A few news organizations noted the anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s moonwalk on July 20, 1969. Since it’s only the 38th anniversary, though, most will let it slide and we won’t get the big “special” coverage for two more years on the 40th anniversary.
Even so, July 20 is an important day in my life but not solely for the awe and accomplishment of the technological and spiritual acheivement of the moon landing, but the personal impact it had on my young life. Years later, it was on a July 20 back in 2001 that my father passed away. Both of those events are related in my own memories, making this day always stand out to me.
Let’s go back nearly four decades. It was 38-years-ago that Neil Armstrong made that little jump off the ladder from the lunar lander: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” And it was also 38-years-ago that I was fired from my first job. Back then, I was the youngest fry-cook in Hillsboro, Oregon, having scammed my way into a job at the Arctic Circle Drive-In before I was strictly employment legal, I think, based on the fact that my older brother had paved the way. It was a sweet deal — I was making a full $1.35 an hour, up from my starting wage of $1.10 a year before. Do the math, that added up to a whole $10.80 a day and, if overtime was involved, man, that was serious bread. Of course, those burgers only cost nineteen cents, a quarter for a cheeseburger.
The boss was a tough immigrant — a Basque from Spain — named Mariano Bilbao and he was living (or working) the American dream. Work, work, work and, if you did that, life would be easier for your kids. His kid was just a baby, and Mariano was in full pay-the-dues mode to get ahead in time for his kid to have the good life he dreamed of.
When the schedule for the week of July 20 got posted, I got a sinking feeling because I had the night shift and, if all went according to plan, Neil Armstrong was going to be moon-walking while I was slinging burgers. At the time, I was very into the whole moon landing, even more (if possible) than the rest of the country. Plus, I’d been raised in a house where my dad — a strict father if ever there was one — was also a strict American history teacher and history didn’t get much bigger than this.
So I asked Mariano if I could trade shifts with someone? No. Maybe we could have a TV in the kitchen so we could watch with every other person within ten miles of a TV? No. A radio then, just to listen to hear in real time how it went? No.
Resigned to missing it all, I accepted my fate, strapped on my apron, and went to work. Being the boss, even Mariano was at home, of course, watching the moon-walk with his wife. Back at the grill, I was going insane and about thirty minutes before Armstrong was scheduled to set foot on the lunar surface, I snapped. I called my dad and told him I wanted to come home to see the moon walk. Would he come pick me up?
There was a long pause. If you remember Kevin’s dad (Dan Lauria) from “Wonder Years,” then you remember my dad, Harvey. That same gruff son-of-a-bitch exterior, always pissed off, never connecting with his kids. I waited on the other end of the phone, knowing that The Lecture was coming. About responsibility, about sticking with your decisions, about not screwing up. Instead, he said, “You know you’ll be fired?”
I said I knew. I waited again. Surely The Lecture was coming now. Another beat. “I’ll be right down.”
So my Dad drove down to the Arctic Circle Drive-In on Baseline Street in a moment of high drama in my young life. We went back home, gathered with the rest of the family around the TV set, held our breath with everyone else and watched Armstrong’s ghostly image from the moon. When it was over, dad said we had to go back to the restaurant and I had to face the music. I had done the crime, now I had to do the time. As I returned, it was clear that my co-workers had given me up to Mariano, who was there waiting for me and, man, was he pissed. He was a short guy with a fiery temper and his face was as red as I’d ever seen it.
Mariano fired me that night, as predicted. My dad told him he was missing a great worker and he was a small-minded man to not understand the importance of what was happening, and how this event had changed the world for everyone. Even fry-cooks.
All I know is that my dad had never stood up for me quite like that before and never quite like that after. I remember July 20, 1969 as clearly today for turning in my greasy apron as I do for Armstrong and Aldrin doing the moonwalk. And I remember July 20 because it was also the day that my dad passed away back in 2001.
So — that giant leap for mankind — for me, it isn’t about where I was when it happened — but all about where I wasn’t.
Have PoliticalMavens.com delivered to your inbox in a daily digest by clicking here