It was the awful summer of 1969. A continuation of the previous bad year, a protraction of bad times that would continue well into the Seventies. As a country, we were reeling from assassinations of revered figures, a war we could not win but were hell-bent on continuing. Later a President would use his version of the “Southern Strategy” to help win an election and later give permission for criminal activity to hold on to his office. In amongst, there were protests and all types of lies and deceit. I seemed to be watching our American Exceptionalism crumble before my eyes.
We staggered when the “most trusted man in America” stated that the Vietnam War was at best a stalemate and unwinnable. Watched in sorrow and wept as news of King’s and Kennedy’s assassinations and the civil unrest that followed hit the presses. Protestors at the Democratic Convention shot birds and thumbed their noses at the police in Chicago before being beaten by those same policemen.
On a lighter note, the Yippies nominated Pigesus, a live pig, for President. It was lighter until they were arrested, even Pigesus. I wonder if there was a BBQ.
In the later part of ’69, after having been covered up for over a year, we asked how My Lai could happen, weren’t we better than this? The Pentagon Papers proved we weren’t.
We cheered and shed tears watching the POW’s coming home before listening to a President shout to the cameras, “I am not a crook.” We found out over several tortuous months that he was just that.
On the home front I had lost my mother on January 1, 1969, and later in the spring when my “fancy (should have) lightly turn(ed) to thoughts of love”, my “one and forever” true love fell under the spell of another…smashing my heart flatter than a toad on a four-lane highway.
My second-semester grades had suffered as I used alcohol and chased co-eds to ease the pain of both loses…chased but rarely caught. I had barely hung on by my knawed down fingernails.
My wise father decided the best life-lesson would be a summer job with a local construction company charged with building bridges over Interstate Seventy-Seven in Charlotte. I remember the summer as being one of the more brutal of my life and can’t drive I-77 without worrying a bridge might collapse.
For a few days in July 1969, I put my personal trials away and our country, its woes. The world gazed skyward and at black and white TVs for news of hope. Apollo Eleven had lifted off and was headed to the moon. I and billions of others followed their trek with every newscast and special report.
I watched in awe and fear as the lunar module separated from the orbiter and touched down. It was late Sunday afternoon on the 20th when I heard “The Eagle Has Landed.”
Neil Armstrong wasn’t scheduled to step onto the lunar surface until well after midnight. I decided I had plenty of time to partake of an evening I usually dedicated to one last grasp at the weekend.
The Catalinas were playing at The Cellar and I’d be damned if I would let a little thing like the moon landing persuade me to stay home. All I had to look forward to were five days of ten-hour hells awaiting me in the morning. Maybe I could catch the “giant leap” on tomorrow’s late news.
I didn’t have much money but then you didn’t need much at The Cellar, a live music venue catering to college-age kids and featuring Beach Music bands. Dollar cover and twenty-five cent drafts meant I had enough to ask if my latest companion in crime wanted to go…a pretty brunette I had known for most of my life and who, despite being unwilling to be a soothing anodyne for my broken heart, would be a good time “Charlene” on the dance floor.
The crowd was raucous, the band mellow, and the beer…well, it was cheap and cold. We shagged, twisted and shouted and gave everyone the soul finger to the songs of summer and the Carolina shores. We sweated like day laborers on the unairconditioned dance floor and cooled off with a draft beer in paper cups out in the parking lot.
The one TV set located over the bar was tuned to the local CBS affiliate with a fuzzy and grainy Walter Cronkite keeping us updated. As we started to leave for home, the word spread; they were stepping out early. As if controlled by one mind, we moved to the bar, the band quit playing and the crowd became quiet. I remember putting an arm around the pretty brunette and she reciprocated with an arm around my waist. It may have been as close as we would ever come…physically or metaphorically.
We waited, speaking in whispers as Walter kept us abreast of the schedule. Finally, a little before eleven Eastern Daylight Savings Time, Neil Armstrong’s foot became visible on the lunar module’s ladder and we held our collective breaths until he had both feet planted on the lunar surface. We cheered, we jumped up and down, we kissed and hugged people we didn’t know. Hope had turned into a reality and we were so proud.
It’s funny the things I conjure in my aging brain. The sticky dance floor from too many spilled beers. The huge oak tree that sat just outside the entryway, a root sticking out of the ground that you had to navigate in order to prove you were sober enough to go inside. The press of the brunette’s hip against mine as the crowd pressed in under the one TV set. Walter Cronkite wiping tears from his eyes.
I remember feeling proud…and hopeful. I’m thankful for having been there with people I didn’t know. People celebrating the same accomplishment. The good feelings didn’t last and we as a country would continue to tailspin into Watergate. Still, it makes me hopeful today.
Despite what my former students might have thought, I’m too young to have lived through the Civil War but the Civil Rights Era and the years of ’68 and ’69, followed by Watergate were as bad as I want to remember…until now. Our present situation may be worse, or it may be because I have some wear and tear on me…no it is bad.
We need some hope from far away…or next door. We need something positive to focus on. We need something positive to pull us together, NOT another war or some catastrophe.
We need to be a POSITIVE leader in the world with positive leadership. Whether it is ending bigotry and hate or Global Warming, committing to alternative energy, or landing a man on Mars. We need to be that “city on the hill” that people want to emulate instead of the “Angry American”. We need to be the “light” that reflects off the good found in others instead of attempting to absorb their light.
The fiftieth anniversary is on Saturday. It can’t be…but it is. If The Cellar of my youth was The Cellar of today, I’d take another cute brunette and hoist one in celebration. Instead, weather permitting I’ll be outside to watch the moon rise. I’ll remember the hope I felt from far away and hoist one for the many heroes who made it all possible.
A modern rendering of the entrance to The Cellar, Charlotte, NC. Origin unknown.
Don Miller is a retired teacher and coach who writes for his own amusement. Having said that, and since I can’t live off amusement, should anyone like to purchase a book they can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM
Featured Image by Steve Penley, Moon Landing http://www.matregallery.com/penleyprints/icons
Apologies to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s for cannibalizing his quote, “In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” From the poem Locksley Hall