Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Smaller Steps

With the passing of Neil Armstrong last week, we were all reminded about the nature of true heroism. Armstrong arguably created one of the most iconic moments of the 20th century as he became the first human to set foot on the moon. Many of the commentators rightly pointed out that it was one of those moments when everyone alive on that July (20th) 1969 day knows exactly where he/she was when history happened. It's probably fair to say that everyone who wanted to se that dramatic moment made every effort to do so. Not quite.
I grew up loving the space program. In my Junior High Homeroom we all listened to Alan Shepherd's first orbit flight. I read books about satellites and knew the difference between the Jupiter C and the Vanguard missiles. Hell, I even took my plastic model of an Atlas missile and tried to launch it with a Co2 cartridge at the local park. I ate, slept and breathed space travel. By high school and college, my interest in science took a back seat to my interest in social science. The civil rights movement had a lot to do with that. Still, I would have watched the moon landing, if I could have. I couldn't. Here's why: July 20, 1969 found me in Houston, Texas the home of NASA. Irony, you bet. I was just completing my training as a VISTA Volunteer and the supervisors of the program made a conscious decision not to have trainees watch the moon landing. Many of us had been involved with the Welfare Rights movement in Houston as part of our training. We had worked with local welfare recipients to help them navigate the maize of rights and potential benefits they were legally entitled to...if they could read. Many could not. In the Houston of 1969 not everybody was enthralled with the moon landing. As the crew of Apollo 11 prepared to land, residents from Houston's 3rd 4th and 6th wards were being arrested in demonstrations designed to protest the amount of federal money allotted to the space program and defense department for it's Vietnam misadventure. The war on poverty was never a clear priority and many of Houston's underclass knew that and wanted to make a statement. VISTA supervisors did not want any of the new volunteers to be arrested. We were encouraged to be invisible anyway, but they thought that there was no margin of error on this day so they packed all 30 of us up in a big bus and gave us a beach party in Freeport, Texas on the Gulf of Mexico. By late afternoon, as we swam in the warm water under dark and darkening clouds, a hurricane warning was issued and we hightailed it back to Houston. We were so hungry when we finally reached a large Italian restaurant back in town. The program sprang for a pasta dinner and we never had much money. I recall most of us ate the butter placed on the table before the bread arrived. Nobody talked about the moon landing. We had seen nothing. We had no TVs. We were on another planet.

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