For many boomers, the moment on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on an extraterrestrial orb is indelibly etched in our memories. Those memories flooded back a little more than 43 years later at Armstrong’s passing at age 82. On AARP’s Facebook page, nearly 1,000 people posted messages about where they were when the Apollo 11 crew made history and what Armstrong and his moonwalk meant to them.
“God bless you Neil Armstrong, for your bravery,” a post from “Anita Sue” said. “I watched every second of the landing and walk,” Cheryl Rimington Criss recalled. “I cried because it was such a miracle.”
For many, Armstrong’s feat provided evidence that humanity still had the potential to achieve something positive and meaningful, to soar rather than stumble. “Landing on the Moon was one of the great things that came out of that tumultuous decade,” John Barbieri, who was about to start high school, wrote.
A generational divide
Commenters varied widely in age and perspective. Some, then in elementary school, gathered with their parents and siblings around the living-room TV set to watch the landing and then stayed up late to watch Armstrong set foot on the Moon.
Grace L. Thomas remembered being late to her violin lesson that day after lingering at home to watch the lunar module land. “Mrs. Hebert [her instructor] was not happy when Momma told her watching history being made was more important,” she wrote.
Ro Hartyep recalled that, after watching the landing on a black-and-white TV, “my dad took me out for ice cream.” Bernie Meidus-Heilpern recalled running to the door to look up in the sky, writing, “Just knowing that it was happening up there was such an awesome feeling.”
Some who huddled around the TV with their extended families were struck by how previous generations reacted. A young Chantel Hooker-Burrell, for example, was puzzled when her great-grandmother burst into tears. The older woman explained to her that “to have lived to see the day that this came true and to live to see it happen was just nothing she could ever imagine.”
But not everyone believed the moon landing was real. “My grandpa said it was a BIG hoax,” Gail Nelson recalled. “My great-aunt Lula didn’t believe they were on the Moon,” Rhonda Lynn Wise, who was seven years old at the time, recalled. “She said they were on some old vacant lot out in Watts.”
But even believers in the event feared for Armstrong’s safety. “I remember being scared that Neil Armstrong was going to sink into the Moon,” Ann Hessler Smith recalled. “Like quicksand.”
Capturing the big event
Mark Guiles, who was 11 at the time, recalled his dad being ready with his Polaroid camera and flash to snap a picture of the TV screen as Armstrong’s foot touched the Moon’s surface. “Unfortunately, what developed was a picture of the TV looking like it was turned off,” he wrote. Rowena Webb recalled that her parents’ attempt to photographically commemorate the event met with similar results. “All they got was a glare on the TV,” she wrote. (The photo ended up in the family album anyway.)
Some watched the big event in public places. Diane Horning was at the old Comiskey Park in Chicago, watching White Sox outfielder Walter “No Neck” Williams hit a single, when fireworks suddenly went off. “It took less than 10 seconds before the stadium full of people realized what had really happened,” she recalled. Then, she said, the crowd “went wild for 15 minutes.”
Josie Clark recalls July 20 both for the Moon landing and the marriage proposal she got from her husband, who was in the Air Force at the time.
Dennis Bergeron wrote that he was onboard the U.S.S. Mullinnix off the coast of Vietnam that day.
Some were parents-to-be at the time of the Moon landing. Nancy Pryor, who was nine months pregnant at the time, positioned herself in front of an air conditioner for comfort as she watched Armstrong descend the ladder. Jan Davis, who was also pregnant with a son, recalls watching on her black-and-white television, “thrilled that my children would grow up in a country where dreams could come true, if you believed and worked hard.”
And some actually knew someone involved in the event, at least tangentially. Susan Lenihan, who grew up on Long Island, knew engineers at Grumman who’d worked on the lunar module. “That made it very personal and very exciting,” she recalled.
Plus some postscripts
A handful admitted that they actually missed seeing the event. One commenter, Deb Evans, confessed that she was at the drive-in with her boyfriend, seeing Italian director Franco Zeffirelli’s racy 1968 version of “Romeo and Juliet.” Steve Sharp had a startling explanation: At the time of the TV broadcast, he was being held up at gunpoint by a robber.
Many mourned Armstrong’s passing as the end of an era of daring and bold exploration.
“So few young people understand what went into making the world they now live in,” a commenter who calls herself “Grannie Cool” said. She added, wistfully: “Rest with the angels, Neil. I hope your ashes are being sent to the Moon.”