I remember being suddenly awake, with my father at the foot of my bed.
“Jonathan” he said, almost in a whisper “come and watch this”.
It was the middle of the night, way outside any normal television hours. Broadcasting in those days finished before midnight with the national anthem. There was certainly nothing to see after that.
But tonight was different. From my end of the corridor, I had been vaguely aware of my father’s alarm clock some quarter of an hour earlier, like a distant fire bell in the night. But somehow my mind, weaving in and out of consciousness, had failed to register it as significant.
“Wake up” my father said, a little louder, shaking me gently.
“I am awake” I croaked from dry lips and throat, blinking at my alarm clock with its unsettlingly bright radioluminescent dial and hands. Three o’clock it informed me through its usual hailstorm of beta particles. Can’t believe these things were ever legal. But that’s an aside.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
“Come with me” he said “and don’t wake your sister”.
I pulled on my dressing gown and slippers.
Mother was in the living room and the television was on. There was a smell of coffee, brewed for herself and my father. Not for me – coffee was not for 11-year-olds.
Nothing made sense.
“We’re going to watch history” said my father. My heart sank – history during school hours was one thing, its intrusion into my nights sleep quite another.
“One of the American astronauts is going to walk on the moon” he explained and, as he did so, the television picture shifted to mission control in Houston and the banks of computers that had taken the Apollo program to this point. Some seven years after President Kennedy had announced his country’s intentions to go to the moon, history was fulfilling itself. In a matter of minutes, the drama was to unfold.
“Turn it up” my mother said “I can’t hear anything”.
There were no remote controls for televisions in those days. If you wanted to adjust the volume, you got up and adjusted the control on the box itself, sat down, realised you were on the wrong channel, got up, pressed the right channel, sat down again, noticed that the screen was too dark, got up again, adjusted the brightness, sat down again, had a shower. It was an aerobic workout. And, back then, there were only three channels to choose from.
In the Stamford household, we didn’t even have colour. My father thought it a rather vulgar modern affectation, an insult if you will to the ghost of John Logie Baird. I still maintain that we were the last house in Doncaster to have colour television. Sometime in the late 70s.
“Why can’t we have a colour television?” My siblings and I repeatedly requested.
“Reg and Nina have it” he said “it just wouldn’t do”.
Reg was the bookie who lived next door. He had a colour television, the colour permanently turned up to maximum. As an accurate representation of the outside world it was a lamentable failure. But as an electrical embodiment of a Grateful Dead concert, it could not be faulted. News broadcasts were delivered by orange aliens. The horseracing became a blur of psychedelia. If Nina had been popping amphetamines, she could not have done better.
Either way, we were left to watch the complexities of snooker without benefit of colour. No one should be forced to do that. Or watch snooker at all for that matter.
But back to the moon landing.
Just as my father finally adjusted the television to his satisfaction, the hatch door on the lunar module opened. It was just about possible to make out this detail. Pictures were terribly faint, almost lacking in contrast, focus or anything approximating to clarity. I remembered grumbling to this effect and being reminded that the pictures were coming from the moon. That we should have any pictures at all was a testament to that huge bank of computers at mission control. Incredible really when you think that there is more processing power in a smart phone than there was at mission control in the 1960s. Such is the mark of progress.
There was a lot of beeping. Slowly at first, and certainly ungainly, Neil Armstrong descended the ladder, rung by rung. His spacesuit was pressurised, my father told me. If he got a hole in the spacesuit, he would explode. I remember thinking that would be pretty cool.
Then, in an instant, it was done. He leapt, as though in slow motion, from the last rung onto the surface of the moon. There was a pause. Even across the distance to the moon, you could hear the silence.
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. Or, as it was on our television,”SSShhat’sss ssswwwone sssscchmall sssshhhhtep for man, sssshhhhhone giant leap-p-p-p-p for ssshhmankind”. Equally memorable, in its own way, I’m sure you’ll agree.
And that was it. That was what it felt like to witness history.
The Apollo XI moon landing was the apotheosis of all the optimism of the 1960s, a decade when anything seemed possible. It was the fulfilment of the dream of a great American president. It was a time when America truly was great. America was led by strong thinking men who addressed their country’s inequalities head on, not cowering behind a wall. A country built on post-war immigration. A country built on hope, not fear and led by men who knew the difference between great oratory and infantile rhetoric, between promise and puffed up prejudice. As different as chalk and cheese.
Fifty years ago. It seems like a lifetime.