During the early evening of July 20, we stood in the rustic KOA general store along with several other campers and watched the scratchy black-and-white image of Neil Armstrong stepping foot on the moon. I could only judge by the reactions of the adults in the room— and by the awe that seemed to resonate from Walter Cronkite’s voice— that maybe this was something out of the ordinary. But for me, it was really just one more weird thing that I was seeing on TV.
I was 15-years-old in 1969, and the oldest of three children. A brother and sister were two and four years younger, respectively (neither has a memory of the moon landing). The year prior, 1968, was the beginning of my transition from adolescent to young adult—when one moment a childish outlook is replaced by a mature observation, only moments later to have the process reversed. It was a year filled with a dizzying array of the some of the most sensational and tragic news stories our country has ever seen. For me, as my world view was developing, the events of 1968 were both confusing and frightening.
What became ordinary was to see images every night on the evening news of soldiers wading in waist-deep water holding their rifles above their heads, tanks rolling down dirt roads that were fringed with palm trees, straw huts on fire, all accompanied by a lot of smoke and sporadic machine-gun fire and Dan Rather’s often frantic narratives. The crawl at the bottom of the TV screen listed the number of US soldiers killed and wounded the previous day. Then, in the blink of an eye, these horrific scenes were rendered unreal by a quick transition to an Ultra-Brite toothpaste commercial or a sexy cigarette ad. This was the drumbeat that I grew accustomed to in 1968 and it happened every single night.
The drumbeat also included the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. The photo of Kennedy on the floor of the restaurant kitchen with blood pooling around his head—when just moments before he was smiling and vibrant and alive—remains vivid in my memory, and became the moment I began to understand the concept of mortality, as I realized that life and death could be separated by only a single instant.
King’s death sparked riots with towns aflame throughout the year, all televised and further etched into my consciousness. The riots—so many of them—just blurred together. The student protests, the racial protests, the political protests. So many images of police in riot gear and National Guard soldiers. It was a hopeless feeling, even for a fourteen-year-old.
Everything really seemed to come apart in August, with yet another war, this one seemingly turned on ourselves: the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. I remember being alarmed by the sight of another war, only this time in a city, not a jungle. The police and National Guard, the protesters, the fires, the Molotov cocktails. The disorder within the convention itself. I was in disbelief when my parents told me that it was happening in Chicago. I couldn’t believe there was a war in Chicago, in our own country, right now. My parents, themselves, were unnerved and could only watch in dismay as the violence unfolded.
There was so much to add to the drumbeat: the Tet Offensive. President Johnson’s announcement that he wouldn’t run for reelection. The SDS. Black Panthers. The Beatles. Hey Jude. Laugh In. Richard Nixon on Laugh In. Richard Nixon being elected president. It became a world where anything and everything could and did happen, and almost all of it was violent. The only beautiful thing I remember from 1968 was the glorious “Earthrise” photo taken from space by Apollo 8.
Nineteen-sixty-nine had its own share of drama, but 1968 will forever be engrained in my mind—so much so, that by the time I watched Neil Armstrong set his foot awkwardly on the moon’s surface on July 20, it was truly just one more weird thing.