Sunday, August 26, 2012

Wishing upon the man in the moon

Neil Armstrong died Saturday at age 82 of complications from heart surgery. He accomplished much in his life, but will be forever remembered for being the first man to step on the moon on July 20, 1969, an event witnessed by one-fifth of the world's population on live television.

In case you do not recall, July 20, 1969, was a Sunday.

This is an important fact in my personal history. On Sundays, my family attended TWO church services, one elaborate show in the morning, and one more casual gathering in the evening, when less uptight dress prevailed and the sermons were not quite so imposing. I liked the music as played by Rosie the pianist, who was Rosie the organist in the morning. In the morning, the service was held in the big worship hall with carpets of blue, soaring heights and a choir pen. In the evening, we reverted to the church's original worship area. Folding chairs instead of pews allowed for great flexibility, and we were the choir as we sang the hymns. You could help set a tone by REQUESTING a hymn. A long, permanent partition served as backdrop for the main action. Behind this floor-to-ceiling curved wall were assorted floral arrangements and all manner of stored items, a constant delight to explore as the service cleanup took place. It was the hall we used for wedding receptions and summer Bible school gatherings. A rec room for wholesome activities.

In my most youthful youth, had I had a driver's license and been tall enough to see over the wheel, I would have been prone to skip both services and find all sorts of distractions in parks, zoos and diners. I didn't care for the preacher and I didn't care for the cliques and the fake goody two shoes. I figured once you had learned the Golden Rule, and further learned that few were obliged to follow it, you had learned enough. There was so much REPETITION, all involving guilt for things you hadn't even contemplated. There were many Sundays when I faked a stomach ache to be able to watch Shirley Temple Theater instead of listening to yet another droning sermon from someone who obviously thought he knew everything and used a pulpit to prove it. Of course, on the Sundays when I traded a "nap" on the couch for not going to church, I always promised no TV would be watched. I was sick, after all. Rest would make me better.

My punishment for watching the films was that I almost never got to see the end of the movies because to "keep" my cover story, I would have to run and turn the TV off before my parents made it out of the car and into the house -- a short walk indeed. If they ever tested the TV for heat, they never said anything. I had Shirley's scripts memorized anyway. It was the drama of the raging storms, lost parents/orphans/etc. and the dance numbers I wanted to see. Those were usually all over the by end, so not getting to see the final scenes never deterred me from wanting to see the films again. In this repetition, I found creative license and a lifelong love of movies and acting.

The week building up to July 20, 1969, brought a different obsession to me and the whole world. All anyone could talk about was the moon and the fact that three brave astronauts were rocketing their way toward it. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were going to actually land and walk on the moon -- on live TV. On Sunday night. During our church-service time. It did not cross my mind that evening church would be on our itinerary that week.

"We're going to church," my father declared. In the face of an event this large, I couldn't believe my 12-year-old ears. This was not something I would have thought my father, a World War II veteran, would have EVER wanted to miss. It was an American accomplishment. It was a breakthrough. It was all anyone could talk about. It was NEW and SHINY and it was going to be ON TV. "We're going to church," he said.

Although I don't remember my counter arguments, I'm sure they included truths such as: "It's the biggest thing ever." "It's only ONE church meeting, and it's at NIGHT, not morning church." "We've already been ONCE today, why on earth do we have to go again tonight?" "I want to see this." "Everyone else will see it." "You just watch, no one is going to go to church tonight."

It's rather easy to remember what my father said, because it was basically the same line, used over and over.

"We're going to church."

Personally, I don't know how he stood to drive to church with someone in the back seat silently pouting with such a loud attitude. Since I was used to skipping church for Shirley Temple in my younger years, this end-of-childhood life lesson was going to backfire on him, I was sure of it. We, and by we I mean me, were missing the biggest event in the history of mankind, and it was all his fault. Since I was a child, I was low person in the authority lineup. So I sulked.

As I recall, we arrived somewhat early to church, but maybe I think that because when we did arrive, there were few people and Pastor was in a state of frenetic setup activity. At the front of the old worship hall was a television set on a stand. Pastor was rushing to and fro, connecting wires, testing signals, all the while lost in preparation, holding his breath as if he stood on a precipice. He tried to look and greet his flock as members of it arrived, but he was in a RUSH. Possibly you will understand when I say he was working with the self-righteous fervor of a man writing a breaking front-page story whilst a union press crew waits, having halted the run when big-news struck.

For all I found at fault with Pastor, he was not unlike me. Pastor liked drama and magic. He was friends with Andre Kole, aka Bob Gurtler, whose kids I went to school with and whose brother went to our church. (Bob is a world-famous magician; you can look this up on the Internet now; in those days, I just had to wait for him to visit our church to know when he was home from touring or when Phoenix was his stop). Pastor liked to be in the know with BIG events. He was not a man who was never tempted by bright, shiny objects. Trying to keep his pastoral demeanor, he explained that in the light of the EXTRAORDINARY nature of tonight's moon landing, he thought it would be okay to depart from normal activities. We had shown good faith by coming, and we should get to watch together as a congregation.

Translation: Pastor didn't want to go to church that night, either.

He came up with some well-worded reasons why this would not be sinful. While trying to contain a grin while wiggling in my seat, I sneaked a smile at my father. He did not know what to say. Pastor had just upended his life lesson in the biggest possible way.

And so, Pastor rushing to wrap up his excuses BEFORE we (and by we I mean he) missed anything, we settled down to watch Neil Armstrong step onto the moon. I sat, torn between two authority figures, quietly thrilled beyond any belief.

The steps Neil Armstrong took remain indelibly etched into my mind. Watching him manipulate those huge boots down a very small ladder, seeing the effect of low gravity, watching him STEP on the lunar surface. On LIVE television. He was followed by Buzz Aldrin. There were words, beautiful words. But what I remember was the first glimpse of his boots. The anticipation felt and fulfilled by a world, a country, a space program and every child in the world. It is a time I will never forget.

Sometimes, when you wish upon a star, you find you really wished upon the man in the moon. Or one who wanted to soar with the astronauts.

Pastor didn't want to go to church the night of July 20, 1969, but, like my father, he was bound by a tradition. So, just like the fictional Captain Kirk did when he needed to pass a critical test in Star Fleet Academy, Pastor changed the rules. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong was our pastor, and he delivered a message that science, God, beauty and magic can live side by side.

Our Pastor died several years ago during open-heart surgery. Perhaps tonight he got to meet one of his earthly heroes, who passed under similar circumstances. I can imagine the thrill Pastor feels and that he is discussing how Neil helped change so much history, even the course of a certain church service on July 20, 1969.

Thank you, Neil, for everything you did. And thank you, Pastor, for sharing a love of bright, shiny objects that hang in the universe.

P.S. My father's reaction? We never spoke of it again. We both got what each of us wanted.

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