Until these last few days, the July 20/21 moon landing remained a local event for me. I watched it from Miami Beach, where after much pleading my grandparents had let my brother Aaron and I stay up late. I even remember the room we were in, their bedroom, the specific images of the astronauts on the moon, and the hour flashing across the bottom of the screen. It was local because Florida was also the home of Cape Canaveral. And of course I remember the planting of the American flag.
What’s striking about remembering the event from another country, France, is how, while giving the Americans their due, the achievement is regarded as all mankind’s, an accomplishment without borders. (That makes three American moonwalkers in three weeks who have received unprecedented French media attention.) Usually the French, or at least the French media, are quick to claim primacy, and even to exaggerate France’s role in a particular historical event. But here’s a feat which is not particularly theirs to claim, and yet the French media has been lavish in the media time accorded to Apollo’s acheivement. (Although I just couldn’t watch a docu-drama recreating the lives of Armstrong, Aldren, and Collins around that time in which their typically suburban circa 1960s American families all spoke French.) Radio and television has been saturated with coverage, to the point where I’ve got ‘magnificent desolation’ imprinted on the brain.
The most striking — and tragic — juxtaposition is that of the observation by one of the astronauts, Collins I think, of how tranquil the Earth seemed from up there with the turbulent reality we returned to shortly after that parenthetical instant of unity embraced in ‘mankind’ — too many small steps in reverse which added up to a giant leap backward for mankind. Vietnam was not the last war fueled by territorialism, by nations believing themselves more individual bands who need to protect what’s theirs because the other guy wants to take it than one ‘mankind.’ If today’s newscast began on the moon, it ended by reporting that British and Spanish boats are still squabbling over who owns Gibraltor. And that’s the way it is.
It’s enough to make a man resort to the sentiment expressed by another local hero from Miami, Jacky Gleason: To the moon, Alice, to the moon!