The arrant thief, giver of memories

The summers of my youth were intense rites of watching minor league ball games with my grandfather, bare-backed horses, swimming, crackling buzzing nights with chess pieces and a short-wave radio over the sound of distant trains.  Summers were given to running, brown and busy, with hardly a sense of time.

In the blazing summer of ’69 these my rites were interrupted.  I ceased scraping my knees for a few days and gave myself mind and imagination to the black and white console TV in my grandparents’ Montana living room.

During the earlier Gemini and Apollo missions I was a fanatic acolyte of NASA.  With each launch I rushed home from school to see what might be going on.  I slept on the couch with the TV on, deeply annoyed with simulations.  I knew the tag names of each spacecraft, the astronauts, what they did on the missions.  I built models of the Mercury and Gemini capsules. The Gemini capsule had little astronauts who could come out of their seats for space walks.  I used the precise term, of course: Extra-Vehicular Activity.

As the day of the big launch approached, I biked to a store across town on my green sting-ray with the taped over cracked white seat in search of a thing sublime.  At last I bought that big box, that grail, that model kit of the Apollo.

Apollo 11.

Within the Sacred Carton, barely to be balanced on the handle bars, there were arrayed in webs of parts and pieces the Command and Service Modules, a Lunar Module or “LEM” with retractable legs, and the housing for the same.  I worked and worked on that model.  I cut and trimmed and glued.  I painted and applied the decals.  I followed every rubric, intoned all the directions. No piece was excluded in impious haste.  I scrounged a map of the Moon, even a little Moon globe.  The secrets of why one side was dark were revealed. Why she waxed and waned were not hidden from me.  I knew where the Mar tranquillitatis was, and even what it was.

Columbia and Eagle.

Men were going to go to, orbit, land on, walk upon the surface of the Moon.

It was time empyrean.

When the actual landing took place, I was there.  During the walk there was no move, no shadowy lunar suggestion I didn’t see or crackle I didn’t strain for.

But true acolyte as I was, I was eventually impelled outside.  I had to see it happening, face to face.

It was July, hot, still.  The stars glittered and the Moon gazed back, silver white and gray.  Everywhere there echoed the same broadcast sounds.  The block synchronized with the same flashes and flickers from every living room.  No leaf moved in distraction … and it wasn’t science fiction.

Men were up there walking.

Forty years ago.

Shakespeare called our Moon an arrant thief.  Year in and year out she may snatch her pale fire from the sun, but in that young summer she bestowed on me bright memories.

It was an age – a closing age as it turns out – when browned kids ran free in their own games.  We dashed through yards and houses were not locked.  No sprinkler was unchallenged and every tree held out an invitation.

I remember my grandparents and that summer.  I remember a summer without sunscreen when it was still right to be just a boy.  I was nine, simply into everything, and men walked on the Moon.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Mr. H. says:

    Fr Z.

    Beautiful post. Childhood days are a wonderful thing.

    I was 7 months old, but my mom says she propped me up in front of the TV so I could watch the moon landing.

    Mr. H

  2. vexilla regis says:

    Reverend & Dear FatherZ,
    Truly a beautiful post, I agree with Mr.H. I was 29 yrs old then and working in a Bank in suburban Sydney – it was daytime for us. You evoked those happy times and the joys of boyhood brilliantly. BTW My wife and I arrive in London on 18th August at the beginning of a trip which will end in Rome in late September. Sorry to miss the Blognic.Perhaps we will call in at the HaHa Bar just to tread the territory hallowed by the presence of yourself and Fr.Finigan,AFTER paying a visit to the Cathedral of course!

  3. Paul the Other says:

    I too was nine when men first walked on the moon. I too was a “fanatic acolyte of NASA”. I remember a national gasoline service station offered a free die-cut sheet of paper with a fill-up that you could punch out the pieces and assemble them into a lunar module. I had them hanging all over my room. And I’ll never forget watching Armstrong’s “One small step for a man…one giant leap for mankind” with my family.

    Thanks for the post, Father.

  4. Christopher says:

    Gorgeous. Thank you.

  5. RJSciurus says:

    Thank you for this. I was nearly two years your senior. My models were in my room along with my posters. I sat on the floor in front of the tv, somehow thinking this would get me closer to the action. The only other time I sat on the floor in front of the tv was for Nixon’s resignation. I remember worrying when Neil Armstrong had to move the LEM from where the computer wanted them to land as they were running out of fuel. And then it seemed like forever between landing and the first walk. And Walter Cronkite, RIP, was there calling the play by play.

    What an incredible time to be a boy. Not yet old enough to really understand Vietnam, the civil rights movement, social unrest and the days following Vatican II. It was simply a time to countdown to launch, to follow CapCom like a ballgame, to dream of flying among the stars, to follow them home to splashdown and then start the countdown to the next mission.

  6. Tom A. says:

    I too was 10 yrs old that summer. I remember feeling extremely cheated a few years later when it was announced that there would be no more trips to the moon. I did not understand why, but deep down knew it was not right for us to abandon our instinct to explore. Much was lost in the 70’s.

  7. bear-i-tone says:

    I was too young to remember the first moon landing, but I remember the later ones quite well. My brother and I got a hold of an old refrigerator carton, and that was our Saturn V, and for hours we lay on our backs as our rocket blasted us to the moon and beyond. I remember when every young boy dreamed of being a fireman or an astronaut, of being heroes who could bask in the light of an honest glory.

  8. Woody Jones says:

    It was on that day that I arrived at Cam Ranh Bay in the late Republic; I recall that they had the transmitted radio broadcast of the moon walk on the loud speakers as we went through the air base terminal and in-processing center. I had other things to think about at the time so was only vaguely interested in the moon and its temporary denizens.

    Ironically, last year I walked through what may have been the same building, now serving as the airport terminal for Cam Ranh-Nhatrang airport, now eagerly welcoming American visitors (with some of the best priced values in the world, too, I dare say).

  9. MargaretMN says:

    I had just turned five the day before, and my parents took a photo of me, in front of the TV, with a party hat that had the number 5 on it. Since I was too small, My dad assembled the cardboard models of the LEM and the Apollo spacecraft that the gas station gave away and I held these up in the picture.

  10. cordelia says:

    i was 5 years old…i remember my dad looking up at the moon that night and saying “they’re up there” when i looked up at the moon i thought i should have been able to see them, big pointy rocket and all.

  11. Frank H. says:

    I was 15. I set up my 35mm camera on a tripod, closed the drapes to the family room, turned on my reel to reel tape recorder, and insisted the family stay quiet as I tried to capture the event for posterity. I still have the pictures somewhere, and don’t think I ever listened to the tapes.

    What a time it was!

  12. Edward Martin says:

    Wonderful picture of youth and memories Father, thank you.

    I was six and on summer holiday in Kelowna, BC. More than anything I can vividly recall my father calling me in from outside to watch Armstrong on the little 9 inch black & white TV he had purchased for the occasion.

    I too followed along each step of the program with great interest and collected books, pictures, models etc. The only item I seemed to have been able to keep is a very jagged cut out page of the newspaper describing how Apollo 8 was to orbit the moon.

  13. thereseb says:

    I was in Minnesota, aged 8, staying at my grown-up sister’s house in Austin, and was privileged to live that lifestyle for one glorious summer. At about 9am, having been spotted by the neighborhood kids, I was furnished with a bike, and put out of the house to play with them all day – in and out of houses, backyards, roasting marshmallows, running through garden sprinklers – fed within an inch of my life wherever I went. Also days out at Beaver Lake, trips to Piggly Wiggly, and HUGE barbecues on huge farms with the (Lutheran) in-laws. Absolute bliss. Highlight was the opening of a new McDonalds, and my first taste of french fries. I’m afraid the moon landing was an optional extra.

  14. Thanks for the post. It brought back memories alright. I was just short of five and my mother got me up to watch the ‘man landing on the moon’. That and Star Trek, Dr. Who and all the rest hooked me onto Sci-Fi. I remember building the Apollo 11 model too (and the Space Shuttle and the Eagle from ‘Space 1999’ ….). I can remember charging around until the late Seventies, though in Ireland sunshine is a rare commodity but bicycles and skinned knees are common. Thanks again

  15. Anne Mansfield says:

    Where in Montana? How long? My father represented the state for 36 years. I go back and forth from London and DC. I understand there is a paucity of TLM in Montana. I am told that the new bishop is more responsive. Any answers,father? Thank you

  16. Jordanes says:

    I was a year-and-a-half old at the time, so don’t remember Apollo 11, though I know we all watched it on t.v. The moon landings are some of my earliest memories of early childhood — with that sense of them just being something that we’d “always” been doing since I couldn’t remember when they started. I have clear memories of Apollos 15, 16, and 17, and boy was I upset when mom forgot to wake me up in time to see the liftoff of Apollo 17. I did become something of a NASA devotee back then, and I followed Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz handclasp in space and the long overdue space shuttle program. (The childhood experience of me and my brothers in th 1970s where we lived in the Midwest wasn’t all that different from yours in the 1960s).

  17. Tom S. says:


    I think that’s about the most well-written, moving pieces I have ever read.

    And so perfectly accurate as well. I was 9 at the time, and in northeastern Pennslvania instead of Montana – but it was otherwise quite the same.


  18. Winfield says:

    Like Tom above, and you, I was nine that summer; I think we built the same models (plus the Saturn V with its separable stages). Yet exciting as the moon walk was, the memories you conjure of my own boyhood–the carefree, timeless days, seemingly endless sunshine under the Georgia sky, bikes and sprinklers and roaming all over, the freedom to concentrate so intensely on a subject, my grandmother–move me far more.

  19. Mike Morrow says:

    There’s only *one* instant in the *all* the history of *all* the life on a planet when a creature from that planet *first* reaches another world. I was 17 when it happened for Earth. It’s the greatest achievement of Earth’s history.

    The efforts of the scientists and engineers who made it all possible are quickly forgotten. Less than four years later, thousands of these people were out of work.

  20. irishgirl says:

    I was 14 years old in 1969, and I remember watching the moon landing on a Sunday afternoon at the home of an uncle and aunt [my mother’s older brother and his wife]. I felt relief when the words, ‘Tranquility base here, the Eagle has landed’-I may even have said a Hail Mary to myself. Then after my family got home, we stayed up to watch the moon walk on TV, fuzzy, grainy pictures and all. What great memories!

    In October of that year, I went to a ‘Rosary Rally’ in my hometown. I remember one of the priest-speakers saying something about being in Lourdes the night of the moon landing, and looking up into the night sky at the Grotto, a luminous letter ‘M’ was spotted, headed in the direction of the moon. Our Lady was ‘watching over’ the astronauts-I got chills and my eyes filled with tears as I heard that!

  21. Jordanes says:

    Well, I’d have to say it’s the second the greatest achievement of earth’s history. When Christ accomplished the salvation of the human race nearly two millennia ago, it was a far greater achievement. But of achievements that don’t touch on the final destiny of a human soul, it was the greatest, no doubt.

  22. FrGregACCA says:

    Anne Mansfield:

    I had the same question. I grew up in NE Montana (I was 11 forty years ago today).

    Anne, was your father’s first name “Mike” by any chance?

  23. Ohio Annie says:

    I was devastated after the test fire that killed Gus Grissom and the others so the moon landing was a very big deal for me. I loved that Saturn V rocket.

    I was 13. My new 5-speed Schwinn made a great space ship. I wanted to be an astronaut until my brother pointed out that astronauts were all boys, former test pilots. Oh well, there was also the matter of the motion sickness.

    I sort of miss being a kid sometimes. And I miss what America used to be, the land of limitless possibilities. I ended up being a scientist. Not like an astronaut but way cool anyway.

  24. Michael says:

    This was so well written it made me want to cry. I was too young to remember much clearly of the moon landings but I know I was deeply affected by them by the activities and goals I took on later. I too built my own Saturn V model rocket. I even went so far as to study the engineering and move to Houston to work at the Space Center before ultimately becoming discouraged. It was truly the beginning of the closing of the age. We overcame out toughest challenge and then seemed to turn inward and go mad after our success.

  25. Zubismom says:

    God Blessed that wonderful nine year old. You are a wonderful gift to us here in cyberspace.

  26. Ann says:

    I was very young but I remember. i remember how the older people gossiped and talked about wether or not Armstrong would succeed. They spoke in hushed voices about the coming moon landing. They wondered if the home town boy would get to walk on the moon. And that night everyone in our home town watched and waiting. Mrs Armstrong taught sunday school at St. Paul United Church of Christ. Most of the little children in that church had sat in her classes. We didn’t know until our parents told us, as we watched the grainy picture which didn’t seem so grainy as magical, that this man was from our town. That the school in which I attended 8th and 9th grades was the old high school where HE had gone to high school. They built a museum at the far edge of town, a strange half buried domed thing to honor the first moon landing, and kids would go inside the front doors and stand looking at moon rocks in the glass case there. They closed the museum this year for lack of money to run it. An era ended. Small children do not understand how it feels to remember a time when men did not walk on the moon, a time when we could not imagine a robot on mars, and a time before microwave, cell phone and internet. There is a wide gulf between those who remember before space became a place men could go and do research and those for whom it is so common that they no longer dream it.

  27. Ohio Annie says:

    Ann, I am sorry about the museum. I remember reel-to-reel tape recorders. We got the first touch tone phone in 1965 and it didn’t work right half the time. Meeting my Dad at the train station. Polio vaccine, would the Salk or Sabin turn out to be the best, our family doctor gave us both.

    My hair has white patches!

    I still know how to dream though and imagine. We must never lose that.

  28. John Fannon says:

    Like most in Britain, I stayed up all night to watch the first steps, which occurred at about 4am UK time.

    Burglars did the same apparently. there was a noticeable drop in crime in the UK that night.

    On all the Apollo launches, my mother in law used to get very excited as a count down proceeded. As the announcer stated ‘one minute and counting’, she would turn to us and say excitedly ‘1 minute, 1 minute’

    ‘Yes, Nellie, we know…’

    God rest her soul.

  29. Joshua says:

    Why the heck haven’t we been back yet? I’m certain our technology is hugely more capable now than it was then!

  30. FrGregACCA says:

    One word, Joshua:


  31. Michael says:

    Why have we not been back? Because it took a 6.7 million pound rocket to put a 10,000 lb., two man payload on the moon. Technology may have improved but the laws of physics have not become less stringent.

  32. Anonymous Seminarian says:

    “I followed every rubric, intoned all the directions.”

    Sing the Black, Do the Red? Haha…

  33. Anonymous Seminarian says:


    If you search the history of the space program awhile (its probably on Wikipedia), you’ll see that once we landed on the Moon, the public and politicians virtually abandoned the space program. Nixon cut over half of NASA’s budget, and most of that high end equipment was demolished. The guys at NASA scavenged parts from the Saturn rockets to build Skylab in the early 1970s, which was really the last major feat of space travel until the Space Shuttles started taking off in the 1980s.

    It was all about money. And NASA really hasn’t been given government support, aside from President Bush expressing his desire to put men on the moon and beyond.

  34. Patrick says:

    Some of you might be interested in the latest CatholicVote video that ties together human life with Apollo 11.

    This ad was launched last week at a Houston press conference where former astronauts Joe Kerwin and Bill Thornton, along with Apollo 13 flight director, Gene Kranz spoke out on the importance of the protection of every human life.

  35. The Masked Chicken says:

    This is a very unforgiving website. I just spent 1/2 hour writing a detailed analysis of why the Apollo program stopped and because I forgot to enter the anti-spam word, all was lost. Those who think the Apollo program was topped because of politics are wrong. It was a symptom of the fragmentation of a society that non longer understood cooperative efforts, be it in fighting a war, raising a family, or going to the Moon. Sadly, the Moon landing came on the eve of the rise of the Me Generation. The Moon landing was the last gasp of the WW II cooperation. We have seen nothing but societal fragmentation since. We have seen nothing but sin become common. I don’t think we will be going back to the Moon in anything but a mechanical way for many years.
    If anyone wants to see the longer analysis I wrote, I might try to write it, again, but this thread, like society, will be moving on.

    The Chicken

  36. The Masked Chicken says:

    Oh, and my original post had correct spelling, sigh.

    The Chicken

  37. Shzilio says:

    This may sound bad, Father but when I read that — especially the last line I couldn’t help but think there was a sort of Steinbeckian style. It reminded me of the ending to part 1 of Steinbeck’s East of Eden when he writes, “Strawberries don’t taste the same anymore and the thighs of women have lost their clutch.”

    Not that you are saying the same thing (well except that you are both saying that things have changed and are not the same) but the rhythm of the words just seemed the same.

  38. Emilio III says:

    MC, if it is going to be more than a sentence or two I find it safer to compose on a text editor and paste it to the comment window. (And still manage to misspell things.)

  39. Patrick says:

    Sadly, I know nothing of such a past. I was not to be born for another eight years.

    When I was a child of that age, I remember a space shuttle bursting into a plume of flames. I was not allowed to be outside without either of my parents watching like a hawk, the doors were always locked – even in the day, and the only thing cool in space was Star Wars. My younger sisters had it even worse.

    There is great potential for great things within mankind, and sadly great potential for squandering it.

  40. Fr. Jim says:

    On this very day 40 years ago our parents dropped off five scrubbed seventh-going-on-eighth grader classmates for a vocation week at a seminary whose name I do not recall in Donaldson, Indiana. Divine Word? Divine Heart? Anyway, we all sat in a classroom in that seminary (about 40 soon-to-be eighth graders from around the midwest) and watched the landing and the first step. A few weeks later two priests from there visited our homes to see if we might join up, but the five of us instead entered the local diocesean seminary. Of the five, four persisted to ordination and beating all odds all four are still active as pastors or comparable offices. It may be a record in the US.

    I don’t remember what the name of the order was in Donaldson 40 years ago, but most of the priests were kindly (though there was one who was a bit sadistic). I still retain the beautiful olfactory memory of the chapel there, and the pipe organ which had a the most unique combination system of a tray of toggle switches that pulled out from beneath the keyboard. I would love to go back there, but I heard that it is no longer a seminary but some kind of sanitarium.

    We did not end up going into that order, but four of the five of us were ordained.

    What I remember most about that week was the song that was playing over and over, “Age of Aquairus,” and “Let the Sun Shine In.”

  41. Ed the Roman says:

    That was about the most wonderful day that there was.

  42. Kardinal says:

    I was not alive when Armstrong stood on the shoulders of thousands of brilliant, dedicated men and women and, in the name of ALL HUMANITY, was honored to be the symbol of the greatest natural achievement in history. I was born 4 years later.

    But I never, ever, fail to have chills when I hear those words. Nor to be proud to be an American in that moment. Not that Americans are better than anyone else, but that the nation I was born into did that…makes me proud.

  43. Christa says:

    I was an Air Force wife in West Berlin with a 7-month old son when this happened. One couple had a TV and we all went to their apartment and stayed up watching the moon walk…wives holding infants (there were quite a few). To watch this in a foreign country was simply amazing, and made one so proud to be an American.

    I always thought we would go on to Mars and then outward. I never thought that day that we would simply turn inward and ignore the stars.

    I have a collection of Apollo glasses I am keeping for my son, who now has children of his own. Perhaps my grandson will rekindle the desire to explore.

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