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July 20, 1969

July 20, 2009

(Kathryn Pyle is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In her last post, she wrote about the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar.)

Aldrin_Apollo_11 Summer of '69, hitchhiking around Europe with a boyfriend. We'd just spent a quiet week drifting down the Loire River Valley in France, one cheap (and charming) hotel at a time, and found ourselves in a busy Barcelona packed with young American tourists like us. We located the ticket office for the boats that went to the Balearic Islands off Spain's Mediterranean coast and asked which one nobody went to. "Menorca," they said. "Nobody goes to Menorca."

The steerage section of the overnight ferry to Menorca was crowded with families, soldiers, and chickens, so we passed the time on the deck. A Spanish man our age approached us shyly and asked if we'd speak English with him. Sharing the post-midnight stillness (such as it was on that old ferry), we gradually learned about life under Franco, and by our dawn arrival in Mahon, the island's capital, we'd found out the real reason he wanted to talk: he was hungry for news of the world, something forbidden under Franco. The Spanish media was tightly controlled; our new friend had seen us reading magazines we'd brought from the States or bought in our travels. Would we give them to him?

Of course.

In appreciation, he invited us to join him and some friends at a café the next morning, July 21, to watch American astronauts land on the moon. The actual touch down was scheduled for the early morning hours, and Spanish television had decided to delay its broadcast of the historic event. We got there early, but the place was more crowded than the ferry had been, all the little tables filled and people standing along the walls and spilling out into the street. Waiters hustled around, bringing everybody what we came to recognize as the Menorcan breakfast: sections of black sausage flavored with fennel, wedges of the bracing "Mahon curado" cheese, bread, and strong coffee.

There was a huge black-and-white television suspended high above the tables and sure enough, suddenly, there was the surface of the moon -- with a man in a bulky spacesuit stepping gingerly onto its surface from an impossibly fragile ladder. We gaped upward with the rest of the awestruck crowd, taking in the sight as if it were magic, making a leap of faith the size of which I haven't experienced since. Like an eclipse of the sun, it left everyone speechless. For us: another American experience that aroused a strange mixture of pride and ambivalence.

Franco is gone, dead since 1975. Decades later, there is a fierce struggle in Spain over the historical memory of that period; over what was true and who should pay for the torture and deaths of so many people, including the great poet Lorca. Because of the efforts of people around the world, and a relative handful of persistent nongovernmental organizations (and the foundations that support them), once-immune leaders and their henchmen have been called to account in country after country, including Liberia, Sudan, and Cambodia. The International Center for Transitional Justice, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International are some of the leaders in this movement; "The Reckoning," about the creation of the International Criminal Court, is airing on PBS stations this month.

I'm thinking today about the young man on that ferry, risking arrest for possessing foreign news magazines. I wonder how he fared during those years and whether he's engaged in the continuing global debate about war crimes and justice. I hope so.

-- Kathryn Pyle

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Posted by Renee Westmoreland  |   July 20, 2009 at 10:02 AM

Thanks for sharing that memory, Kaye. First Cronkite leaves us, then Tom Watson turns back the clock for those of us of a certain age, and now the fortieth (!) anniversary of the moon landing. Not yet astonished by how quickly time flies? Just wait till the fortieth anniversary of Woodstock rolls around in a few weeks....

I was twelve and a half and living in Hudson, Ohio, on July 20, 1969. Like so many things that happened during that fateful decade -- the vicious attacks on civil rights marchers in the South, JFK's assasination and state funeral, Jack Ruby gunning down Lee Harvey Oswald, the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, the Gemini and Apollo missions, urban riots and student protests, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, the '68 Democratic convention in Chicago -- my memory of the moon landing is an idealzed version of both the actual and imagined. We all knew that, God willing, Eagle (the lunar module) was supposed to touch down on the evening of July 20, so I must have been watching television with my parents and brothers and sisters as the historic sequence of events began to unfold. I'd like to think we were watching "The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite" (even though we were a Huntley/Brinkley/NBC family), and that we heaved a sigh of relief along with Uncle Walter as he delivered the play-by-play: "Whew, boy [laughs]....There he is, there's a foot coming down the steps....So there's a foot on the moon, stepping down on the moon. If he's testing that first step, he must be stepping down on the moon at this point.... Armstrong is on the moon — Neil Armstrong, 38-year-old American, standing on the surface of the moon, on this July 20, 19 hundred and 69."

I was delivering The Cleveland Plain Dealer (a newspaper, remember those) that summer and absolutely remember the huge headline and full-color above-the-fold photo of Armstrong on the moon in the next day's edition. I'm sure I had an extra spring in my step as I delivered my papers that morning -- a beautiful one, as I recall -- and when I was finished with my route I stashed all the extra copies, maybe a dozen, in my parents' garage.

Haven't seen those copies in at least thirty years, but I've never forgotten the feeling of pride and astonishment I felt that day. It was truly an extraordinary time.

Thanks again for the post and for the wonderful reminder.

Posted by Matt  |   July 20, 2009 at 10:28 AM

I was too young to remember witnessing the moon landing. I probably was in bed already. But I recall the early 70s and the thrill of knowing men had walked on the moon recently. In 1973, after the moon landings had ceased, my family went to Florida around Christmas, and we visited the Cape. In my mind, we saw a Saturn rocket on a pad, though I'm not sure I remember it accurately. Either way, it was a time when, as a toddler, I understood that almost anything was truly possible.

Posted by Bruce Trachtenberg  |   July 20, 2009 at 10:53 AM

Since you invited us to provide comments, memories, I'll share mine. I was 17, a junior in high school, and on the SS Ryndam, somewhere in the Atlantic on our way to Southhampton, England, then France, for a summer "education" trip. Not sure how we learned of the actual landing in the middle of the ocean. But I do recall being told it had been a success. And if memory still serves me correctly, we were on deck staring up to the skies and pointing at the moon. Who knows, probably like everyone else all over the world, waving, too.

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