Wednesday, July 20, 2016

moon landings, birthday cake, and hope

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Today is a special day - my brother's birthday. Ray and I are more than siblings. We're friends, confidantes, partners-in-crime, each other's best audience, best critic, best support, best humorist, best ear, best shoulder. In his honor, I am posting a story from my book "Leaving The Shallows", a story I wrote about his 2nd birthday. Happy Birthday bubba - I love you to the moon. And back.
It was the summer of ‘69. July 20th to be exact.
I was 5 years old. I lived in a small, safe town in a small, safe house, with my little brother Ray and with our parents, who loved and cared for us, who loved and cared for each other.

I was unaware of the tumultuous world outside, of Kennedys and assassinations and Chappaquiddick, of presidential elections and Zodiac killers, of Vietnam and civil rights, of sit-ins and bed-ins, of oil spills and invasions, of midnight cowboys or that Dorothy was dead.
I didn’t know people with darker skin were treated different from me.
I didn’t know people hurt each other. Especially not people in families.
But I did know two things: It was my brother’s second birthday. And it was a night when the world was going to change forever.

Normally we were fed and in bed early, even in the summer. But that night was different. We were going to stay up late just like the adults. And it wasn’t just for a 2 year-old’s birthday party.
The big console TV in the living room was on all day, even while we ate. We watched the screen where a bunch of men wearing headsets, white shirts and black ties sat in rows at long consoles. They stared at flickering monitors and consulted large notebooks while they drank coffee and tugged worriedly at their faces.
Now, I know they were concerned about fuel levels and oxygen levels, radio links and program alarms. Then, I thought it was the job of all adults on TV to look as stressed out as possible.
All adults - except for Walter Cronkite.
The strong voice of Walter Cronkite - “The Most Trusted Man in America” -  soothed our fears and shared our wonder as it crooned about the grainy pictures of rockets and astronauts and landing modules.
And finally, before we ate dinner, at a place called Tranquility Bay, it happened.
“Houston… The Eagle had landed.”
The men in white shirts started breathing again. They cheered and leaned back in their chairs with a sigh of relief. We all cheered and started breathing again, too. Walter Cronkite grinned, took off his glasses and was speechless.
The lunar module had landed safely. Now we were still waiting for an astronaut to open the door and do what seemed even more impossible – walk on the moon.
So we ate dinner. And then we had a party with presents and cake, and we sang Happy Birthday to a rambunctious tow-headed boy as he blew out his two candles. He licked the icing from the candles and from the plastic rocket ships on his cake.
Because when your birthday is the same day as the moon landing, a space-theme cake is a must. Especially when your mom is a cake genius with a great appreciation for occasion.
Ray played with his presents and we all ate cake as the night wore on. The kids played while the adults kept each other awake and distracted, watching the TV with nervous anticipation.
Then the adults called us over. We watched as, for the first time, live pictures were streamed to us from a heavenly body other than Earth. We tried to make out what was happening in the grainy gray pictures of a big tin can in space. We marvelled as we watched a man in a big white space suit slowly descend a ladder onto a shadowy surface.
“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Neil Armstrong put a foot on the moon. The moon that hovered just over our house that night, the night my brother turned two.
And we were right. In many ways the world was changed forever.
But in many ways, it is still as tumultuous as before.
We send men and women of all races into space, but without the awe. There is still hunger, crime, war. There are still tricky politicians and protests and polarized parties. We face many of the same old challenges while running from the new ones nipping at our heels. We are divided. We are jaded. It seems Despair waits on every corner, and Hope is in short supply.
But today - on my brother’s 49th birthday -  I will choose to think of these things:
Of our nation collectively holding its breath as we watched and celebrated history being made.
Of a TV anchor breathing a sigh of relief and wiping a tear with his audience.
Of earth men walking in space and living to tell about it.
Of staying up late to be part of something remarkable.
Of the wonder we felt, knowing that this was the start of something big.
Of a sweet little boy and a small town girl who grew up believing that anything is possible if you work hard enough.
And of our mother, who taught us that every occasion - whether it is grand as a world-changing moon landing or small as a toddler’s birthday party - is a better and more memorable occasion when you share it with loving family and good cake.

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