“This is the greatest week in the history of the world since Creation.”
No, this time it’s not the yapping gibberish of president sociopath. Although on other levels he’s a soulmate, he’ll never one-up President Richard Nixon’s statement on July 21, 1969. It was not fake news; it was the truth.
Most of us over age 60 possess lasting memories from the time Homo sapiens first left this Earth to visit another heavenly body.
July 1969 was a blur for us. It actually started in mid-June. A chat at a regional professional gathering with a person I met for the first time resulted in an interview three days later, and a job offer to move to Boston on Aug. 1.
Things were good for a young couple who just celebrated a first anniversary. We knew it was meant to be the moment an old Burlington friend announced he and his wife were returning to Vermont at the end of July, and their Newton Center apartment was available.
So the plan for the rest of July was to pack for the movers and schedule some trips to my old homestead where my parents had a (rare in those days) 21-inch GE color television to soak in the saga of Apollo 11 with the rest of humanity.
The party started Wednesday, July 16. We popped in on the parents for breakfast and witnessed the awesome Cape Kennedy launch at 9:30 along with millions of fellow Earthlings. I recall all of us sitting there, quietly reflecting on our own thoughts on what was an unimaginable challenge less than a decade earlier. Now we were anticipating a Sunday night success, described to us of course by Walter Cronkite.
Suddenly, things started to unravel midmorning the following day. While serving one of several Duty Days (part of Vermont National Guard pre-transfer service), a longtime next-door neighbor caught up with me with a phone call to a sergeant, who put me on the line. An ambulance had just left my parents’ house carrying my father who had a “spell” and I should get to Mary Fletcher Hospital as soon as possible.
What moon trip? What job in two weeks? What mover?
Real life had delivered a blow.
I reached the Mary Fletcher emergency room just as they were wheeling Dad out to another ambulance to transfer him a quarter-mile away to the DeGoesbriand Hospital, and asking me to follow. First, reaching the stretcher, I was greeted by Dad with a muted “Oh, hi, Dave” and a small smile.
Fifty-seven-year-old fathers aren’t supposed to have a stroke, to say nothing of a stroke at such an inconvenient time in the mind of an age 20-something watching July suddenly implode. I was beyond stunned and dealing with this alone. When we settled into the hospital room, the doctor told this middle sibling — younger and older ones out of state and Mom witnessing this, helpless at home, her eighth year in a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis — that this was a “bad one” and the outcome was uncertain.
At this point, Apollo 11 had exited the Earth’s hold Wednesday afternoon and was about one-third of the way to the moon with six fewer spectators on that fateful Thursday. The speed of their 238,000-mile trip seemed surreal, compared to the real-life Burlington clock, where each tick-tock felt like an hour.
Middle sibling and his thankfully calm and focused wife got the immediate family together. The neighbors, many of them friends for two decades in this built-from-scratch 16-home development, rallied especially behind Mom, who was on the cusp of 33-year widowhood. The aunts, uncles and cousins were put on high alert. Father Kerr, a future bishop, was on the scene or on call.
Dad had not regained consciousness. Brother and sister (with Mom) had gone up to the hospital after arrival on Friday. I went up later that day with the feeling that Thursday’s “Oh, hi, Dave,” were the final words I’d ever hear. This was uncharted territory immediate-family-wise. I sat in silence a while, and then slid to his side. I grabbed his shoulders, and whispered “Goodbye, Dad” in his ear.
On Saturday, the 20th, hospital discussions with doctor, middle and older siblings shifted to “not now, but when.” It was 1960s code for “pulling the plug,” and unnerving when you hear those words for the first time in real life. We sat down after that with Whitey Palmer (funeral home still there 50 years later) to discuss the arrival of “when” and joined the growing crowd at the homestead.
Apollo 11 and Walter Cronkite drifted back into our awareness, thankfully softening real life for a period. I wasn’t sure what others were thinking, but in my mind there was no way in hell Dad was going to leave us before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
Sunday was holding-your-breath day for over a billion world citizens hanging on to radios and televisions. Armstrong and Aldrin guided the lunar module to a perfect landing after Armstrong had swerved past the first choice target that was loaded with rocks.
“One small step…” saw our small family band exhale and rejoice like every other human. And privately we felt Dad had made it as well, giving us much-needed comfort and peace. For the record, Greenwich Time says it goes down as July 21, even though it was 10:56 p.m. July 20 in Burlington.
Monday the 21st in Burlington was when the doctor called and asked for “our permission.” The response was a large gulp. It was over at 9 the next morning, a time when Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were on their way back home.
For half a century now, the annual July 21 celebration reminder has put real life front and center, yet with the moon an afterthought from our perspective. However, what seemed “inconvenient” to a self-centered young adult mind had naturally evolved and slipped away with the benefit of 50 extra years of life experience.
Quest, my favorite quarterly magazine, arrived this week, coincidentally with a piece titled “Healing Tragedy and Loss.” The author, Barbra Hebert, right on time delivered the closing words that escaped me all week.
“As human beings, we tend to be self-involved. We tend to think we are the only ones who have experienced such an event. … We are human beings doing the best we can in a confusing and complicated world.”
Dave Matthews lives in Stowe. His column appears monthly. Email letters to email@example.com.