No one who was alive then can forget the sights and sounds of that weekend in 1969.
The drawling voices of “Houston” guiding the lunar module gingerly into its assigned parking place on the face of the moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin floating with each step, like kids in one of those aptly named Moonwalk bounce houses now ubiquitous at children’s birthday parties. And the instantly iconic utterances: “The Eagle has landed,” and “That’s one small step for man….”
This life-altering technological event was unfolding on screens in living rooms across the land. In my family’s living room, there was something extra: The television had landed.
In my home, the weekend of the moon landing was forever known as the weekend we rented a television. Yes. Rented a television.
We had no television of our own. We were perhaps not rich enough to afford color TV at the time, but we at least could have had a small black-and-white like everyone else. But our parents, like some technological Bartleby the Scrivener, simply folded their arms at the onslaught of the television age and said: “I would prefer not to.”
So there we were in suburban New Jersey, feeling like the Beverly Hillbillies before they struck oil, able only to dream of Jeannie. Before there even was a grid, we were living off it.
The idea was that my sister, my brother and I, protected from the temptations of Hollywood and Madison Avenue, would spend our childhood reading. And read my sister did. My mother tried valiantly — O.K., annoyingly — to turn me into a young reader, and I can only imagine her embarrassment as a founder of the local library, forced to slink around with a literarily delinquent son.
My father, an amateur poet with an impeccable memory for verse, posted poems on the refrigerator door that we were supposed to memorize. After several years, I did commit to memory a large percentage of that Robert Frost poem about a snowy evening, a horse and a long commute home. Or maybe that was a metaphor.
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Our mother may have been strict, but she was creative. One rainy day, with her children likely driving her up a wall with pleas for a television, she sat us down in front of the oven and turned on the light inside. She told us to imagine the little oven window as a television and to tell her what we saw.
I think I said, “Pot roast.”
But then came the moon landing, and suddenly it felt like my family was living on Planet Earth just like the rest of America. We had a television. Well, we had one for a weekend.
It arrived one afternoon, an intruder to be viewed warily. Books and newspapers were displaced from the coffee table to make space for the television. And there it sat, rabbit ears erect, its small convex screen a window onto the forbidden world.
Of course, there were restrictions. The television was there to watch the moon landing, we were told. Period. Inevitably, we watched everything, all day and night, proving in just a few hours the addictive influence of television.
My father was particularly adept at the complex operation of the alien mechanism. Perhaps surprisingly, he had briefly earned a living as a Zenith salesman when he needed a job after getting married.
As the events of the mission unfolded, we did as the rest of our neighbors did: We pointed our antenna skyward and watched in amazement. By the time of the actual moonwalk, my brother was asleep on the couch and missing history.
But he was well rested the next morning and ready to participate in another historic event in our family: watching cartoons in our pajamas. Clearly shaped by the experiences of that weekend, my brother has had a successful career not as an astronaut but as a writer for children’s television. (For example, he wrote for “Hey Arnold!” — not “Hey Armstrong!”)
We got more history than we bargained for that weekend. In a precursor to our era of news overload, the moon landing coincided with the slowly unfolding scandal of Chappaquiddick — the drowning death of a young congressional staffer, Mary Jo Kopechne, in a car driven by Sen. Ted Kennedy, who later pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of the accident.
It was a riveting drama of another sort. The brother of a murdered president and a presidential candidate caught in a web of evasion, if not lying, about the death of a young woman.
Would Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Aldrin actually walk on the moon? Would Kennedy, facing criminal charges, possibly walk? It was three days of split-screen human feats and failings, all playing out right there in our house — on a television!
Then suddenly it was gone. The Eagle returned to the Apollo spacecraft, and our television returned to the rental store.
My father lived another 48 years in that house, to age 94, and my mother still lives there, a month shy of 93. Never again has a television appeared.
My sister, the reader, also has no television, despite her work in technology as a software administrator. My brother, the television writer, has found profit in his rebellion.
I have a television, but have been known to watch sporting events with the sound off and an open book in my lap so I can reasonably argue that I’m actually reading.
The other day, sitting with my mother in that very same living room where human and family history played out 50 years ago, I asked why we never had a television. My mother looked up from her pile of newspapers and said: “You had peculiar parents.”
And why did they break the rules for the moon landing? “We thought, ‘Oh my god, they’re going to the moon,’” she said. “We were excited. We thought it was important.”
“And you could actually see it,” she added.
Just not through your oven window.