Monday, July 20, 2009

40 Years Ago: The View From Two Frontiers

Forty years ago today, as a young lad working on a ranch in Missouri, a somewhat isolated place from the rest of civilization. I eagerly awaited the news from the Moon. A space program enthusiast (nut), I knew everything there was to be known about the Apollo program, the astronauts, the capsule, the big Saturn booster that launched them, etc. My imagination was on the high frontier; my job was on the old one.

The day took an ugly turn when one of the cows had trouble giving birth. We knew she was missing and found her near the woods that bordered the river which served as the boundary for much of the ranch. She was in bad shape. There was no time to waste on calling for a vet, so we all got involved in assisting with her delivery which, if you are curious, is to reach in and grab the front hooves and head of the calf and pull like crazy.

It's not pretty and it wasn't fun, but we managed to get the calf out. Alive.

But the cow refused to get up. She lay on her side, which is a very bad thing for cows to do, and nothing we did changed her mind. There were four of us attempting to rock the poor thing onto her stomach, but she fought our efforts and even in her weakened condition was more powerful.

Suddenly she gave out a large, mournful moan and gave up the ghost. "She's gone!" the owner, my uncle, said. "Boys, she's gone!" I remember the shock in his voice.

His next order was that we should bury the cow.

That turned into several hours of hard shovel work even in the soft earth of the river valley, and darkness was well underway by the time we had finished our labor by kerosene lantern. That meant no dinner; the house was about a mile away. As the last shovelful of dirt was tamped in, my uncle arrived with the truck and told us to hurry: Dinner was waiting and the astronauts were about to walk on the Moon! The cow was now six feet under, but there were amazing events taking place 240,000 miles above us!

Back at the house, we cleaned up and ate our dinner with excitement as we watched the grainy images on the television, the ponderous voices of the news announcers telling us what was happening, the historic importance of the event, the dangers being heroically faced, and so forth.

Finally -- in my memory it seems like forever -- we saw Neil Armstrong step out on that ladder and plant his footprint on the lunar source. "A small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind!" he said. This got replayed over and over. Around the kitchen table the former burial detail now concerned itself with whether Armstrong's words were his own or some NASA public relations writer. We eventually concluded that it didn't matter now that it had gone out to everyone on Earth with a TV set. The words would forever be his.

Our scientific reverie was finally broken when my uncle asked for volunteers to stay with the newborn calf in the only safe, fenced area he thought would work: a small family cemetery a couple of hundred feet from the house. He was worried about wolves or coyotes attacking the defenseless animal.

Did I say volunteer? To this day I'm not sure how I would up with this duty, but there I went, with a flashlight and a bedroll, to ward off any beasties that might be hungry for veal. I made my bed among the headstones of relatives who, if they were aware of my presence, probably heartily concurred in its frontier wisdom. If not, they chose to remain quiet about it.

For a time I listened to the calf's occasional sad bleating for its mother, while I watched the heavens revolve above me, my mind still captivated by the potential for human space flight as I replayed the first walk on the Moon. I was engaged in one of mankind's oldest occupations, but I dreamed of someday rocketing into space to help explore the universe.

The disappointment over the years of our national unwillingness to go back to the Moon, or to farther than the Moon with human beings, has never subsided. Somewhere along the way we crossed a pivot point where it was just too scary, too dangerous, to risk human lives, and this occurred before the Challenger accident in 1986. That event only solidified the opposition to taking risks.

I do not believe we will ever go back to the moon. Or send a mission to Mars. At least, it won't be a United States mission. The national capacity for imagination has atrophied to the point where people consider themselves a cosmic success if they wind up featured on Youtube. Security and entertainment is the highest social value, which is why we can find sizable pluralities for universal health care and climate change initiatives, as long as someone on high -- meaning Washington -- is promising that "the rich" will pay for it. There isn't even a demand for the old frontier anymore. Westerns are out of style. The thought of pioneering freezes the blood of the typical American male in 2009.

The only gunfights he is interested in are on Playstation or XBox 360, and these will be against aliens on some world in space that he has no desire to actual visit.

So sad. We have turned into a nation of vicarious worshipers of culture, with lots of opinions and no actual courage to back them up.

My life has come a long way since that day 40 years ago, but there are times when I long for the sheer simplicity and wonder of it; when the possibilities of the future were seemingly limitless and I actually thought that the rest of my countrymen cared about something other than themselves.

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