Our Epitaph at 50?
On this day in 1969 the newspaper headlines spoke about a massive infantry invasion near Saigon in North Vietnam. 47 enemy combatants were killed with no American casualties. On the same day, the newspaper reported that in the days before Senator Ted Kennedy was pulled from his submerged car and Mary Jo Kopechne, age 29 drowned at Chappaquiddick Island while she was a passenger in a car being driven by the senator. The scandal would haunt him for the rest of his life.
In Bienville Parish, the school board signed off on a desegregation plan for integrating black and white schools. Along the Red River, Shreveport’s famous “shantytown” of homeless and indigent occupants was demolished. In other news, plans to implement an anti ballistic missile treaty with the Soviet Union were stalled in the midst of the height of the cold war. The world was awash with war and possible nuclear annihilation and political scandal and the churning war against the “establishment” by the hew “hippie, free love” movement. America was in turmoil! Soon, oil prices would escalate thanks to the newly formed OPEC and the economy would tank in the aftermath. One of the casualties would be the Apollo space program.
But on this day, America had landed a man on the moon. America had succeeded in putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade. We made it by 5 1/2 months!
I was 14 years old and managed to keep my eyes open long enough to watch Neil Armstrong step off the Lunar Excursion Module onto the surface of the moon at around 2 A.M central time. The dark, shadowy image on my television was difficult to discern, but the enormity of that moment was not. I have shared before how my father and I shared a love for the space program. And, the prospect of one day going into space and walking on the moon was always my greatest dream. But here, in a moment of incredible historical significance, all of the bad news of the world around me was vanquished by the deep appreciation of our combined, unified accomplishment as Americans. For a brief moment, millions of Americans put aside their differences and rejoiced in man’s ability to reach out for the unknown.
Today, fifty years later, we have not returned to the moon. We have not built the space station seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey. We have not “boldly” gone where no man has gone before. True, we have sent probes and robots to other worlds in our solar system, but we still remain a close, disjointed community of human beings striving to learn how to live together.
Today, the strident voices of disharmony and hate are still echoing across our land. The threat of Soviet nuclear annihilation has been replaced by the more sinister cold cyberwar. China no longer threatens us with nuclear weapons but with economic conquest. Our society has not recovered from the postmodern movement of the 1960’s and we, as a country, no longer embrace Transcendent Truth but have elevated our individual selves to the seat of godhood.
Shortly after the moon walk, I pondered on the condition of the world I lived in at the time. My view of the future was pessimistic. Little did I know that soon, President Nixon would be embroiled in a controversy that would lead to his resignation. True, the Vietnam War would eventually end but without a victory over the Communist regime we had fought for years. The pain and suffering of our veterans would continue for decades in the aftermath of that war but eventually, they would be exonerated and loved. I have touched the Vietnam War Memorial and nothing so tangible has ever moved me as it has.
I decided to write a poem shortly after the moon walk. Its words were simple but its message clear. In 1972, at the beginning of my senior year, my English teacher encouraged me to submit that poem to a state wide contest. To my utter dismay, I won first place in the state! Somewhere in my closet is a signed copy of a book of poetry by our state poet laureate at the time, whose name has been lost in the dustbin of history. But, my English teacher laminated a copy of the poem and the recognition of my award. This was presented to me at my high school graduation and I ran across the framed poem just last week tucked away with a dozen dust bunnies in the back of a closet.
Here is the document in its entirety.
In the annual high school poetry contest, which is statewide, the Emma Willson Emery High School Contest, 514 entries were submitted, representing high schools from all over the state.
Northwood is proud to have the first place winner, Bruce Hennigan, an English IV student. We will receive a trophy cup for our school for this honor Bruce earned. His poem is published in the booklet, Louisiana Poets, Volume III, No. 1, March – June, 1973.
The time-forgotten stretches of dust gleam dimly
In the intense sunlight.
Great craterous sores blemish the ashy skin.
Of the far-reaching desolation and spray
Reflected light in gushing brightness over the surface.
Huddled mountains and rocks stand like grinning,
Laughing gargoyles, a lonely vigil in the silence
Of vacuous space.
The pocked, gray surface stares grimly into
The star-flecked heavens, where in the distance
A silent green and blue orb, lying upon the
Black velvet of space like a rich emerald,
Rises above the pinnacle-jagged horizon
And peeps sadly at the placid terrain.
In the stillness of many shadows, a lonely
Flag stands, its red, white, and blue hues
Faded across its tattered field.
Nearby a hulk of corroded machinery
Crouches on its spidery legs,
Its many units clogged with dust and
Faded by the insistent sunlight.
On its gray-streaked side a small plaque
Bears these long-forgotten words:
“Here men from the planet Earth first set foot
upon the Moon; July, 1969 A.D.
We came in peace for all mankind.”
Battered and abraded, these lone relics of a long,
Lost civilization remain, and around about them
The eternally silent stretches of dust lie
Quietly like a shroud of death
My pessimism at the time stemmed from an America that was changing before my very eyes as it descended into political corruption and postmodernism. My fears were grounded in a world on the brink of nuclear holocaust.
I am not hopeless, however. I am an eternal optimist and my dream was that we, as a people, would overcome these times. The Soviet Union fell. Nixon resigned. The war ended. But, as a people we did not cease to change. Many of those changes were good, lasting, long in coming and reflected the true meaning of those words from the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
One of the most powerful statements of basic human rights. Our country was long in waking up to the reality of the foundation it had been built upon. No, WE were long in waking up to the true implications of such a foundation. Even today, we are still foundering when it comes to guaranteeing the basic rights of all human beings.
There is one thing that has always moved me when I recall the space program. During the Apollo 8 mission, the astronauts read from Genesis 1. Buzz Aldrin read from the Bible upon the landing of the LEM on the moon.
I fear that our future is no longer endangered by nuclear annihilation. Rather, our doom is more insidious; subtler and an infiltration our daily thoughts. We have moved into a realm of postmodern relativism and have abandoned any pretense of objective truth or objective morality. We have elevated our individual “selfies” to the level of personal godhood. We no longer look about us at those who are hurting and in need without first thinking of ourselves. Love now equals lust. Sacrifice means putting the smartphone down for a few moments. We have lost the true, grand vision of exploring a universe that teems with evidence for its Creator and in that exploration is mirrored our own desire to know Him.
I fear that this poem may still come true if we do not reverse our moral course and abandon hatred and vile language and narcissistic self worship.
What will future generations, if humanity survives, think of our space program; of our scientific accomplishments if we abandon basic humaneness? Only time will tell. And, the silent, gathering dust of the moon may be out only epitaph.
Posted on July 20, 2019, in Steel Chronicles and tagged Apollo 11, Apollo 8, Buzz Aldrin, Cold war, Desegregation, Epitaph, moon landing, Moon walk, neil armstrong, Soviet Union, Ted Kennedy, Vietnam War. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.