This phrase is usually associated with the big, mostly disastrous historical events affecting each generation. For my parents, those events were the attack on Pearl Harbor and V-J Day. For my children’s generation, 9-11 will always be pivotal. For my generation, the assassination of John Kennedy brought sobering reality and haunting images to our teenage lives.
However, there are the good times as well. For my generation, the space program, culminating in the Apollo moon landings, gave us our heroes, particularly those first seven Mercury astronauts. We followed their training for years in glorious color in the pages of Life magazine. But the real stuff came to us in rather fuzzy black and white in the very early morning hours on living room television sets. We learned to understand holds and countdowns and splashdowns, and we held our breaths waiting to hear the astronaut’s voice after the silence of reentry. (Hearing the voice was about the extent of it because the communications was always so scratchy and hard to understand that it was almost unintelligible.)
When Alan Shepherd made the first flight in 1961, my mother did the extraordinary—she let me be late for school. We stood in the living room for the launch, the very, very short flight, and the splashdown, and then I ran the two blocks to my 6th grade classroom with the news. Circumstances were somewhat different for John Glenn’s flight. Because of the longer duration of the flight, maximizing daylight was important, so lift off was scheduled long before I would have been out of bed. Furthermore, the weather had to be perfect, both at Cape Canaveral and at the landing area. Mother would wake me up on the scheduled launch day, and I would groggily fall back asleep on the couch with her promise to wake me if the launch was a “go.” I don’t remember how many tries there were before the actual launch, but I do remember that day in February of 1962—fifty years ago.
I thought then that these guys were heroes, but it was later when I was an adult and snapped a picture of my two small children crowded into a life-sized replica of the capsule at a museum that I really thought about the courage they had.
I know that practically everyone has seen The Right Stuff, probably more than once, as well as Apollo 13, but if you have not had the opportunity to view the documentary When We Left Earth, you should hunt it down on Netflix or Amazon or from some other source. It is a real treasure.