To The Moon And Back
Many of my favorite authors – like Annie Dillard, Mary Oliver, Tish Harrison Warren, and Wendell Berry – encourage us to look for beauty in the ordinary. Books are written about the many heroic qualities of ordinary people. We even talk about the importance of celebrating the mundane as much as we do the spectacular and extraordinary. I’ve done it myself.
Of course, that is what ordinary means – daily. A fancier word is “quotidian” but nothing works better than daily. It is what we repeat over and over again all our lives. It is the routines and seeming mundane habits that shape us silently, but finally. It is the patterns of our lives often unnoticed until our eulogy when words like faithfulness, tenacity, and integrity are used, hopefully, to sum us up.
Yet, there are times when the ordinary blinds us to the extraordinary. In Pieter Breugel the Elder’s painting “The Fall of Icarus” all the people in the scene are busily going about their normal routines and the plunge of Icarus into the sea is invisible to them. “Earth abides: the ploughman ploughs. Trading vessels go about their commercial business. Life goes on.” (John Sutherland)
W.H. Auden in his poem Musee Des Beaux Arts wrote:
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Such was the case for me fifty years ago this week.
I enlisted in the Navy in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam war. I discovered six months after enlisting that my draft number was #1 so I saved myself some time and anxiety as it turned out. As well, by enlisting I was promised the opportunity to travel and that’s one promise they kept! While I was not by any stretch a fit for the structure of the military there were benefits.
In July 1969, I was stationed in Sicily and working as a clerk in the base legal office when a rumor began spreading that the Secretary of the Navy, John Chaffee, was going to visit Sicily. After a quick visit to the base, he and his entourage were scheduled to spend a day in Taormina, a spectacular Greek city and tourist resort on the north end of the island. I lived off the base in a local town and, having been to Taormina several times, I knew the roads well. I immediately volunteered to be his driver, and to my surprise, I was given the assignment.
An Ordinary Evening
There was a caravan of cars and vans packed with admirals, ranking officers, journalists, and aides. A few had a mild interest in the history and sites of Taormina but, sadly, most were far more interested in the clubs and nightlife of the resort. By the time we had found everyone something to do that night, there was only a handful of us left in the group. Secretary Chaffee invited all of us up to his suite at the hotel overlooking the cliffs down to the sea. It was a perfect night with the moon out over the Mediterranean. Secretary Chaffee had requested a large monitor be installed in his quarters and there was some buzz going around about a big event that night. I stood in the back and waited to see what they were talking about. It was an ordinary evening in many ways and I was focused on what was uppermost in my mind – the drive back, the safety of those in the local clubs, and probably the shine on my shoes. I could have easily stepped out of the room to check.
The monitor came to life and after a burst of static on a blank screen there was the image of the lunar module on the moon but with one difference. This was not a commercial broadcast. It was a live military feed and we were getting the direct reports from the astronauts themselves. Seconds after Neil Armstrong stepped on the surface, Secretary Chaffee made a call to him and congratulated him on behalf of the Navy and the whole country. Even then, I did not fully grasp what was happening but I knew it was extraordinary and I came close to being out of the room attending to the ordinary. It may not have been a god falling from the sky but I knew I had a brush with history that night from the back of the room.
So when people said this week, “Where were you when we landed on the moon?”, I have a good memory of their Apollo’s trip to the moon and back and how I nearly missed it by being distracted by the ordinary.
Art by Pieter Breugel the Elder