Back when I was young and stupid – as opposed to being old and stupid, my current condition – I decided to join the United States Army. There was a war going on, in a little out of the way spot called Vietnam. The Army recruiting motto of the time was ‘Be All That You Can Be’, but what they mostly needed people to be was mindless cattle. Well, I already told you I was young, and stupid. I wasn’t lying. Moo-o-o… It was 1969, and I was eighteen.
So, by and by, I found myself in this place called Fort Polk, Louisiana. Think June, July and August. Think hot, and muggy. Think swamps and monsoons. Fort Puke had a motto, too… The Armpit of the World… and it lived up to it with a vengeance.
After five weeks I was ready to go home. I’d had enough of running, marching, and drilling. I was fed up with spit-shining boots, cleaning latrines, and pulling KP. I was tired of picking up (other people’s) cigarette butts. I’d had a bellyful of being yelled at, screamed over, and jerked around by Drill Sergeants at the top of their lungs, always with the utmost profanity. I was sick near to death of being whacked with swagger sticks, or being booted in the ass. My long hair was long gone. “You’re In The Army Now, You’re Not Behind The Plow…” I wanted my real life back.
That all changed on the 20th of July. We had spent a dusty day on the rifle range, eating grit out of mess kits, and boiling in the afternoon sun. After endless delay over whether all our M-16 rounds had really been expended, we took Deuce and a-half’s back to the Company area about 18:00 hours. No joy. The mess hall had already closed. We fell out of formation to go clean up in the barracks. A Drill Corporal came by to say the Unit Dayroom would be open late that night, that anyone who had a mind to could watch the lunar landing. Dayroom? We had a Dayroom? It was big news to me. Counting my time in Reception, I hadn’t seen a TV in over six weeks.
After a quick shower, I sat on my bunk in my skivvies. I was torn between two lovers: I could shine my boots, or rack out and get some sleep. Sleep was good. There was never enough of it. A group of guys came in bitching about being thrown out of the Dayroom. Off limits to trainees. Cadre only, it seems. I fall asleep, only to be rudely awakened a few minutes later by a bellowing Drill Sergeant. All is forgiven, the Dayroom IS open, somebody got their wires crossed.
The Dayroom had sofas you could actually sit on. Pool tables. Foosball machines. Coke machines. It was beginning to get dark outside. We had to take our boots off to come in, so as not to mar the floor. The place was packed. I sat on the floor, with my boots in my lap. Walter Cronkite was talking on CBS. Special Report. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were on their way to the moon, in Apollo 11. The landing was imminent. Behind me, someone turned the lights off. “The Eagle has landed.” Cheers break out, excited laughter, quickly squelched. People want to see, and hear. We wait, and watch for the astronauts to emerge from their spacecraft. It takes a long time.
Suddenly, something happens. There are pictures. Stark, black and white. We wait some more. A hatch opens. A booted foot comes out, a spacesuited figure clambers down a small set of metal steps. “ONE SMALL STEP FOR MAN, ONE GIANT LEAP FOR MANKIND”.
My mind snaps into focus, maybe for the first time since I got to this place, maybe for the first time ever. This is real. This is really happening… I drink in the images, I absorb the scenes, I swallow the pictures. My thoughts race, in a mad kaleidoscope. I see a faceless stream of people passing before me, all moving towards this one moment. An endless mass of humanity, all that ever was, from the first prototype of a man on through to present-day Homo Sapiens Sapiens. I see a vast pageant of history unfolding before my eyes. All the triumphs and tragedies of ages past. The long, slow eons of stumbling progress. Dynasties rise and fall, Republics are born and wither, Empires grow then turn to dust… and above them all, lies the patiently waiting moon.
I look up at the faces around me. Light flickers from the TV screen. Eyes shine, all rapt and enthralled. We huddle together in the darkness, around our modern-day campfire. I shiver. Nothing has changed, but everything is different. Man has finally touched the moon.
We stay until they kick us out. Stumbling in the dark, I look up and see with my naked eyes that same nightscape that has filled the TV screen all evening. Men are up there now, too, I think. On the road to the stars. We are all a part of that, no matter where we go or what we do, I think. It is our birthright, and our destiny.
Running footsteps come my way. A breathless voice tells me I’d better scram, they are looking for a work detail to clean up the mess we made in the Dayroom. I look up at the moon one more time, then head for my barracks, with bootlaces dragging in the dust.
Duty called, but lost. Bed beckons. To sleep, perchance to dream… on Moonbeams.