Tom and I

Exactly 40 years ago this second, one chapter ended and another began.

40 years ago, plopped down on the shag carpet of our basement family room, watching our round tube Curtis Mathis color television, I saw Neil Armstrong step down onto the surface of the moon.

I didn’t know it then, but it was the end of a significant chapter for my life, for my native land and for the astronauts I idolized.

I’d spent a good part of my 12 years immersed in all things astronaut. I knew just about everything there was to know, at least what was available in the public library, about the space program, rockets and astronauts.

But reading and daydreaming wasn’t enough for me. My best friend, Tom Jones, and I built a paper-mâché model of Cape Kennedy and the proposed landing site on the moon. Rigged with wires and string, we could launch the Apollo, separate the command module and make the flight across the basement to the artfully cratered, nearly perfectly formed lunar suface. The realism was tempered only by the random newsprint showing through the surface of our Sea of Tranquility.

With Tom handling the rocket preparation, countdown and launch, I could concentrate on preparing for my moment of glory—first astronaut on the moon—which was only the exclamation point of an imaginary flight that included a long string of firsts: first gallon of Tang consumed in one gulp, first full day space walk and first single-handed salvation of the earth from space monsters. Our flights were always, without exception, heroic.

In our minds, our roles were set and inevitable, Tom, son of a college professor, was destined to be a rocket scientist. Doug, son of a lineman, was destined to be an astronaut. That fateful night 40 years ago, as I watched Neil Armstrong pause on the lunar module before descending to his moment in human history, it was not Neil Armstrong there, but me, and it wasn’t Gene Kranz and mission control packed with steely eyed missile men back in Houston, they were all Tom. It was just Tom and I, there, on the television screen, carrying the dreams and aspirations of all of America and the free world, ready to place our footprint on the moon and begin the glorious age of space travel and inter-galactic exploration.

But it didn’t turn out that way.

Even though George Jetson and Tom Swift both had rocket ships and considered swinging by a distant Galaxy for a burger on the way home just another day at the office, here it is, 40 years later and I’m still driving a car on boring old earth.

By the time I watched the first man on the moon, on the cusp of tipping over from the innocence of a 12 year old to the vast terra incognita of teenage life, my family had already moved to another town, and the paper-mâché Apollo mission model Tom and I lovingly built didn’t make the trip. As I watched Neil Armstrong shuffle across the moon to plant the flag, I wanted more than anything to hear Tom’s voice, to call him on the rotary dial phone, to celebrate with my fellow rocketeer; but of course, a long distance call was out of the question. It would have cost as much as a week’s groceries. And in fact, after the day I said goodbye to Tom as our moving van pulled out, I never saw him again. Although Tom and I both later achieved orbit with the aid of recreational drugs in our torrid teens, Tom, unfortunately, never returned to earth.

The first man on the moon was the end of a chapter, and the beginning of another. Soon after Neil discovered the surface of the moon I discovered motorcycles, cars and girls, and science became just another academic subject I excelled at, not my defining passion.

40 years ago this second one chapter, embodied by America’s national dedication to space travel, the national commitment to science and engineering, the infatuation with and diefication of the astronaut corps, as well as my last link to my best friendship—Tom and I, ended; and another chapter, what America is today, began.

Some things have just never been the same.