The Man in the Moon

     I wasn’t born yet when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.
     A large portion of the people I know didn’t yet inhabit our galaxy. But the thought that a human being had walked on the glowing circle I admired every night from down below flashed through my early years like a recurring quasi-memory.
     Sometimes I found the concept hard to grasp, and, like Mrs. Croft in Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Third and Final Continent,” I wanted to exclaim, “There’s an American flag on the moon, boy! Isn’t that splendid?”
     Somehow, through the struggle to stay authentic while going global, the wars, the divided peace, the promises and the betrayals of the past four decades, we, as a species, have managed to hold on to the echo of one achievement: Man walked on the moon.
     Where were you when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon?
     In America, the question defined a whole generation, as people strived to borrow from the immensity of the lunar conquest and shed some on their own experiences.
     Some were recording the moment for future generations.
     Others were breaking up longtime relationships, or starting new ones, or vowing to learn how to fly. If Neil could walk on the moon, I can do this.
     But mostly, people gathered around TV sets everywhere, to watch a grainy black-and-white image that would become history.
     In communist Romania, my father, a 20-year-old history major, stayed up all night, with friends and beer, watching the Americans conquer the moon.
     It was the event of the century.
     It was an opportunity to get together with friends, and make veiled jokes about the Party.
     It was a slap in the face of the Red Monster, who had cut the stems of Eastern European freedom and civic sense before they even had a chance to bloom.
     But, more importantly, it was a chance to evade from the confinement of their reality into a dimension where crossing the borders – not only into a different country, but into a different world – was more than just a dream.
     On the other side of the Iron Curtain, people needed Neil Armstrong to take those steps on the lunar surface as much as Americans did.
     The ’60s had inflicted many wounds on America. The wind of liberation had brought assassinations, and riots, and burning cities, and disagreement over an endless war. Mutually assured destruction still loomed over East and West. And the Soviets had put Sputnik into space.
     Things were not looking any brighter on the Eastern front. After the end of the Prague Spring, Eastern Europe was heading, like a derailed train going full speed, toward hopeless totalitarianism and starvation.
     But on July 20, 1969, East and West came together, as they watched, breathlessly, one of their own plant the American flag into the soil of a new world.
     Differences no longer mattered. Humans had reached the unreachable.
     Now, more than 40 years later, people rarely mention the “giant leap.”
     Neil Armstrong, the “reluctant hero,” died at 82, after post-surgery complications.
     The space program that sent him up there has shut down, after only 12 American astronauts walked on the moon.
     And the quest for other worlds may have become irrelevant in an age obsessed with exploring and redefining our inner selves.
     But not to everyone.
     My father did not travel to the moon.
     He taught students for 35 years, and looked after children, and rabbits, and aging parents.
     But the night he saw Neil Armstrong kick up moon dust and mark the territory of future, imagined victories for every hopeful American and Eastern European out there, the moon was his, like a trophy on a shelf in the next room.

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