Where Were You?

The impact of memory

By Rabbi Richard F. Address, DMin

I was trolling through the music department of Barnes & Noble a few weeks ago and finally gave in to a long-held desire. I walked out with The Essential Johnny Mathis. Okay, do not laugh. I slipped the disk into the CD player at home and for more than an hour was transported back to junior high school and high school.

Why did I do this? Why do we all do this? Maybe it was because I had just heard on the local all-news radio show some commentator reminding me of the significance of July 2009. You see, 40 years ago this month, men walked on the moon. Forty years! And you ask why I bought a Mathis CD? (I almost wrote album.) And to make things even more interesting, that same commentator remarked that it was the same 40 years since Woodstock. Forty years! No wonder that person in the mirror in the morning looks so strange. Where did he come from?

So, where were you when Armstrong jumped on the moon? July 1969? I was in England. I had just arrived to serve as an interim rabbi in a congregation that decided to use a student from the USA to bridge a year between full-time clergy. By luck, my desire to go arrived the same time as their letter looking for someone to serve. Off I went, all of 24 years and a few months. How strange it was to be in England and listen to BBC explain the moon landing. These were the days way before CNN and the Internet. So, it was BBC, the International Herald-Tribune, and lots of calls to the States. I seem to recall British TV taking the Walter Cronkite feed for a while, but for the most part, I was subject to the reporting of the British press and their take on this historic event. “Jolly good” seemed to be the most offered reaction.

Forty years. A lifetime. A generation and more. I remember the world seemed riveted to the flight and the landing and the return. How strange, 40 years later, that we seem to take it all for granted. Most of us were captivated. We could still remember when we were in grade school and heard of something called “sputnik” and then the excitement a while later, when John Glenn orbited. Remember those black-and-white TV pictures of his silver flight suit? The Twilight Zone was real!

I am sure there will be several speeches and tributes to the Apollo program this month. Rightfully so. We will remember the excitement, the pride of what we were seeing, and thinking that in some small way we were all on Apollo 11. Memory is a powerful tool. We’ll hear Armstrong’s words and think back to where we were and what we were doing. Our generation had so many of those moments, from November 22, 1963, when President Kennedy was shot, to the day in 1975 when Viet Nam fell. Assassinations and protests, political upheaval, and a sound track of music that still reverberates in our minds (and many re-issues) today.

I will leave the deep meaning of these events for others. For now, I would only like to reflect on the power of those times and the impact of memory. It is a spiritual thing, for these events really do mark the great passageways in our lives. As powerful as our own personal stories are and will continue to be, it is a strange and wonderful thing to hear or be reminded of an event and see how quickly we stop and think of where we were when we saw this event or heard this news. In that instant, we become that person and just as quickly, we overview our life and wonder, as people have for centuries, where has that time gone? Chances are that many of those memories will be wonderful, wonderful.

But then, it’s not for me to say. While you’re at it, put another few 45s on the record player!