We Have Overcome Today

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.