Moon Landing Memories
I haven't seen the C-beams glitter near the Tannhäuser Gate. Not yet, anyway. But I have seen the moon rise over the Sterntor (which translates to 'star gate') in Bonn, Germany, and I even wrote a poem about it once. Which I've lost, so you can relax.
But I've done a bit of stargazing in my time: the dreamy, not the scientific kind. I don't see well enough to be an astronomer. I see just well enough to have an overactive imagination. And the moon…well, the moon had us all going back in 1969.
It was the third week in July. Neil Armstrong had a date with history, and we had houseguests. Sort of. All week, our duo of Baptist preachers was ensconced – happily, they protested – in the Motel 6 down on Route 19. The better to be near our church. However, they took their evening meals with us, at our house, miles away. And what meals! My mom cooked her heart out, nothing ever too good for her visitors, and they ate appreciatively while we all chattered and laughed about this, that, and the other. One of the preachers, the one who was leading the singing (we had extra preachers, but we always put them to work) was an ex-military policeman who had served in Berlin, and, delighted that two of us kids knew German, trotted out his vocabulary and store of anecdotes from what had obviously been a happy time for him. And now, we were having a happy time, sharing all this.
It was the Crusade of the Americas. What's that you say? You know about the moon landing, but you've never heard of the Crusade of the Americas? Where were you? Probably not, as I was, attending revival meetings. See, the Crusade of the Americas was a hemisphere-wide Southern Baptist initiative to win converts by holding simultaneous revivals throughout the summer in North and South America. Hence the name. Simultaneous meant we were all doing it at once: you didn't have to attend more than one at a time. Which is good, because I'd have had trouble playing the piano at more than one meeting per evening.
Now, back then, we were a peaceful lot. The word 'crusade' didn't have any negative connotations. We weren't crusading against anything or anybody. We were crusading for something, which was getting everybody together to sing hymns, read the Gospel, and hear some good news. These were the days when Arthur Blessitt (that's his real name) was sharing the word from his coffeehouse, called His Place, next to a topless go-go club on Sunset Strip in Hollywood. Arthur's idea of a cool gospel song was one he came up with himself called 'God Is So Good'. It's a sort of do-it-yourself hymn, and anybody could play. It starts,
God is so good,
God is so good,
God is so good,
He's so good to me.
The next person adds a verse, like, 'He answers prayer,' and everybody sings that one. Then somebody says, 'He set me free,' and so on. A very democratic approach to music, and much in the spirit of the 60s. As was the Crusade of the Americas. Not much hype, but a lot of singing and praying going on. I was perfectly happy to be playing a part in the local revivals – always glad to thump out a hymn or two – but come Sunday, I was worried.
Sunday morning was our last meeting. But Sunday evening was the first meeting of the citywide set that was being held in Syria Mosque in downtown Pittsburgh. And I was on tenterhooks lest the astronauts step out on that planetoid while I was in there praying amongst the curlicues.
What? You're balking at my tale because of the absurdity of Southern Baptists, in Pittsburgh, meeting in Syria Mosque? What is your deal? All right, I'll explain. Syria Mosque was a 3,700-seat performance venue near the University of Pittsburgh in Oakland, Pennsylvania. It was built in 1916 as a 'temple' for the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, and was considered a fine example of 'exotic revival architecture'. Aha, you say. Evil sorcerers. Calm down, Harry Potter: never heard of the Shriners? The do-gooders in fezzes who drive clown cars for charity? They built it, and everybody used it, even TV station KDKA, that made the first-ever commercial network TV broadcast from there. Now, can I get back to my story, please?
Sunday morning came. We sang. Our preacher friend said something nice, I forget what. We had Sunday dinner (meaning lunch, but huge) at our house. Our work was over. Then our friend the ex-military policeman, my sisters and I raced downstairs to the TV. It turns out our friend was as big a NASA fan as we were. We watched, we put some of our praying skills to work, we held our collective breath, and they landed at 4:18. With thirty seconds of fuel left. We gave thanks, but now came the worry: when were they going to come out of the spacecraft? NASA Ground Control told the astronauts to take a nap. Oh, horror. We had to go to church in two hours. (Explaining to my mother that this was History was a non-starter.) What if they came out while we were in there singing/praying/being preached to? It didn't bear thinking about.
What we didn't know: they weren't napping. They were too wound up to sleep. Sure, land on the moon. I'm knackered, partner, let's grab some shuteye. Are you kidding me? So what were they doing? We wouldn't have believed it: Presbyterian Buzz Aldrin was taking Communion using a loaf and some wine that he was sharing with fellow parishioners who were back in Texas. Crusade of the Americas? How about Crusade of the Solar System? Hm, there was a lot of praying going on that day. And while I'm positive it would have bothered Madalyn Murray O'Hair, a lady I happened to like because she kept people honest, that people were doing religious things 233,000 miles away from her1, it's not really clear why it should have interfered with her enjoyment of the moon landing. Just a note for those who like trivia: if anybody asks you what were the first consumables consumed on the moon, tell them: bread and wine, which swirled slowly in one-sixth gravity. Unlike Madalyn Murray O'Hair, my mom wouldn't have minded the communion up there at all. But the wine would have offended her. I suppose NASA was wise to keep quiet about Aldrin. And Armstrong didn't say anything.
We drove to Oakland. Some of us, reluctantly. We attended the service, and for the life of me I can't tell you a word that was said. I do know that during the last hymn, I was praying for it to be over – and for Neil to be still in the LEM. Afterwards, the four of us (kids and preacher) dashed for the car. Because we couldn't say it, he did: 'Drive as fast as you can. They haven't come out yet!'
Yes, we made it home on time. Yes, the 'grownups' – by which I mean, the ones too 'mature' to get that excited – had coffee. Yes, we watched on our black-and-white television, with awe and wonder, as the miracle happened. Human beings walked on the moon. Neil said it was a small step, etc. And I felt that the Maker of that moon really, really loved us. He gave us a summer night to remember.
That same night, in another state, a smart-alecky young preacher sat arguing with a rather narrow-minded lady who insisted that Armstrong's landing spelled the End of the World. That the moon would now turn to blood. That people had no business Up There. When the landing had taken place, that smart-alecky young preacher ran outside and pointed up. 'See, Mrs Grundy? It's still there!'
That Christmas, Arthur Blessitt got inspired, and started dragging an 80-pound wooden cross from Hollywood eastwards, telling people that there was good news to be had. When he got to Pittsburgh, I went to see him at Syria Mosque. We all sang 'God Is So Good' there amongst the curlicues. That's what kind of time it was.
They've torn down Syria Mosque, and put in a car park, alas. Neil has gone on to meet the Great Astrophysicist, and Arthur Blessitt is still walking – he's clocked 41,552 (almost 42,000) miles so far, according to Guinness. I suspect he was inspired by that One Small Step, too.