I’m a proud Long Islander. I have lived here all my life. The majority of my professional career has been spent here, and with the exception of going to college upstate, these shores have been my stomping grounds since I could stomp. I own everything about Long Island. I cringe at the reality of Amy Fisher and Joel Rifkin, shake my fist at the taxes and traffic. I take these affronts personally.
Conversely, I pound my chest with pride over the natural beauty of Jones Beach, my proximity to the absolute greatest city on the globe, and love to point out the best Long Island has to give to the world.
On July 20, 1969 the world was fixated on the greatest technological feat of the 20th Century. Two humans put their feet on the surface of our moon. Their names are etched in stone for the ages, and in a thousand years, when space might be colonized, their exploits will be lauded because they were the first to take that incredible risk.
Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins. Pioneers. Explorers. Men.
And Long Island was there in a big, big way. Without the genius of Grumman’s engineers, it is debatable if any aerospace company could have built a landing craft that could bring our astronauts to the unforgiving surface of the moon.
I know some of you may call BS on me for the following claim. I was only 1 year and 3 months old when that day came—a drooling, big-eyed kid. When it all happened, the family gathered to watch the astronauts broadcast from the moon. I was there.
And I remember it.
It sounds unreal, but I do. However, let me clarify, before you turn the page or click away to another site because you are sure I have resorted to outright lying to fill this space: I have a snippet or two lodged in my memory bank from the big moment, and it is not hearing Armstrong talk about the giant leap for mankind. I do not recall hearing “The Eagle has landed.” Here is what I do remember:
I am next to my dad on a couch. My mother is behind us with, I assume, my grandmother and aunts. They are talking. There is a grainy picture on a TV. My father is yelling at my Uncle Ed, a hippie-ish, bohemian intelligista who loved photography, to get the hell out of the way. Uncle Ed is taking pictures of the television, in case the 1 million others taken from the moon itself that day did not come out well. There is silence among the men. I can see my father staring at the image. He is in awe. The women are still yakking.
That is what I remember. Do you believe me now?
See, as incredible as it still is to me that men walked on the moon, it must have been multiplied tenfold for my parents and grandparents. My grandfather was a waist gunner in a bomber during World War II, flying in a glorified tin can with an open door, dodging bullets the size of meatball heroes. Dad remembers the marvel of the first television. I cannot fathom the wonder they must have felt watching such a thing unfold. A few months after the moon landing, I got a piece of mail addressed to me from my father. Yes, he lived at home, but he felt obliged to buy and use one of the stamps printed to commemorate the event. Throughout my childhood I read all I could about the space missions. I guess the largess of the accomplishment that day did not escape me. I read books and watched documentaries. But the coolest thing was yet to come.
In the late 1990s, while working in public relations, the firm that employed me got a great project. The HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon was about to air and there were only a couple of locations that were set for premiere events: The Smithsonian, Los Angeles, and Long Island. The organizers realized the historical significance of Long Island, and we were charged with planning an evening here to view one of the episodes.
As a low-level PR flack at the time, my job was to walk around with some of the celebs and make sure they
had what they needed, whether it was a soda or directions to the restroom.
That night I spent time with TV actor Bryan Cranston, from Breaking Bad and Malcolm in the Middle, our very own Thomas Kelly, who is known as the father and brain trust of the lunar lander, and the man himself, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. Cranston, by the way, played Aldrin in the series.
Aldrin is the second man who walked on the moon. The second man on the moon is as good as the first, in my opinion.
He is the most famous person I have ever personally met. A few years later I was at a business function that featured Armstrong, but I did not shake his hand. Plus, Aldrin was glued to my side for that night. He is a delightfully wacky character who is prone to wild, fanciful ruminations on space travel. When we were introduced, he talked to the room about the U.S. going to Mars.
He told me about the walk on the moon’s surface, his wife by his side the whole evening. He told me how cramped the spacecraft was, what the landing felt like. How the Earth looked from space. He had a crazy glint in his eye when he spoke, and packed his words with passion. He roamed the venue, shaking hands and catching up with some of the Grumman guys who got him there and back, especially the late Tom Kelly. If there was ever any doubt about Long Island’s role in that landing, it was put to rest that night. Aldrin was moved by the reunion with some of these guys, and their conversations were just fascinating. They conspired, planned and pulled off something incredible. A timeless achievement.
I may meet movie and rock stars in my life, but not one of them will be able to say their feet touched the moon. Only 24 people in the history of the world can say that. Armstrong and Aldrin were the first, with Collins drifting high above, waiting to pick his friends up so they could come home.
That day is a cornerstone of American pride, a symbol of what can be done. Take a look up in the night sky and realize the enormity and unmitigated nerve it took to do what they all did. Measure it against earthly challenges.
And then remember that we were there with them, a tiny bit of Long Island sand mixing with the dust and rubble of the scarred moon surface.
It’s hard to ignore.