Remembering ... One Giant Leap

I teach history for a living and pride myself in keeping up with important dates - especially landmark anniversaries. For instance, on Dec. 7, I always wear my "Remember Pearl Harbor" T-shirt and absolutely refuse to ride in my wife's Toyota.

On Aug. 16 - the day Elvis died - I have a fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich and listen to "Hound Dog" and "Jailhouse Rock" all day, and I never let Nov. 22 pass without having my students find out where their parents were and what they were doing when they heard about JFK's assassination. Of course, honesty compels me to admit that more and more often, my students have to interview their grandparents because their parents hadn't been born in 1963.

I pretty much keep up with significant dates, understand. This week, however, one snuck up on me. It was a biggie, too. Wednesday, July 20, was the 35th anniversary of the day an American became the first human to set foot on the moon - or any other celestial body that we know anything about. Where were y'all when Neil Armstrong took "one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind?"

I remember where I was. I spent that Sunday afternoon at the Rhodes Theater in Atlanta, watching "Goodbye Columbus," with my high school sweetheart, Kim Puckett. I was there under duress, understand, because I wanted to stay at home and watch the moon landing. Having said that, the movie was actually pretty good and featured Ali McGraw diving into a swimming pool without her clothes on, which was pretty significant in 1969 - especially to a 17-year-old boy.

I didn't see much of the movie, however, because there was a portable television set up in the lobby and I kept feigning a stomachache so I could sneak a peek at the screen. I was fascinated, you see, with the space race and besides, the popcorn girl was a lot prettier than Kim Puckett.

To tell the truth, all I saw, other than the popcorn girl, was the lunar landing module sitting on the surface of the moon. It sat and it sat and it sat - right through "Goodbye Columbus," and right through Bonanza later that night - which really ticked me off.

Finally, however, Neil Armstrong climbed out of the landing craft, uttered his famous words, and planted Old Glory on the moon's surface, making millions of Americans very, very proud. According to urban legend, his former neighbor, Mr. Gorsky, was elated.

We had won the space race. We had defeated the Godless communists. We were No. 1, y'all.

I'm sure you are familiar with the space race. It began shortly after the Iron Curtain fell over Europe. The Soviets had promised to bury us, and we all lived in fear of atomic annihilation. And then the Russians launched Sputnik. Lord, you would have thought the end of the world was at hand. Sputnik liked to have scared us to death. We were all convinced that it carried spy cameras that could look right into our bedroom windows or atomic bombs or both. Guy Sharpe, on the 6 o'clock news, would tell us where to look in the sky at what time to see Sputnik, and when that time came everyone on our street would be out on the sidewalk, peering into the heavens.

James Vining used to look for Sputnik while wearing his boxers. The rest of the folks wore their clothes.

I'm not sure I ever actually saw the Soviet satellite, which everyone said looked like a moving star, but I claimed to because I didn't want everybody else to see something that I hadn't seen. But I did see the first U.S. space launch - at least on television.

I was in the third grade and Miss Elizabeth Willis brought a little black-and-white television set right into our classroom. She put aluminum foil on the rabbit ears and moved the set all around the room until the reception was just right - and then we sat and watched the screen. But we were still behind the Russians because while Alan Shepherd was taking a 15-minute joy ride from Cape Canaveral to the Bahamas, Soviet cosmonauts were orbiting the earth about a gazillion times. John Glenn finally made it around the globe three times, shortly after President Kennedy had promised to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

People laughed. People said, "No way." Some people insisted that the entire space program was fake. Some people claimed that the U.S. of A. had lost her edge and would never again be the world leader that we had become during World War II. But on July 20, 1969, there we were on the moon's surface.

And 31D2 decades later doubters and naysayers still claim the United States has lost some of her luster. They continue to doubt us and to sell us short and to question the motives for our actions.

Not me. I think we still have plenty of zip on our fastball. I think we are still the greatest nation on Earth. I think we are still leading the way for freedom-loving people everywhere. I am still just as proud to be an American as I was on that hot summer day back in 1969.

But I would like to know whatever happened to Kim Puckett.

Darrell Huckaby is a Newton County native and the author of six books. He lives in Rockdale County where he teaches high school history. E-mail him at DHuck08@bellsouth.net .