Through a Glass, and Darkly: Life on the Moon in 1969, and the Nature of Truth

My older brother Brian was a fanatic for the Apollo Program.

By day, he’d deliver the Lansing State Journal, and by night he’d assemble plastic Revell models of the Apollo Eleven Saturn V rocket, complete with gantry and launchpad. I was only six years old then, so let me tell you: My brothers models were awe-inspiring. Michelangelo himself never created anything so magical.

Brian also had a big black and white wall-poster of the Lunar Module, inscribed with the Volkswagen logo and the adage: “It’s Ugly, But It Gets You There”. By the time Apollo 11 blasted off in the high summer of 1969, my brother had seen 2001: A Space Odyssey an easy half-dozen times.

All these years later, it is difficult to imagine mainstream culture that celebrated with such wild abandon the technological superiority of America, and held up as heroes the scientists and he-man astronauts that took us to the moon. The visages of these men, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were everywhere, smiling, smiling, wearing their Ban-Lon shirts and zooming about in their Corvettes.

The Future was everywhere. There was very little concern in those days that we would offend anyone by putting three white guys on the moon (well, two guys, and one circling it)–no, they were Americans, and that was enough.

And there was absolutely no mention anywhere that the bugs and wildlife and environment were disturbed, either at “Cape Kennedy” — as Cape Canavaral was called in those heady day– or the surface of the moon itself. We landed there, we walked all over, leaving our footprints, dust and debris. Then, after a few hours, we left, and our Astronauts splashed down safely in the South Pacific. And the space age reached its glorious zenith. Yes, we looked to the future with relish and excited anticipation. We spent no time marinating in the false pieties and self-conscience wailing about how much America sucked.

In the summer of 1969, America was great: Live with it.

The foul 1960’s, with their eruptive violence, discordant culture and mind-boggling war, was receding into memory, giving way to a land of high-gloss white thermoplastic furniture, Tang, and digital read-out.

My brother celebrated The Future in 1969 by tucking several copies of current magazines and newspapers into a plastic garbage bag, and squirreled them surreptitiously away in the attic. And there these magazines sat, until my parents sold the house in 1990, and I retrieved them in the very nick of time, and put them with my very small collection of personal flotsam and eclectica at my first house. When I packed these boxes up when I moved north later in the 1990’s, the boxes followed me, with their unremembered contents, until, last weekend I unpacked one in search of another oddment, and were rediscovered.

There they all were, in perfectly flat, unmolested form: Newsweek Magazines, Time Magazines, Life Magazines, copies of the Detroit Free Press, Detroit News and Chicago Tribune, all from the period of July 19th thru August 8th, 1969. There, trapped in cultural amber was the High Summer of 1969. I carefully pulled out the most accessible publication from the stack: the August 8, 1969 edition of Life.

The cover was idiomatic: The ubiquitous picture of the American Flag, standing resplendent on the surface of the Moon, astronaut footprints all around so that the view looked not so much like a lunar landscape, but rather a public beach near sunset.  The “Life” monoplate was in its usual red reverse-out in the upper left corner, and the headline, similarly reversed-out of a black field next to it exclaimed “On The Moon”. The word-play was unmistakable: “Life …On the Moon”.

But, it is the contents of the magazine that tweak our sensibilities, here in these heavy after-years. I can surround myself in the misty chords of days gone by, marveling at the mailing label on the front of the magazine that displays the long-ago address of my parents home in 1969 Mid-Michigan. But, scanning the pages inside is to take a zooming trip down the worm-hole of memory,  to see just how far we have fled from those days, and at once also to see their very genesis.

LIFE magazine was criticized in its day because it contained voluminous photographs: There was too much to look at, not enough to read, you see (an interesting complaint in the Golden Age of Playboy). But, it is startling that there are two full pages (and LIFE had BIG pages) of Letters to the Editor, in what seems to be microscopic, agate-type. One was penned by a certain denizen of Hollywood, one John Wayne, thanking the Editors for a fine review in the previous issue of his latest film “True Grit”. He started his truncated epistle with “Sirs–“.

–You would expect this of The Duke. But, all of the Letters to the Editor began thus: “Sirs–“. Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkyn were still toiling away in the salt mines of Patriarchal Repression, and hadn’t yet emerged to chasten us for such assaults on gender specificity.

All in all, this particular issue of LIFE might be the Rosetta Stone which connects the smoldering ruins of the 1960’s with the soon-to-be-scorned 1970’s: It, too, has the iconic full-page VW ad, but it also has an ad for a Toyota Corolla, extolling the virtues of its latest innovation, the automatic transmission (hard to imagine the place Toyota would have in American car culture by the time the 1970’s were through, based on this one ad. An Automatic Transmission? Really? American cars have had these since the 1930’s, and the Japanese think this is some quantum leap in technology?) There is also a music review of the Newport Jazz Festival, which was desecrated that summer by the likes of Led Zeppelin, and which was clearly the antecedent of the grizzled Woodstock, which would happen a few weeks later. There are full-page cigarette ads featuring the usual cowboys and suburban prize-fighters with black eyes (“I’d rather fight than switch!”) , but which are absent the Surgeon General’s Warnings, which, evidently, didn’t mean much to a generation that stormed the beaches at Normandy, and sent brave youngsters to the moon.

Also interesting, are several sidebar editorials (that, by the way have more words in them than most entire newspapers today) that are waxing poetic about the very-recent fall of Senator Edward Kennedy, who, only the week before had strolled non-nonchalantly in a dry leisure suit through the lobby of the Shiretown Inn on Martha’s Vineyard, looking for all the world completely unaware that a young woman by the name of Mary Jo Kopechne  was suffocating in a quickly-diminishing air-pocket his Delta 98 at the bottom of a watery inlet on Chappaquiddick Island seven miles away. Yes, these editorials swooned, the days of Camelot might indeed be done, but, isn’t it a glorious thing that the Kennedy Magic can extricate Teddy from a political catastrophe, even if it couldn’t do so for Mary Jo?

At the very end of the magazine is a four-page article which features the biographies and photos of some two-dozen young British Lasses that might make a fetching and queenly bride for Prince Charles, who is pictured looking for all the world like a member of the Monkees. None of the young ladies, by the way had the last name Spencer, or Parker-Bowles.

Yes, in this one issue of LIFE stands the great divide: On the one side lay the golden-hued memories of Camelot, on the other lay the wreckage of Teddy Kennedy’s presidential ambitions (ambitions that may or may not actually have existed). On one side is the glorious moon coverage, on the other is the truncated ends of space exploration, the concentric circles of which would become so tight and earth-bound that, by 2012, we couldn’t even retrieve our own folks from a space station we funded and built. On one side lay the fresh-faced Prince Charles, world-class bachelor, on the other, a wrinkled, strange patrician whose mother STILL seems more manly. On one side lay a free, vivacious American culture that didn’t apologize for it’s swagger, on the other lay John F. Kerry’s Winter Soldiers, spitting on the American flag.

Other than the Moon Shots, though, what was the feature of that week’s LIFE? Seen from a distance of forty years, incongruously, it is on the center spread –going on for eight luxurious full-color pages– about that newly-opened residence of supreme opulence on the Potomac called The Watergate. According the photos and the text, the complex of buildings is verily a palace for the well-heeled technocrat. Maurice Stans is pictured luxuriating with his evening cocktail, Jacob Javitz is photographed swan-diving into one of the Watergate’s five swimming pools. The entire article drips of wealth and privilege, and, in true LIFE magazine tradition, the next article is about homeless, poverty-stricken folks with mental illness. …Some roots are deep, indeed, in the pop entertainments.

You scan the articles about the Watergate, and you are struck with the time-capsule quality to it all. The glitterati frozen forever in the glossy pages have no clue about the violent maelstrom about to descend upon their moated community. Soon, it will be abbreviated from THE Watergate to simply “Watergate“. And the putrid elites, such as those at LIFE Magazine will have bagged their first quarry in Richard Nixon, and the blood-lust would never thus be stanched.

There is a soulfulness, a genuineness, to be found in old magazines, such as the issue of LIFE from August 8th, 1969. In five years, to the day, Nixon would resign. You have to search the fine print of one ad that features a test-tube wielding scientist to discover it is hawking Preparation H — in contrast to its modern-day counterparts that explosively regale us with the “itching and burning, squirming and..” Also, erectile dysfunction wasn’t a topic for polite company, let alone ten pages of glorious advertizing, which we would likely see today, if anyone still read magazines.

The truth was, in the high summer of 1969, America was Great.

Stirring paeans written to the American People were published from Tokyo, and Great Britain, gloriously praising unabashedly the virtue of American greatness. And yet, here we are, forty-three years later, fighting off the most aggressive assault to this heritage that we have seen in generations. And, this is the truth of which this magazine sings, it’s plaintive strains hardly heard above the din of a pop culture that gets a kick out of hyper-urban violent chic, of homosexual stridency, of suffocating governmental dependency, of  a bullying anti-religious zeal. The last jack-blocks are about to be knocked out from under the cultural foundation, and leafing through an old magazine shows how much we have to lose when the whole thing finally topples over.

THIS is the fight of this election. It isn’t about personalities– it’s about truth, and our final destiny as a people. It’s about being able to discern truth from a fictive narrative, and about embracing it without regard to the fallout as defined by the pop culture elites.  Are we aiming for the stars, or are we content to husband what little freedom is left, passing on ever-decreasing chunks to our children and our grandchildren? It is through this glass, and darkly, that a question self-presents:

Is there LIFE on the Moon, after 2012?