Reminiscing these past few weeks, veritable millions around the globe have revisited the astonishing circumstances surrounding the historic first landing of humanity on the moon, July 20, 1969.
To be sure, Wapakoneta, Ohio, the birthplace of Neil Armstrong, the man who first set foot on earth’s permanent satellite, has served as an appropriate epicenter for enthusiastic celebrations commemorating the profound events of a half-century ago. From that nearby locale, the retelling of the unforgettable drama continues to reverberate, echoing far and wide.
All would agree, unparalleled in scope, it required a massive collective effort, complete with dogged determination, illimitable skills and, perhaps most of all, boundless courage.
It ranks as one of those rare moments in life where, even a half-century later, people remember the detailed circumstances at the exact time they received the news. For all of us first witnesses, those initial radioed declarations are permanently emblazoned upon our hearts and minds: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” And “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind!”
Though immensely tragic by comparison, landing on the moon is akin to the indelible moments of President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 and the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
As a result of both heart-stopping instances, our nation was unquestionably altered in unanticipated ways. To be sure, we were united in our grief, our outrage, our confusion, our want for answers and perhaps even our hope for some measure of justice to prevail.
Fortunately, on a cherished date in between those two undeniable afflictions, many of us huddled en masse around black-and-white TV sets with family, friends or even complete strangers. We were mesmerized by the unprecedented and almost unbelievable accomplishment of placing two human beings on the moon.
With the anniversary’s approach, a steady stream of stories surfaced unearthing inspiring narratives ranging from sentimental human interest tales to previously unknown behind-the-scenes details of this mind-boggling and amazing undertaking.
Beyond comparison, we rallied around this magnificent astronomical achievement 50 years ago. We do so again, five decades later.
Truly, the human family around planet earth will forever be in need of similar events that might serve to mitigate our differences that divide, replacing them with reasons to unite. We remain in need of such unifying displays, be they to risk traveling over some quarter-million miles to mark the lunar surface with a human footprint or those inspiring feats accomplished closer to home.
To great degree, Apollo 11’s profound exploits transcended politics, economics, nationalities, religions and more. This grand exploit had a powerful gravitational pull drawing us together. It stands in stark opposition to the divisive inflamed rhetoric and vitriolic malice inhabiting so much of our “space,” much of what seems to almost catapult us into endless oblivion, distant, disconnected and alone.
The very night of the 50th anniversary, I sat in bed only to answer a phone call from a cherished friend who grew up in Putnam County and, now retired, calls Hawaii home. He revisited with me a story I’d written off that suddenly became more timely and poignant.
A highly trained linguist and Christian missionary, Dr. Paul Brennan, spent many years among the native people of a land far away called Papua, New Guinea.
In July of the summer of 1969, having flown into the Wapenamanda Airport in the Enga Province, he would climb his way to an inland region with an elevation of about 7,000 feet. The purpose was to “build bridges” by conducting a dialect survey among the province’s inhabitants.
During the two-week excursion, Paul carried a backpack containing basic medical supplies and a small transistor radio. As circumstances would have it, along the way he received enough of a signal on his radio to learn of the “one giant leap.” Upon his arrival, relationships were established and a bond and mutual understanding began to take place. On one clear and memorable night, he and his new friends sat around a fire, eating sweet potatoes and catching periodic glances at a near picture-perfect moon overhead.
Paul paused and pointed heavenward and, in their native tongue, awkwardly declared, “People have gone to the moon!” Stricken with disbelief and dumbfounded, one of the old men posed a thoughtful multiple choice question.
“Why do that? For sweet potatoes, for pigs or for women?”
A serious inquiry, Paul then grabbed a handful of dirt, sifting it through his fingers and carefully responded, “They went to study what kind of soil is there.”
Their laughter could not be contained.
Soon another man probed, “Who did this?”
Paul replied, “I don’t know, but they are part of my clan.”
Probing further, the man continued, “Are they the Lutherans or the Catholics?”
They knew only of occasional sightings of missionary planes in the skies above, and that the yellow ones were flown by Lutherans and the blue ones by the Roman Catholics. Laughter, once more, was uncontrollable as Paul chuckled, “Neither!”
On a global scale, we exist among the unifying elements of both communication and curiosity. In our discoveries among distant lands, may we continue to learn of our neighbors, and in turn, maybe we will become more fluent in the language of compassion, respect and understanding love.
Ken Pollitz moved to Ottawa in 1991 as mission-developer/pastor of New Creation Lutheran Church. His biweekly column provides insights and viewpoints from Putnam County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org