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Darrell Huckaby - 07/22/09

Has it really been 40 years since Walter Cronkite described Neil Armstrong's first "small step for man?" It must have, because that's what all the newspaper articles and television specials were saying all weekend.

My generation took special ownership of the space program, you know. I came along during the time when film of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev pounding his shoe on a podium and threatening to bury us was daily fare on television right in between "ooey gooey" and Popeye cartoons. The space race was our way of proving our superiority to the Russians and capitalism and democracy's superiority to communism. Raise your hand if you remember when it was OK for Americans to want our county's way of life to be superior.

We were there, eyes fixed to a tiny black and white television screen when Alan Shepherd rode that first manned capsule into outer space and we were still there when he splashed down about 15 minutes later. I was in Miss Elizabeth Willis's third grade classroom when that happened and can still remember holding up my tiny little hands and counting down from ten just before the big candle ignited. And I still love the lingo that came with the space program. Terms like "cherry picker" and "T-minus five and holding" and "liftoff" and "all systems go" became a part of our lexicon, almost overnight or so it seemed. Come to think of it the space program is probably where Officer Don Kennedy got the idea of starting Popeye cartoons by counting backward from five.

Honesty compels me to admit that, even though I pitched a fit until Mama brought some home from the store, I never did like the taste of Tang.

I was in Mrs. Betty Robertson's class when John Glenn orbited the earth. She let me stay in the room at lunch time and keep track of his progress. Her daughter, Rosemary, stayed in, too, but I was firmly convinced in my rather egotistical ten-year-old mind that her interest was more in me than John Glenn. At any rate, things didn't go well and I wound up with a face full of fudgesickle. The things we remember!

I was coming home from a basketball game at South Hall High School with Pat Floyd's mama an' 'em when I heard the news about the Apollo I disaster. Three astronauts, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee burned to death on the Cape Canaveral launch pad. That tragedy set us back a few months but it did not deter us from our mission. We weren't as easily deterred in those days.

And I remember that July day in 1969 when the Eagle finally landed. I was about to be a senior in high school, ironically, my youngest daughter is about to be a senior in high school and on that fateful Sunday my then girlfriend, Kim Puckett, and I drove to Atlanta to see a movie. It was "Goodbye Columbus" and starred Richard Benjamin and Ali McGraw. It was no "Love Story," but Ali McGraw did jump in the swimming pool naked at one point, which made it worth the drive to Buckhead on a Sunday afternoon, I suppose. (The Strand Theater didn't open on Sunday afternoons in 1969, understand, and if it did it wouldn't have been showing "Goodbye Columbus.)

I didn't see much of the movie because there was a television set behind the counter in the concession stand and I kept leaving my seat to make sure the lunar landing module was still sitting on the surface of the moon at Tranquility Base.

It was. Plus the girl selling popcorn was pretty cute herself.

I was all into watching the lunar landing module sitting on the surface of the moon even though I knew grown men and women who insisted it was sitting on the surface of the desert out in Arizona somewhere, but when Sunday night came and it was time for "Bonanza" and the LLM was still just sitting there, I began to get a little impatient.

Finally, of course, we did get to see that "one giant leap for mankind" and we were all very proud to be Americans. We had beaten the Russians to the moon, and we had proven to the world that when we all pulled together. We could do anything we set our collective mind to.

1969. What a year! It started off with a brash young quarterback, Joe Willie Namath, from Beaver Falls, Penn. and the University of Alabama guaranteeing a Super Bowl victory and delivering! And the New York Mets would win the World Series and that whole Woodstock weekend of drugs and sex and rock and roll would take place and the Vietnam War would rage on and . . .

Well, I guess you had to be there to really understand.

But on July 20, 1969, we could stand proud as a nation and throw out our chests because we had done what no other nation had been able to do. We had been to the moon because it was there.

Man, could we use a moment like that again. And now, even Walter Cronkite is gone.

Has it really been 40 years?

Darrell Huckaby is a Rockdale County author and educator. E-mail him at DHuck08@bellsouth.net.