On July 20, 1969, my 81-year-old grandfather was watching the moon landing on television with us at our rented vacation house in Michigan. Built in the 1920s, the house was old, the plumbing was bad, my father worried himself sick that the ancient electrical system would cause a fire, and there was no heating save a huge fireplace in the living room and a cranky old oil heater next to it — both of which came in handy on those cold July nights in the north woods. It was, however, about the only place within 300 miles of home where all 12 of us could stay in one house.
We had broken the “No TV” tradition for that year only because of the historic nature of the Apollo mission. It hardly mattered that we never brought TV to the lake. Aside from my parents belief that children belonged outside and active, in the days before cable there was no TV reception except at night and even that was not very good.
But with an eye on history, my father brought a small TV to watch Neil Armstrong on the moon. My grandfather had arrived a few days earlier — a wizened little man with the map of Ireland on his face and a twinkle in his eye. And we older children were quite interested to hear his thoughts on what must have seemed to him a miracle, hardly believable even seeing it with his own eyes — a man walking on the moon.
He was born in 1889 in Ireland, immigrating to America as a small child. The principle modes of transportation in Chicago when he was growing up were walking or the street car. If you were a little wealthier than he was, you may have had a horse and buggy. The gentry rode in grand carriages pulled by matched teams of horses.
By the turn of the century, automobiles had become more than a curiosity and began to clog the Loop. But my grandfather didn’t own a car until he was in his 30s. He was a fully grown man when commercial aviation took off in the 1930s and a grandfather by the time the first jets entered service.
And now here he was, sitting in an ancient easy chair, watching the small TV screen as we strained to see Armstrong moonwalking on live TV through the snowy, flickering picture. He began to shake his head and with a rueful grin all he could say was “Wow” over and over. He had no words to describe what his entire life experience must have been telling him was impossible. And yet, he shared in the joy and astonishment we all felt at that moment — an entire planet united in awe and wonder at what man had wrought.
Within less than the span of his lifetime, he had seen mankind make the single greatest leap of technological advancement in human history. From the 25 miles per hour a horse could gallop to the 25,000 miles per hour the Apollo craft would experience just before re-entering the earth’s atmosphere, it must have seemed almost a dream for him to realize the journey of discovery mankind had undertaken since his boyhood.
I think I understand a little of how he felt that night as we inaugurate the first African American president in American history. For those of us old enough to have lived the history of the struggle for civil rights, seeing Obama on that platform being sworn in will no doubt cause as much intellectual dislocation as watching men romp on the surface of the moon caused my grandfather.
Is it really possible we have gone from “Whites Only” drinking fountains to toasting an African American president in the White House within my own lifetime? I can easily recall the civil rights story told nightly through the grainy news film of the time. Images both unforgettable and horrifying were a nightly staple of the news. The dogs and fire hoses being let loose upon children. The beatings of demonstrators who sat stoically, knowing full well the blows were coming and refusing to fight back. And always, the dour, glowering faces of the southern authorities who resisted to the last.
The hate in those faces and so many others would have convinced anyone that it would be many generations before the majority of whites would have accepted equality, even in the abstract. And yet …
We forget how truly remarkable a nation we are. We forget the courage of those who stood up to the hate, the evil traditions, the 300 years of abominable history that saw African Americans as slaves, serfs, and second class citizens. In the end, what they did mattered. Their sacrifices were not in vain, despite the idea that at times it must have seemed the mountain was too high and the path too steep.
We didn’t realize it at the time, but they were not only carrying the hopes of a race up that Everest, they were redeeming all of us who, through neglect apathy and ignorance, had failed utterly in making the words of the Declaration of Independence come alive and actually mean something. “All men are created equal” sounded hollow indeed to someone forced to sit in the back of a bus, or stay at a “Coloreds Only” motel, or who ran into barriers in employment and education due to the color of their skin.
No, the election and inauguration of President Obama does not banish racism or discrimination from America. That happy event is still in the future. But inaugurating Obama allows us a glimpse of such a future on the distant horizon, barely discernible but now a definite form shimmering in the morning sun. And a clear path to that goal is in front of us just waiting for us to take the first step.
It is fitting that the Obama inauguration and the celebration marking Martin Luther King’s birthday would follow so closely on the heels of one another. King, as canny a politician as any in the 20th century who knew the power of television would aid him considerably in his efforts, staged his demonstrations not only to provoke the southern authorities but to bait the new medium into beaming images of American oppression around the world. Once cognizant of the damage done to our reputation as a bastion of freedom and liberty, our politicians, pressured by their shamed constituents, finally acted and passed legislation that began to reverse the centuries of hopelessness and hate that have marked relations between black and white in America since before our founding.
I did not vote for Barack Obama. But I am proud of him, proud of who and what he represents. He is, in a non-biblical sense, the Word made flesh. That Word — the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence — had gone unfulfilled (and still requires work to make whole) and unredeemed. Those Ur documents had promised much and fallen short in the delivery. The joy that most Americans feel today shortens the distance between the sacred pledge made to all Americans that we are equal before God and the law and the realization of the dream of Dr. King and the millions of our fellow citizens of color that the content of one’s character will determine the only aristocracy that matters.
The incredible dichotomy of recalling images of schoolchildren being attacked by dogs and then seeing pictures being broadcast around the world today of a black man assuming the most powerful office in the world and realizing the skein of years between the two is within my memory is almost too amazing to put into words. I’m sure my grandfather would understand if about the most coherent utterance I can make about it is “Wow.”