Between the Lines: Coming of Age in the Age of Rockets
Is there anything as awkward and unsure as a 15-year-old boy can be?
Ok, yeah, a 15-year-old girl, perhaps. Wait, are “boy” and “girl” still socially correct? It hasn’t changed to “pre-men” and “pre-women,” has it? I never know what’s still acceptable and what’s verboten.
Yeah, of course, not all 15-year-olds are awkward and unsure. Some seem to have it all: brains, confidence, personality, athleticism, the whole nine. If I haven’t made the point clear by now, I wasn’t among that number. Not complaining, mind, just layin’ it out there.
And, yeah, I know I wasn’t alone. For many kids, that’s a rough time.
(Cue the educational film strip, “Your Changing Body – What it Means to be a Teen.”)
Wait, no. The nuns never showed us anything like that. What, are you kiddin me? We were on our own. Actually, I wonder why the WIB (Women in Black) didn’t just cut to the chase, lower the lights and turn frame-by-frame through, “If It Feels Good, Stop or You’re Headed for Hell!”
Truth to tell, I didn’t give much thought to 15-year-old girls upon leaving 14 behind. That was, in large measure, due to my absolute certainty that they gave little to no thought of me. At that point I was better versed in Latin vocabulary and conjugations than the ways of the weaker – Oops! – I mean, opposite sex, and I failed Latin for the year my freshman year. The whole freakin’ year.
Yes, I confess, yours truly was an awkward and unsure lad of 15 in the much-ballyhooed summer of ’69, a full five decades ago. And that, Comrades, explains why my perception of the incredible, seminal (not in that way, sadly) events of that July and August as they played out passed through a lens fogged by this mid-teen male’s imperfect view of self, the world of adults and his place in it.
In case you don’t have access to the internet, television, radio or these quaint, retro objects called newspapers (except, of course, the most excellent one you’re currently reading), not only do you have my most heartfelt congratulations, you also probably haven’t heard that this month, July 2019, is the 50th anniversary of the first time humankind stepped onto a celestial body other than the one beneath our feet.
Little did I know then that yours truly, and much of the rest of the world, would be entranced by what’s undoubtedly history’s most costly and scientifically advanced public relations ploy.
The following month gives us the 50th anniversary of a less technologically driven event, one that would shape, and ultimately distort, American popular culture and the history thereof for decades. Many of the participants undoubtedly felt like they, too, left this world behind.
From time to time during me early Catholic School education, which, coincidentally, came during the early days of the “Space Race,” Sister Mary Whoever would roll a black and white television set into the classroom so all us good little boys and girls could stare, for what seemed like the length of Lent, at an absolutely motionless rocket.
Compelling it was not, but a damn sight better than reciting the multiplication tables.
Eventually the rocket would, well, rocket into space carrying one or two astronauts.
Yeah, Ok. Is it 3 o’clock yet? Don’t wanna miss “The Three Stooges.”
My skepticism eased considerably, about manned space flight, anyway, by said summer of ’69, when my inner nerd finally emerged, like a butterfly breaking free of the bounds of its chrysalis and… Sorry. Got carried away there.
Where were we? Oh, right. Anyway, I was fully emotionally and mentally invested in Apollo 11, the culmination of the Mercury, Gemini and earlier Apollo missions, all engineered to put a man on the moon.
I bought a Saturn 5 Rocket-Lunar Module model kit and assembled it, for once without gluing any fingers together. Anyone unfortunate enough to enter my orbit got the full demonstration, from liftoff to lunar landing to splashdown in the Pacific.
Couldn’t sleep a wink the night before Apollo 11 thundered into the Florida sky at 9:32 a.m. our time that July 16. My family and I were among the estimated 600 million who gathered around TV sets to be absolutely amazed with the fuzzy image of the lunar module “Eagle” touching down in the Sea of Tranquility at 3:17 p.m. on July 20.
Teenagers aren’t known for their patience, so it seemed like forrrrr-evvvv-errrrrr before Neil Armstrong finally stepped out of the LEM and climbed down the ladder to sink his thick-treaded boots in the talc-like dust as the first man on the moon. He made history just a few minutes before 10 that evening.
In spectacular fashion, the U.S. succeeded in developing and deploying the technology to keep JFK’s 1962 pledge to send a man to the moon and bring him back safely before the decade’s end. Now, 50 years later, my inner annoyingly skeptical 15-year-old says, “Yeah, so what?”
When Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon,” what he really meant was, “We choose to stick our thumb in the Soviet Union’s eye so the world would know that the Good ‘Ol’ US of A is in all ways superior to the USSR. Um, despite the Soviets’ beating us by putting an artificial satellite and a man into space first.”
Can’t say with certainty what became of my Apollo 11 model. If well-established precedent was followed, after declared bor-ring, it died a dramatic, satisfying death, blown to hell by a multitude of firecrackers taped to the damn thing.
Sic transit gloria.
That was July, ’69. August brought another iconic event that came to represent the whole decade. That is, if the whole decade was about dirty, high hippies rolling in the mud to the amplified sounds of some of the best rock musicians ever. Yes, of course I mean Woodstock, the scope and significance of which would not become clear for many years, for me, anyway.
My status as a really white white-bread Catholic kid from East Nowhere, NY ensured no trip up to Yasgur’s Farm for me. Had no idea what Woodstock was until I saw a Gabe Pressman report on Channel 4 news. Ok, there’s an interview with the producers, BS, BS and more BS. Then one of the acts took the stage.
Who the hell are these guys and why are they butchering the 1950s doo-wop standard “At the Hop?” The front man, a shirtless, pot-bellied guy in a vest, couldn’t sing for… his supper. Sha Na Na? (pre-Bowser) THAT’S what all the hoopla’s about. Really? Can we change the channel?
Barnum was right. There is a sucker born every minute.
Ah, but then some years later I chanced to view the 1970 eponymous documentary “Woodstock.”
Forget Sha Na Na. This was, um, yeah, well, you know. Wow. In-cred-a-ble.
A few takeaways;
“Ten Years After,” a British band I never heard of, just blew the crowd away with “Going Home.”
Richie Havens, drenched in sweat, lacking teeth and accompanied only by his guitar, managed to meld high energy and soul with “Freedom-Motherless Child.”
Joe Cocker must have been high as a kite, but his screeching “With a Little Help from My Friends” was oh-so-superior to The Beatles’ original version.
Oh, and breasts float.
The compelling, captivating and spellbinding vision of a voluptuous woman bathing in a pond at chest level provided fresh insight into the female form, one not touched upon, so to speak, in the copies of my Dad’s not-so-well-hidden Playboys.
Sadly, Woodstock didn’t change the world. The Vietnam war continued another six years and 1970 ushered in the “The Decade that Style Forgot.” (Remember the wedding outfits me and the missus wore in ’75? Oy.) Watergate, Three Mile Island, the Iran Hostage Crisis and – gulp –The Beatles’ breakup brought us plummeting back to earth.
Remember, Boys and Girls, 1967 gave us “The Summer of Love.” 1968 gave us President Nixon and 1969 gave us moon rocks and hard rock.
And floating breasts.
Tim Kelly is a former congressional press secretary and award-winning reporter, editor, columnist and photographer. He has lived on the North Fork for 30 years. For his mid-life crisis, he became a bagpiper.