The world is probably evenly divided now between those who were alive on July 20, 1969 when the Eagle landed in the Sea of Tranquility and those who weren't. I was. It was unforgettable, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think. As with 9/11, JFK's assassination, and the deaths of John Lennon and Michael Jackson, people's memories of these super-events are colored by where we were when they happened, what was going on in our own lives, and how we felt about the actual events.
Where were you?
For me, July 20 remains an important day -- not solely for the awe and accomplishment of the technological and spiritual acheivement of the moon landing -- but equally for the extreme personal impact it had on my young life.
Let's roll the time machine back four decades. It was 41-years-ago that Neil Armstrong made that little jump off the ladder from the lunar lander: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." The ghostly TV transmission had people glued to their sets around the world, blowing past barriers of nationalism and politics. And, up in the Pacific Northwest, it was also exactly 42-years-ago that I was fired from my first job. I have since been fired again, laid off, cancelled, and otherwise unemployed in a variety of ways, shapes and sizes and, as someone with great depth of experience in this area, I can tell you that Cat Stevens was correct when he wrote that oft-recorded song, "The First Cut Is the Deepest."
If you remember The Wonder Years (that great TV series set in the 1960s starring Fred Savage), it'll help you appreciate the tone of what will follow. If you're too young to recall the 60s (when the series was set) or the 80s (when the series was filmed), then you'll have to settle for this shorthand. The series told the story of Kevin, a kid growing up during the time of Vietnam, hippies, civil rights and Moon walks, all told with a gentle sense of humor. So, in this story, I'm Kevin. And Kevin's dad (Dan Lauria) had a gruff son-of-a-bitch exterior, always was pissed off, and never connected with his kids. Like my dad, Harvey, who was a high school teacher in Hillsboro, Oregon at the time. It had something to do with his being a part of the "Greatest Generation," having lived through the Great Depression and World War II. Like a lot of guys who had that experience, he was changed by it. It seems so much more understandable to me now than it did when I was a kid.
Anyway, back then, I was the youngest fry-cook in all of Washington County, having scammed my way into a job at the Arctic Circle Drive-In before I was strictly employment legal, I think, based on the fact that my older brother Alan had paved the way. It was a sweet deal -- I was making a full $1.35 an hour, up from my starting wage of $1.10 a year before. Do the math, that added up to a whole $10.80 a day and, if overtime was involved, man, that was serious bread. Of course, those burgers only cost nineteen cents, a quarter for a cheeseburger.
The boss was a tough immigrant -- a Basque from Spain -- named Mariano Bilbao and he was living (or working) the American dream. Work, work, work and, if you did that, life would be easier for your kids. His kid was just a baby, and Mariano was in full pay-the-dues mode to get ahead in time for his kid to have the good life he dreamed of.
When the schedule for the week of July 20 got posted, I got a sinking feeling because I had the night shift and, if all went according to plan, Neil Armstrong was going to be moon-walking while I was slinging burgers. At the time, I was very into the whole Moon landing, even more (if possible) than the rest of the country. I'd actually tried to mimick a Gemini capsule with a refrigerator box a few years earlier in our basement until my mom made me come up and eat dinner. Plus, Harvey, being an American history teacher, made sure we all knew that history didn't come in any bigger size than this.
So I asked Mariano if I could trade shifts with someone. No. Maybe we could have a TV in the kitchen so we could watch with every other person within ten miles of a TV? No. A radio then, just to listen to hear in real time how it went? No.
Resigned to missing it all, I accepted my fate, strapped on my apron, and went to work. Being the boss, even Mariano was at home, of course, watching the moon-walk with his wife. Back at the grill, I was going insane because there was almost no business because everyone else in town was home watching TV. About thirty minutes before Armstrong was scheduled to set foot on the lunar surface, I snapped. I called my dad and told him I wanted to come home to see the moon walk. Would he come pick me up?
There was a long pause. I waited on the other end of the phone, knowing that The Lecture was coming. About responsibility, about sticking with your decisions, about not screwing up. Instead, he said, "You know you'll be fired?"
I said I knew. I waited again. Surely The Lecture was coming now. Another beat. "I'll be right down."
So my Dad drove down to the Arctic Circle Drive-In on Baseline Street in a moment of high drama in my young life. We went back home, gathered with the rest of the family around the TV set, held our breath with everyone else and watched Armstrong's ghostly image from the Moon. It was the most exciting TV I had ever seen. Better than the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show kind of TV, if you want to know the truth. Part of the attraction was the danger. These guys might die on live TV. Or they might sink into moon dust and never be heard from again. You never knew.
When it was over, dad said we had to go back to the restaurant and I had to face the music (another way of saying, disclosure). I had done the crime, now I had to do the time. As I returned, it was clear that my co-workers had given me up to Mariano, who was there waiting for me and, man, was he pissed. He was a short guy with a fiery temper and his face was as red as I'd ever seen it.
Mariano fired me that night, as predicted. My dad told him he was missing a great worker and he was a small-minded man to not understand the importance of what was happening, and how this event had changed the world for everyone. Even teenage fry-cooks.
All I know is that my dad had never stood up for me quite like that before and never quite like that after. I remember July 20, 1969 as clearly today for turning in my greasy apron as I do for Armstrong and Aldrin doing the moonwalk. And I remember July 20 because it was also the day that my dad passed away back in 2001.
So -- that giant leap for mankind -- for me, it isn't about where I was when it happened -- but all about where I wasn't.