My Turn: Summer of the moon

  • Apollo 11 astronauts wave to New Yorkers amid ticker tape and American flags during a parade up lower Broadway on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 1969. In the car from left are Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. AP

  • The crowd cheers for the Apollo 11 astronauts along Queens Boulevard in New York City on Aug. 13, 1969. From left in the car are Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins and Neil Armstrong. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 8/1/2019 10:00:24 AM
Modified: 8/1/2019 10:00:13 AM

Might be a bit late for a moon-landing story, but this is really a post-moon-landing story with a prelude.

Sunday July 20, 1969, was the last day of the Newport Folk Festival in Newport, R.I. That’s where I was, tuned in to Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters and many, many others.

My friend Jack and I had been in Newport all week, attending every festival event. For a young kid from a small town in Western New York, it was transformative. Sitting on the deck of the newly christened sloop Clearwater, listening to Pete Seeger singing and preaching and telling stories and encouraging you to get involved, you had to pay attention. You had to examine the life you were heading into and take measure of what it would accomplish. Men were on their way to the moon, there could be no limit on possibilities.

That afternoon there was a concert featuring new talent, people like James Taylor, Van Morrison and Don McLean. Not names I recognized at that moment, so I opted to skip. Instead, I sat in my car and listened to the radio, anxious ears monitoring the drama as the lunar lander descended. There was nothing to see, every image was supplied by imagination as I listened, maybe with a prayer, maybe with bit of suspense. The world seemed to go silent for a few short moments, and then Neil Armstrong radioed, “The Eagle has landed.”

“Landed,” I thought to myself. I leaned back and contemplated what it meant. But in many ways, it was impossible to fully grasp what it meant. Science fiction had just become real.

That night, at the back of Festival Field, on the roof of a VW Microbus, a small black and white television was tuned in to the moon. There, under a light rain, about 40 or 50 people huddled and watched silently in the darkness, me included. On the stage behind us, John Hartford, Jesse Fuller and The Weavers were closing out the festival. We could turn and see them, hear them, feel them in the distance. But all of us around the TV were fixed into another reality, distant but very much part of the moment.

My memory is that the summer of 1969 was three months filled with complete optimism and possibility. The future looked bright – even with Richard Nixon as president. People were walking on the moon. I was watching them in Newport while the best American folk musicians were performing on stage right behind me.

But this is a post-moon-landing story, so let’s move on to the post.

This story takes shape 3½ weeks later. Four of us set out in my Rambler station wagon heading to New York City. Trips to the city were not uncommon for us. In fact, we had been there just a few weeks earlier, completely on a whim. But this trip was planned. We were going to the ticker-tape parade for the Apollo 11 astronauts.

It was curiosity, the promise of a great event, and brushing with history, that took us to lower Broadway the morning of Aug. 13. We wanted to take part in the great American ritual of celebrating heroes. Watching on television was no longer acceptable; we needed to be there.

It was a bright, sunny morning as we headed out from our hotel for lower Manhattan. The crowd was growing when we staked out our observation point on Broadway at the edge of City Hall Park. As the time neared, the crowd became thick and movement was difficult.

Some were listening live to their radios, but you could tell when the parade had started by simply looking down Broadway.

Several blocks south the space above the street began to look like a cloud had moved in. It was the ticker tape, streamers and confetti being heaped down upon the Apollo astronauts. We could chart the parade’s progress by watching the cloud drift in our direction. And as it got closer it began to bloom with the colors of each piece of paper filling the air space between buildings. You couldn’t see the astronauts yet, but you knew they were getting closer, closer.

Watching, straining, standing as high as we could on our tip toes, we waited. And finally, specks at first, there they were – Neil, Buzz and Michael, sitting together on the back of a black convertible, cruising closer, closer, until they passed by just a few feet away from us. They seemed to glow in the sun as though light itself emitted from their bodies, their faces, their waving hands. Their smiles, their arms raised toward the sky, their eyes pulsating energy to everyone they passed. We were now all one degree of separation from being on the moon.

Eventually they appeared at a stage on the steps of city hall with Mayor John Lindsay. We cheered, for them, for what they had done, for America, for just being alive and part of this moment. I cheered as I had never done before.

I don’t remember their words, or anybody’s words, from that day. But I will never forget the moment when they passed by in the parade. The bright sun, the blue of the sky, the streams of paper filling the air, landing on them, landing on me, on everyone. For the shortest moment, I think they looked in my direction, maybe they even looked straight into my eyes and smiled, as I waved and smiled right back at them.

When it was all over, my friends and I headed to the East Village where we found a shop to buy our tickets for a music festival starting two days later. And the next day we headed off to Bethel with the glow of Apollo 11’s astronauts filling our memories.

It was just that kind of a summer.

(John Gfroerer of Concord owns a video production company based at the Capitol Center for the Arts.)

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