Home again

 My family adventure of the last nine days contains three highlights: meeting my granddaughter, driving many miles, and seeing the Grand Canyon.

  1. Those of you who have met a grandchild for the first time already know what I would be describing. The rest of you might or might not understand. Either way, words fail to convey the most important moments of a voyage that lasted slightly more than two hundred hours.
  2. The voyage, from driveway to driveway, was roughly 1,900 miles, or a bit more than 3000 kilometers. We were in five states but saw license plates from 46 states (missing only Alaska, Hawaii, New Hampshire, and Vermont). We experienced open highways and construction delays. We saw spacious skies and also drove through heavy rains in northern New Mexico and Arizona. (Who ya gonna call? Drought-Busters!) We observed smoke and ash from western wildfires. Our trip included mountains and canyons, hills and valleys, prairies and deserts and conditions in between, oaks and pines and mesquite and sagebrush and cacti (clearly planted in crop rows) and corn and alfalfa. At one point we drove through the region where Apollo astronauts practiced walking on the moon. (Only on the last day of our voyage did it occur to me that, at roughly the same time fifty-two years earlier, three men spent nine days in a little metal box so they could walk for an hour or two on the surface of the moon. They had no rest stops, no restaurants, and no motels—just a long trip in a small metal box.) We saw the Hoover Dam and Area 51. I stood—not at a corner, but in a gas station—in Winslow, Arizona. We should have turned left at Albuquerque.  
  3. When we told people back home that we planned a side trip to the Grand Canyon, they assured us that we would be amazed and astounded and awed. That concerned me—when people tell me how to feel, I often feel the opposite. But viewing the Grand Canyon was memorable and impressive. Rather than merely driving there and looking around on our own, we paid to join a tour group that traveled from Flagstaff, Arizona, up to the South Rim and back. Our driver and guide was a geologist who also leads hiking and rafting tours through the Grand Canyon. He drove us to six different locations on the South Rim, giving us twenty or thirty minutes at each location to view the Canyon and explore the area, while he parked the vehicle and then met us again, sparing us much of the hassle that many tourists face in that National Park. A generous lunch was included in the package, and our guide was able to share copious information about the geology, history, flora and fauna, and significance of the Canyon and its surrounding area, including personal anecdotes and observations. He mentioned, for example, that most of the deaths at the Grand Canyon are the result of heat and dehydration, not from falls into the Canyon. The guide said that an average of five people a year die in the Grand Canyon but that there have already been ten deaths this year. (A later Internet search gave an average of twelve deaths per year at the Grand Canyon, but that statistic included aircraft crashes and drownings in the Colorado River.)

For the journey, I brought books from my long-term reading plan and also drafts of writing I hope to publish. I found little time for the latter project, but I did keep up with my reading. Ironically, before going to sleep the night after we visited the Grand Canyon, my reading included the following selection from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five: “…and Billy was flung back into his childhood. He was twelve years old, quaking as he stood with his mother and father on Bright Angel Point, at the rim of the Grand Canyon. The little human family was staring at the floor of the canyon, one mile straight down. ‘Well—’ said Billy’s father, manfully kicking a pebble into space, ‘there it is.’ They had come to this famous place by automobile. They had had seven blowouts on the way. ‘It was worth the trip,’ said Billy’s mother raptly. ‘Oh, God—was it ever worth it.’ Billy hated the canyon. He was sure that he was going to fall in. His mother touched him, and he wet his pants. There were other tourists looking down into the canyon, too, and a ranger was there to answer questions. A Frenchman who had come all the way from France asked the ranger in broken English if many people committed suicide by jumping in. ‘Yes, sir,’ said the ranger. ‘About three folks a year.’ So it goes.” J.

The dream of landing a man on the moon

When Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin walked on the moon fifty-one years ago, it appeared that the world was beginning a new Space Age. Several more teams of American astronauts returned to the moon—one team, Apollo 13, suffered from technical difficulties and had to return without landing on the moon—but since that time, the space program has not advanced as expected. Space stations were formed, and shuttle missions were launched. Computerized machines were sent all over the solar system to record information and report back to Earth. But the science fiction stories that seemed ready to change from fiction to fact did not come true. Colonies were not living on the moon by 2001. No one has gone to Mars or to any other planet. Space stations remained tiny capsules orbiting the Earth—no vast city in space has been developed to launch travelers to the moon or Mars or any other destination out there in space.

Why has space exploration faltered since the grand successes of the Apollo missions to the moon? Noble talk of exploration being worth any cost and any risk has not led to glorious deeds. Explosive growth in computer technology has been devoted almost entirely to earth-bound endeavors, especially in the areas of communication and entertainment. Competitive juices of the Cold War no longer fuel programs to open new frontiers and to go where no one has gone before. Our dreams may be as big as ever, but our investment in those dreams has dwindled.

In the 1960s, Dick Tracy communicated to headquarters with his watch and Maxwell Smart kept in radio contact through his shoe. Now most of us carry or wear devices that facilitate communication, take pictures and videos, allow access to libraries of digitized information, and permit us to play games any time and any place. Our cars cannot fly, but we can start them from inside the house and have the heat or air conditioning running while we finish getting ready to leave. We know where we are and how to get where we want to go with exact precision—precision that everyone from government agencies to advertisers can use to keep track of us all the time and to know what topics we are researching and what questions we want answered. We can buy and sell at the click of a button, and our financial information is available to us (and to many other people) any time and any place.

Our hunger for space travel was fed, not by the Apollo missions and the space shuttle, but by the Star Wars franchise and its many companion stories. Faster-than-light travel is no more possible now than when Gene Roddenberry imagined warp engines for the Enterprise. Time travel is still limited to one day at a time into the future. Meanwhile, nature has not yet been conquered on this planet: it can still hit us with a storm or an earthquake or a plague, seemingly at will.

This is the future, or at least it was the future when Neil Armstrong recited, “That’s one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind.” What now remains in our future remains to be seen. We will face more challenges; we will encounter more adventures. New technology will surprise our children as new technology surprised our parents. The tools we use today will amuse museum visitors fifty years from now. No one can guess when the human spirit will rise again to look at the stars, to explore new frontiers, or to solve the problems that stymie us today. So long as there is a future, though, we still have a chance to dream. J.

Apollo 11

How are you celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11?

I have my CD player/alarm set to wake me up tomorrow at 6:30 with Frank Sinatra singing “Fly Me to the Moon.” I wasn’t sure until this afternoon that I owned that recording—I bought a Frank Sinatra CD years ago for “My Kind of Town” and I haven’t played any other tracks from it. But tomorrow will start with the right song for the day.

When I get dressed for work (Yes, I have to work tomorrow.), I will put on a crisp white shirt, black slacks, and a black tie. Instead of my usual one ballpoint pen I will put several pens in my pocket. If I cannot dress like an astronaut to celebrate, at least I can dress like an engineer from Mission Control, and that’s good enough for me.

I will fly the American flag outside my house tomorrow. We fly the flag on sad days like Memorial Day and September 11, so it feels good to fly the flag on the anniversary of a great and joyful American accomplishment.

When I am at work, if slow times come when no one needs my attention—and Saturdays frequently have such slow times—I will be reading First on the Moon, which is a book that Little, Brown rushed to publish a few months after the Apollo 11 mission. The writers probably spent time with the astronauts, flight crew, and the families of the astronauts before and after the mission, interviewing them. They may have even been with the families during the mission—they give detailed descriptions of what the wives were wearing and how they reacted to events during the mission. I’m pretty sure my parents got this book from the Book of the Month Club back in 1970.

CNN has made a documentary movie about Apollo 11 that they are showing again tomorrow night. They showed it a few days ago, and my family and I watched it and were recording it. But thunderstorms came through the neighborhood, and we lost the satellite signal near the end of the broadcast. So we will definitely try to record the movie again, and we might even watch it tomorrow night.

Are you planning on celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11? J.

Summer of ’69

As we approach the end of the book in the World Civilizations class I teach, I invite students to name the earliest event they can remember happening that is in history books today. Students older than me frequently speak of the assassination of President Kennedy. Students of traditional college age used to mention the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, then the fall of the Berlin Wall. For several years the earliest event remembered by many students was the terrorist attack of 9-11. I discovered this summer that, for this year’s incoming freshmen, the fall of the World Trade towers is a historic event; they cannot recall the day it happened.

I remember some events from my early childhood, but the first historic events I remember took place in the summer of 1969. Chief among those events was, of course, mankind’s first visit to the moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, while a third astronaut, Mike Collins, came along for the ride but continued circling the moon during their mission. I remember sitting in the living room watching the grainy broadcast of Armstrong climbing down the ladder and setting foot on the moon. I remember hearing him say, “That’s one small step for [a] man—one giant leap for mankind.” I remember the other details of the mission as well. It pleases me that my earliest historic memory consists of good news and high accomplishments, not an assassination or attack or accidental explosion.

I remember the Chicago Cubs were doing well in the summer of 1969; they seemed destined to enter the playoffs for the first time since they lost the World Series in 1945. I remember the heat of August as they began losing more games than they were winning. I remember my father’s disgust after some of those losses. I remember the New York Mets passing the Cubs in the standings and taking their place in the playoffs. Reason to hope for success would not return to Cubs fans for another fifteen years.

I remember seeing my first hippies. They were a carful of people with long hair and brightly-colored clothes, shouting happily and waving to the little boy (me) standing by the street. I knew they were hippies. I had seen something on television about hippies and about a concert they were attending somewhere in the state of New York.

I didn’t see the documentary movie about Woodstock until I was in college. They showed Woodstock on campus, and my friends and I went into a frenzy of celebrating everything sixties and hippie-related. A few years later I found the three-disc album from the concert in a record store and bought it and played it over and over. Yet a few years later, I bought the VHS package of the documentary, watching it every August. When those tapes were wearing out, I replaced them with the DVD package released for the fortieth anniversary of Woodstock—it contains several songs that were not included in the original documentary, including performances by Jefferson Airplane and by Janis Joplin.

Some five-year-old and six-year-old children today are going to remember the summer of 2017. It will be their introduction to current events that become history. I wish they could remember successes, accomplishments, and acts of human kindness. The summer is not yet over; we still have a chance to make history. J.