On this 50th anniversary of mankind’s greatest achievement, I have been quite moved by the treasure trove of excellent footage of the moon walk, of the launch, of the cheering scientists at mission control, and of a speechless and giddy Cronkite. I have wept more than once this week while reminiscing with the footage of ordinary citizens from 1969 showing wide-eyed wonder and pride at what we had accomplished. I’ve been crying for that lost innocence.
While everything is Apollo 11 on this momentous anniversary, as it should be, the moon walk has been on my mind for several months now, since I overheard a group of teenagers from an elite charter high school in the lobby of our theatre talking about what was true and what they knew to be internet hoaxes. I confess to rolling my eyes at how little they seemed to actually understand, but I kept my superior attitude to myself. Until, that is, one of them steps into the middle of their huddle, looks up from his smartphone and says “And that they walked on the moon… that’s a big conspiracy.” I froze. Is he serious?
Then his younger brother pushes his glasses up on his nose and chimes in. “Yeah, that’s a total hoax. Never happened.” They all laugh.
That puts me over the edge and I do what only an old man would do. I step into their circle of disinformation and offer my unsolicited sage counsel, my expansive middle-aged perspective, you know, to enlighten these kids.
“I was 5…” I interrupted, “when we first landed on the moon, and I remember it like it was yesterday.” They stopped talking and looked respectfully at me, as if they knew they had to allow me to finish my words before they could tell me how stupid I was. I could see they didn’t care. They had been talking about the internet, after all, and about how smart they were, not about the truth or about “the olden days”. But I thought they needed to know the difference between reality and internet hoaxes. I couldn’t retreat or these kids would go to college in denial of man’s greatest accomplishment ever. So naturally, I went on to tell them every painstaking detail I could remember about my own experience of the moon landing in order to make it seem real to them. I lived it after all. It was real! And if I could convince them of my reality, then they’d believe the truth. Simple. All I had to do was lead my young friends to the truth, which would then cure them of their J.I.I. (Juvenile Internet Ignorance).
So I tell them how I sat on the floor as a 5-year old tow-headed boy in front of my next door neighbor’s bulky black and white TV eating dry Froot Loops out of a plastic cup, while my mom and Betty Patterson drank coffee and watched from Betty’s kitchen table just a few feet away. “I remember knowing even at 5 the context of what was going on.” I tell them. “Even kindergarteners knew what a big deal this was to all of mankind.” They stare blankly.
“I remember how Walter Cronkite talked about it with such amazement and I understood very clearly the danger in it.” I tell them. “This was grown up stuff and I was proud to be watching it, and felt like I was part of it.”
The tall handsome boy had heard enough and he threw his long hair back and looked down and started scrolling on his phone. I upped the ante. “It was the first time I remember feeling proud of anything.”
“But they’ve looked on the moon and there is no flag there.”, says a senior with her fingernails painted black. “There’s nothing there. It never happened.”
“There is too a flag up there!” I snap. “And there’s a dune buggy too.”
“Whaaaa?” says the short sophomore while tilting his nearly shaved head in slow motion.
“You mean a 4-wheeler?” adds the little conspiracy theorist who started all this.
“The moon rover!”, I say emphatically. “Haven’t you seen the footage of them driving it over the craters?” Silence. “The IMAX movie?” Silence. “Trust me, it’s up there.”
“Then why haven’t they found it?” asks the most bored of them all, not looking up from his phone
I explode. “What do you mean found it? It’s not lost!”
“Then where is it?”
“What do you mean where is it? It’s on the moon!” I say pointing to the daytime sky. “Parked … somewhere … wherever they left it … up there … on the moon!” I could feel myself unraveling and knew that although my answers were correct, I wasn’t convincing them of anything except that old people are crazy.
What upset me most was that these high schoolers, some of whom will be going to college in just a few weeks, not only don’t believe that one of the most pivotal achievements of humanity ever even happened, but worse they don’t understand the ramifications either way. They don’t think it matters one way or another. To them it’s a binary choice. They don’t understand what it would mean if the entire country had indeed been fooled by our government for the past half century. Nor do they grasp the inspiration of what man really did a half century ago. Don’t know don’t care. They shrug and move their conversation to another internet hoax. Just like that.
I stand there, failed, old, and disappointed in myself for not being able to convince them of something so basic. I feel frustrated at the world that has led us to this point. Reflexively I did what I’ve learned to do in moments when I feel self-conscious, I pull my phone out of my pocket looking for validation. Just like them. I stared at the blank screen in my hand and thought for an instant about throwing it against the brick lobby wall. But instead I gripped it tighter. I know that I couldn’t live without my instant connection to disinformation any more than they could. I too am a digital captive.
So while I have reveled this week in the glorious anniversary footage of Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, it has been bittersweet because I can’t get those teens and their internet conspiracy theories out of my mind. I look at the footage of innocent kids from my generation watching in awe as people did the undoable and I’m sad for the kids of today who seem to know less about the world than a kindergartener knew in 1969. That word hoax is back again, confusing the confused. Technology has moved us forward since the 60’s, to be sure. But in some ways, technology has walked us back from the greatest leap we’ve ever taken.