They Were Heroes Once, and Young
It’s hard to believe its now been 40 years since the Apollo 11 mission delivered human beings to another world. As a kid growing up in the suburban Patio Culture, the exploits of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were considered to be the stuff of legend. Looking back, it continues to be so.
The historical impact of the lunar missions of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s seem to be sinking in at last reminding the nation that its past glories can once again be harnessed for the common good.
As a teacher, I’m perplexed by the seemingly casual attitude teenagers take towards this momentous event in history. Oh sure, when you’re 17 the minutiae of everyday life overtakes your very consciousness, but I keep getting the nagging feeling that over the years we’ve lost something as a nation. OK, let’s just say it…young people today just don’t have the heroes that we had growing up in the sixties. There, it’s out and in true curmudgeon form. What happened? Did the collective funk the nation suffered after Vietnam kill true larger than life personalities, or was it the result of a mercilessly competitive electronic media scouring the landscape for public figures to splay open for all to ridicule. Who knows, but you just don’t see public figures with the stature that the early astronauts enjoyed. Sure, there are many people out there today who do great things, and are deserving of our utmost respect, but the backdrop of true national urgency is sadly missing.
Perhaps non-Boomers might understand the misty gazes the Apollo tribute videos invoke in their older brethren if they accepted the fact that many of us are hard-wired to admire the space program. We grew up on it, and gauged our collective national worth by its successes and failures. To demonstrate the case in point, let us examine the life of a typical suburban kid of the 1960’s…
Chances are you played “space” if you were a boy. Not cowboys and Indians of the 1950’s, but rip roaring astronaut play complete with Star Trek tracer guns (disc launchers) and helmets if you were lucky. Often kids rooms and tree houses would be outfitted with various “controls” that would guide their imaginary craft to the stars. Of course in reality, I’m sure the stacks of old radios and retired portable TV sets used for this purpose perplexed the adults to no end. I once even customized an old barrel by suspending it on a swing set frame, mounting a clock and a compass, and using it as a “Mercury training capsule”. The object, of course, was to get inside, wind up the strap, and let the thing spin until you could walk like a drunk or puke (or both).
Toys were very attuned to the space program as well. One of the coolest toys I every owned was the GI Joe Mercury space capsule with a sliding clear plastic hatch. Emulating the dramatic “splash downs” we witnessed on television, we would repeatedly throw our intrepid Joe into the swimming pool until our arms tired from the effort. Model kits, like my Gemini capsule/Agena docking module and NASA rocket booster collection, were built (and sometimes destroyed) by countless kids.
Topping off this endless cosmic enculturation were TV shows like Star Trek, Lost in Space, Space 1999, cartoons such as Space Ghost and the Jetsons, plus numerous B-movies. The first movie that I was totally enthralled by was Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey which I still maintain was so far ahead of its time that it’s scary! Obviously, Clarke’s vision of lunar exploration has yet to materialize, but it was fodder for the young imaginations of the Patio Culture.
Today’s challenges are admittedly hard to put a heroic face on. Global warming is by its very nature nebulous, and politicians by their very nature rarely inspire beyond their partisan base. Even the groundbreaking nature of the current U.S. administration can’t compare with the civil rights luminaries of the 1960’s. Still, I hope the future challenges of taking homo sapiens beyond his ancestrial planetary home will not go unmet. Despite my misgivings on the state of heroics today, I still hope the newest generation can find persons of stature and good character that transcend the divisive issues of today and unite the world (albeit briefly) like the Apollo astronauts once did.