Fifty years ago, on July 20, 1969, I got to stay up late to see Neil Armstrong take his big step into history. He was on the surface of the moon; I was at the cottage on the shore of Lake Huron on the Bruce peninsula — where I am now as I write this.
By rights I should have missed the moment. There was no TV set in the cottage by the lake; we barely had indoor plumbing.
I have to thank our northern neighbours, Oscar and Mazie Day, for my window on history. Oscar was a retired sailor who wore a thick copper band around one wrist to ward off arthritis. He was forward thinking enough, however, to bring a white, portable TV set with rabbit ears to their cottage that week. Pointed towards the clear, star-filled sky, the thin antennas on that 19-inch receiver brought us the same fuzzy, ghost-like video of Armstrong descending a ladder as you’d get on the finest TV set in Toronto.
Fifty years later, I don’t exactly remember everything about that evening, but I do recall the wonder of the moment and the dark, sparkling vastness of that night sky. What follows are some personal memories I posted here close to seven years ago when Armstrong permanently joined the heavens at 82 in 2012:
I was born in 1957, a few months before Sputnik–the Russian satellite that kick started the space race–was launched. Watching history unfold like this was a trip for a 12-year-old and, like everyone I knew, I ran out and bought a plastic model of the Lunar Excursion Module as soon as it arrived–in my case, at Rigby’s hobby shop on Bloor Street West in Etobicoke. Some lucky kids got the whole command module to assemble. The spindly, retractable legs of the LEM drove home the whole idea of weight and gravity on the moon (before snapping off in kid’s rooms all over planet Earth).
Major Matt Mason also landed at my house soon after Armstrong’s grand adventure. The bendable spaceman was a little big for the model of the LEM, plus his arms looked like vacuum cleaner hoses.
Crowding around that small TV set up in Oliphant, it sure sounded to me like Armstrong said, “one small step for man…,” not, “a man” as he later claimed and as was written on the plaque left on the lunar surface. It didn’t matter. The part we all got right away was the “giant leap for mankind.”
My memories of watching on television centre around CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite. Mopping his brow, saying “Whew!” for the rest of us, Uncle Walter brought the whole moon landing down to earth for viewers across North America. I don’t have any memory of a CBC or CTV guy calling the moon shot, or even who they might have been at the time.
What I do remember was the awe of it all, and the promise. The idea that people could do anything, that the future was going to be very cool. Everything leading up to this had been a tease–Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Planetarium, Space Food Sticks. We’d all be taking commercial jets to the Sea of Tranquility by the time we were as old as Armstrong, 38 at the time.
It hasn’t quite turned out that way. Still, I’m forever thankful Oscar and Mazie brought a set up to their cottage that July and that I saw the future unfold in quiet little Oliphant. It is a still, clear, primitive place where the night sky still holds that same sense of awe. There’s never been a reason to install a proper cable or satellite reception up there–you look up over the bay at night and can see shooting stars and satellites streaking across the Milky Way, the greatest show on earth.
On night’s when the moon is full, the white light dances off the rippling waves of Lake Huron and washes all over Lonely Island. It is beautiful and humbling, and to this day, whenever I’m at the cottage on a clear night, I still look up at the moon and think of Neil Armstrong.