of the effort, because America and other nations turned their back on the moon-walk triumph, which ultimately proved to be hollow. Just as its critics had predicted, there was little practical value in putting human feet on the moon.

There could have been value, of course. But like most of the tragedies that are also graven in our memories, the moon triumph was quickly forgotten. Bypassed for more pressing and practical needs – war, inflation, domestic strife – space exploration hit its peak in the summer of 1969.

The 1969 moon walk may be the last of event of its kind: A collective triumph, shared among an entire nation. A day when we paused to savor success together.