Saturday, July 25, 2009

Memories of the (almost) end of the world

In a letter just received, my friend Mark Farrington told me his one memory of the Cuban Missile Crisis:

“I was weeks away from my third birthday. My only recollection was seeing my mother, in the basement, storing dry and canned goods in a cardboard box. We had just moved to a house in North Syracuse, NY, within two miles of the commercial airport, and a mile from Hancock Air Force Base, one of the main strategic targets of the Eastern Seaboard. Thunderbird jets would fly over all the time, their barrier-breaking sound immediately distinguishable from ordinary airplanes. Even as a very little kid, one knew enough to not stand close to any window panes during those "flyover" moments. This wasn't necessarily "traumatic" – one just got used to it.

“In the 1980s I asked Mom about the ‘cardboard box’ thing, wondering what she had been up to. ‘That was during the Cuban Missile Crisis,’ she explained. ‘We thought that would protect against radiation’.”

A potent memory – a child’s innocent glimpse of his mom’s preparations for the end of the world.

Mark asked about my own memories of the day the Cuban Missile Crisis was most threatening, October 27, 1962.

The main event, as the day began, was deciding to go to work rather than call in sick. At the time I was a journalist on the staff of a Manhattan-based weekly magazine. “Sick in what way,” I would have been asked. This would have meant explaining that all of us had a really good chance of being converted to radioactive dust before the day was over.

In my office on Madison Avenue, we did hardly any work that day. We were mainly engaged in nonstop listening to the radio. Then, late in the day, came the news that Khrushchev had announced that the Soviet government had issued an order for dismantling its Cuba-based nuclear weapons. The missiles and their warheads were to be put back in their crates and returned to the Soviet Union.

I am sure ours was far from the only office which greeted the news with applause. One of my colleagues went out and bought a bottle of wine – or was it vodka?

At the end of the day, I took the ferry back to Staten Island with a deep sense of being a survivor. No doubt everyone on the ferry boat felt the same way.

(We didn’t yet know that Kennedy had made a pledge, overruling the advice of the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, not to invade Cuba, nor did anyone beyond Kennedy’s inner circle know of the promise made to Khrushchev to pull US missiles away from the Soviet border with Turkey. The more hidden side of the story is told in Jim Douglass’s book, JFK and the Unspeakable.)

A related memory takes me back maybe a year earlier to a test of New York city’s air raid sirens. I was at the Catholic Worker, alone on the top floor of our modest three-storey building on Chrystie Street, when the sirens began shrieking. I suppose there had been a notice about the test in the newspapers, but I hadn’t been reading them and took the noise to be a summons to take shelter – nuclear missiles were on their way and would shortly be exploding.

I saw no point in taking cover and so decided to experience my last few minutes of life standing at the large plate glass window that looked out over the forlorn neighborhood we were part of. There was not a soul to be seen, not a car or truck in motion. I think I prayed – perhaps the rosary?

Then a lone man in sandals – maybe in his late 20s, lean, short-cropped beard, wearing faded dungarees and an old cotton shirt that wasn’t tucked in – strolled by, calm as a hiker in a national park, paying no attention to the sirens. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He had passed our building and was about to vanish from my line of vision when he turned his head, gazed directly at me, smiled and waved, then walked on. I was astonished. It seemed to me I had seen Jesus and Jesus had seen me. I had felt a deep calm through those few minutes, but, by the times the sirens stopped, I was light years beyond calm.

I opened a window and looked down the street to see where the man had gone, but there wasn’t a soul to be seen.

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icon: The face of Christ, possibly the oldest surviving image of Christ, is at the Monastery of Saint Catherine in the Sinai Desert.
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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The whole Earth in a prison cell

Attached is a reflection by A.O. Scott not only on the moon landing, whose 40th anniversary is six days away, but on the late Sixties.

It’s a good piece and rings bells for me, but my own take on the moon landing is a bit different than that of A.O. Scott or the other authors he quotes in his New York Times article.

Most people at the time saw the moon landing on television. In my case, I listened to it happening via a pair of low-tech earphones made available to me by the State of Wisconsin. I was in a narrow cell at Waupun State Prison.

Prison had become my temporary home due to an act of protest against the Vietnam War – I was one of 14 people who burned files of Milwaukee’s nine draft boards. Now I was in the early weeks of serving a two-year sentence – in fact one year, given the “good behavior” factor.

My new address was the sort of grim maximum-security prison you see in old James Cagney movies – tier upon tier of cells, each of them 14 bars wide, reached via steel stairways and narrow catwalks. It was a place that seemed black-and white even when seen in color.

It was perhaps more exciting to listen to the moon landing than to see the event on TV. Radio’s advantage has always been to enlist one’s own imagination for all the visual effects. I had plenty of props for my imagination already, after seeing approximately every science fiction film made in the Fifties and having read many volumes of science fiction. Lots of si-fi book covers were embedded in memory.

It was astounding to imagine human beings crossing that dry and airless sea of space, landing, then actually standing – then walking – on the Moon’s low-gravity, dusty surface.

But the main impact of the event came in the days that followed as newspapers and magazines made their way to me full of photos taken by the astronauts in the course of their journey. The whole Earth as seen by human eyes. The Earth rising like a blue marble over the airless horizon of the lifeless Moon.

Then came the biggest surprise of all: a packet from NASA arriving from one of the astronauts containing an actual 8-1/2 x 11 inch color photo of the Earth. I doubt if the photo had reached the White House much faster than it reached my prison. (The same image was to appear a few months later on the cover of National Geographic Magazine, but even there didn’t have the richness of color and detail the actual photo had.)

How did this remarkable photo come to me? There was no letter in the envelop. I could only guess.

The Milwaukee 14 trial had received a great deal of press attention, including many articles in The New York Times and later a lengthy essay in The New York Review of Books. Apparently something I had said during our trial had been read by one of the astronauts and lingered in his memory during the trip to the Moon and back. His sending me a photo of our astonishingly beautiful borderless planet was – perhaps – his way of saying thank you.

The prison administration made it difficult for me to receive the photo – it hadn’t been sent by an “authorised correspondent.” But at last it was delivered to my cell and for the rest of my time in prison it hung on the concrete wall, a kind of icon that I often contemplated: this magnificent fragment of creation that God has given us to share, and in which we are called to love and protect each other.

The giver of the photo was a longtime military officer and I was an anti-war protester locked up in a small cell in middle America. How good it was to feel the bond between us.


Addendum added six days later: I wonder if it was Neil Armstrong who sent the photo? A news item found this morning makes clear that Armstrong looks back on the Apollo program as a contribution to war prevention.

Speaking at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of his becoming the first person to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong, 78, said that he and the two other Apollo 11 crew members recognized that what for them had been a daring mission in space also may have helped reduce hostilities between the Soviet Union and the United States.

"The space race faded away," said Armstrong. "It was the ultimate peaceful competition. I'll not assert that it was a diversion which prevented a war. Nevertheless it was a diversion. It allowed both sides to take the high road with the objectives of science, learning and exploration. Eventually it provided a mechanism for engendering cooperation between former adversaries.”

When I shared this posting with Tom Cornell, he responded: "I wouldn't be surprised if it was Neil Armstrong who sent you the Earth photo. You remember that he stood next to Dorothy Day when they were among a small grouping selected from the 2,500 or so delegates in Rome attending the Third Catholic Lay Congress to receive Communion from the hand of Pope Paul VI. Armstrong, by the way, was born in Rome. When asked how that came about he replied that his mother was there at the time."

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Note: The photo I received is shown above.

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New York Times / / July 13, 2009

That One Small Step Is Still Hard to Measure

By A. O. Scott

At the end of the first chapter of John Updike’s “Rabbit Redux,” the title character, a fictional Pennsylvania everyman whose given name is Harry Angstrom, tunes in, like millions of his nonfictional fellow citizens, to watch the Moon landing on television.

Even though the Apollo 11 mission casts a long metaphorical shadow over the book, the second in what would ultimately become a quartet of novels about Rabbit, Rabbit’s experience of the epochal event of July 20, 1969, is curiously equivocal and detached.

It’s not clear what’s going on. On his parents’ television, he sees that “a man in clumsy silhouette has interposed himself among these abstract shadows and glare. An Armstrong, but not Jack. He says something about ‘steps’ that a crackle keeps Rabbit from understanding.

“Electronic letters travelling sideways spell out MAN IS ON THE MOON.”

But the true significance of those words escapes poor Rabbit. “I don’t know,” he says to his ailing mother. “I know it’s happened, but I don’t feel anything yet.”

What was he meant to feel? Was this a small step or a giant step, and in what direction? Perhaps because of the Moon landing’s hybrid nature — it was at once a science project and a media spectacle, an expression of apolitical idealism and an act of national self-assertion, a fact and a symbol — this happening was both dramatic and a bit puzzling, even opaque.

Its historical scale and cultural impact were hard, especially in the moment and its immediate aftermath, to assess. Nothing like this had ever been done before, but what did it mean? What did it change?

Like much else that took place in the summer of 1969, the Moon shot felt like both an apotheosis and an anticlimax, and perhaps, even to Americans with grander imaginations than Rabbit’s, like not much at all.

The mood of the moment, as it survives in the literary and cultural record, was Utopian and apocalyptic — yes, 1969 was the year of Woodstock and “Easy Rider” and the Manson family murders, of the Days of Rage and the Chicago 8 conspiracy trial — but also weary, anxious and confused.

For Rabbit Angstrom, the summer and early autumn of ’69 (rendered by Updike, writing a year later, in present tense) represent a period of personal and domestic chaos, of wild exploration and near catastrophe. The fracture and tumult he experiences are intimations of a wider social breakdown masquerading, at times, as a cosmic rebirth.

Rabbit, like America, emerges from the ’60s neither ruined nor transformed, but rather weary and shaken. The last word of the book is a fretful question, the kind you might hear, or ask, in the wake of a terrible accident: “O.K.?”

And Rabbit was hardly alone. Norman Mailer found himself in a similar mood. Mailer, in his journalistic fantasia “Of a Fire on the Moon,” calls himself Aquarius, but this adoption of the cosmic idiom of the counterculture is more ironic than ecstatic. Instead of standing at the threshold of a New Age, Mailer, dutifully reporting on the Apollo project from the ground, feels himself to be slouching toward a historical denouement.

As the launching date approached, “Aquarius was in a depression,” Mailer wrote, “which would not lift for the rest of the summer, a curious depression full of fevers, forebodings and a general sense that the century was done — that it had ended in the summer of 1969.”

And in the book, Mailer’s hunt for celestial metaphors comes up a bit short, as the great renegade existential explorer of American letters discovers that the conquest of space is being planned and conducted by scientists, bureaucrats and other practical-minded, down-to-earth squares.

Looking at contemporary literary and cultural responses to the Moon landing, like Mailer’s and Updike’s, you find amazement accompanied — and often trumped — by disillusionment.

In “Coming Apart,” his “informal history” of the ’60s (published in 1971), William O’Neill concludes a chapter on the space program on a downbeat, deflating note. In O’Neill’s account, the great triumph of the Apollo project was, at best, a Pyrrhic victory, the consecration of “a monument to the vanity of public men and the avarice of contractors. This made it a good symbol of the sixties.”

Maybe, but of course there was more to the ’60s — and to the space program — than hollow vanity and empty spectacle. If the meaning of the Moon landing as a singular event was hard for writers and their alter egos to discern, that may be because it had already been so thoroughly anticipated, realized in a way that mere reality could not quite match.

John F. Kennedy’s vow, at the start of the decade, to put a man on the Moon by the end had unleashed not only the ambitions of contractors and technicians, but also the imaginations of filmmakers and television writers, who exploited the visionary dimensions of Kennedy’s promise even as NASA scientists and astronauts were sweating the details.

Two examples, now canonical, stand out. The first, “Star Trek,” with its Kennedyesque “final frontier” rhetoric and its spirit of earnest, can-do liberalism, has become a staple of popular culture, so frequently parodied and reinvented that its boldness is easy to forget.

But whereas the science-fiction projections of the ’50s tended to focus on the threat of alien invasion and planetary destruction, and to give expression to a panoply of cold war fears, “Star Trek” celebrated humanism, problem solving and curiosity. Not for nothing was the starship named Enterprise.

And that starship was, above all, an allegorical space, rich with meanings and lessons and food for thought. But the wonkiness of “Star Trek,” which ended its run about six weeks after Neil Armstrong’s Moon walk, was nothing compared with the tripped-out sublimity of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” released in 1968.

In that film, the human adventure beyond Earth — to the Moon and toward Jupiter — brought about a whole new stage in the evolution of consciousness, a fulfillment, transcendence and wholesale alteration of human possibility.

Which did not quite happen when the actual lunar module touched down in the dust. Nor, for that matter, did the Woodstock music festival usher in a new age of peace, love and liberation.

The tendency, endemic to the times, toward the overhyping of singular events and the drastic heightening of expectations may have made the disappointments registered by Rabbit and Aquarius inevitable. And in the years after 1969, public and governmental support for the space program waned.

But the trip to the Moon — which was after all envisioned in 1902 by Georges Méliès, in one of earliest works of cinema — would blossom as a cultural touchstone in unexpected ways. The absence of feeling, the dearth of meaning, that accompanied the widespread awe and wonder guaranteed as much.

Popular culture abhors a vacuum, and for 40 years the empty places beyond our atmosphere have been overrun with stories, fables, parodies, franchises and expressions of pure kitsch. When Neil Armstrong’s likeness became a logo for MTV, it was less the corruption of something noble than the putting to use of an available and recognizable image, and the fulfillment of a possibility that had been there all along.

When I was in grade school, a mural in my classroom spelled out consequential dates in history: Oct. 11, 1492; July 4, 1776; and July 20, 1969, just a few years before. That, a teacher explained, was when “we walked on the Moon.”

But of course, “we” didn’t walk on the Moon. “We” were, like Rabbit and Aquarius, sitting at home, scribbling in our notebooks or, most likely, watching television while something happened to us that we are still trying to figure out.

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