When I was 17…..


It’s easy to be cynical about the sixties in retrospect. The explosion of “youth culture” was largely manipulated by scions of the Establishment freed from the need to do National Service. They made the money, and the creators took the fame, often to their detriment.

But that’s not the whole story.

I was a teenager between 1965 and 1971. It was almost perfect timing.

David Hepworth, the rock music writer, recently said that the Beatles’ music brought us “happiness”. And he was right. Its energy, its innovation, its redolent lyrics and its upbeat enthusiasm – listen to the full on intros of ‘She loves you’, ‘All my loving’, ‘It won’t be long’ or ‘I wanna hold your hand’ – they all brought a fluttering to our stomach and a happiness to our hearts.

Naturally, there was marketing involved – but comparing Brian Epstein to today’s “media influencers” is like comparing a bowling club WhatsApp group to Facebook.

Of course, other things were happening.

It has often been suggested that what we now think of as “The Sixties” really only lasted from early in 1964 to late in 1968. Before that, we were fighting off the greyness of the fifties, and after that, after losing the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, and seeing the Chicago and Paris riots, we became far too self aware (or in some cases, drugged up) to continue to buy the “generation of change” descriptions.

In that dawning of the age of self knowledge we were replicating our parents’ generation, who fairly quickly had come to realise that a Coronation, an ascent of Everest, and a Festival of Britain did not equate to an age of the “New Elizabethans”, as they had been told.

But context is everything – and one area of hope and wonder remained: the Apollo Moon voyages.

Lots of clever people will tell you that they were an obscene waste of money, given earth’s problems, and were driven by the western capitalists’ desperation to prove themselves over the hated eastern communists.  I can’t argue against that – but I can suggest that maybe that view is not the whole story.

Secondary education in the sixties split very early between the “Arts” and “Sciences”. I was an Arts man and had little or no understanding of, or interest in, the sciences. Machinery and technology were not on my list of interests, and astronomy was a closed book to me.

And yet.

Like millions of others, I was fascinated beyond belief by NASA’s Moon programme, knew the names of all the astronauts way back to the Mercury days, and followed every launch and mission with total concentration.

How could this epitome of scientific effort be so engaging to such an arts biased teenager?

The answer to that question reflects Apollo’s broad appeal as a human mission of exploration. Of course, to scientists and engineers, it was a remarkable project, a brilliant coming together of so many disciplines in ways and processes which had never been previously attempted.

To the rest of us, who were probably only vaguely aware of the depth of scientific knowledge necessary just  to get the giant Saturn rocket off the ground, never mind the remaining intricacies of the mission, it had an air of nobility.

NASA, of course, played into this – being acutely aware that they needed public interest and support to maintain Congress’s level of funding. So, in contrast to the dirty grey and brown industrial appearance of Soviet spaceware, the Apollos were shiningly and dazzlingly white as they stood on the launch pad, and every launch was a premier production for television cameras, complete with commentary, count down, and crews’ voices. The crew themselves had the practised nonchalant tones of thoroughbred adventurers. It would be the later Apollo 13 mission which would give the world its universal phrase for understatement when Jack Swigert reported: “Uh, Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

Not only were they heroes, they were presented as such. But you would not have to be a “space freak” to be hit emotionally by the powerful image of those Saturn rockets blasting off from that Florida swamp land, all fire and steam and smoke and roar, to head, quite literally, into the wide blue yonder.

We all understood that these were brave men, taking risks at the very edge of technical capacities. At the time, we were not aware just how many risks were being taken, and how close to disaster they rode, though the loss of Grissom, Chaffee, and White, in the launch tower conflagration had been a sharp reminder of the perils they faced.

What we knew was, like all explorers, these men were going where nobody had been before, they were the visible embodiment of mankind’s species-maintaining curiosity. They were going on our behalf.

We still found ourselves, in those times, innocent enough to allow for the admiration of heroes, the thrill of exploration. As Kennedy had said in launching the moon missions: We do these things…..not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” In our youthful naivety, we still had the strength to aspire to great things rather than list our fears of failure.

We had seen earthrise from Apollo 8 for the first time and become acutely aware of the tiny insignificance of our planet. It felt like we had become children of the Universe, rather than merely earthlings. Earthbound international differences in politics, economic systems, or cultures could be seen as relatively unimportant when viewed against the backdrop of space.

Apollo 11 played a part in bringing us all together in many ways. In 1969 we were only five years on from the first live transatlantic television pictures. Now, not only would we see men walking on the  Moon but we would be watching as part of a world wide audience numbering some 600 million – the biggest concentration of humans focused on the same event in history. In some ways, that was as stunning as the astronauts’ 249,000 mile mission. We were a generation who had grown up hearing our parents book phone calls to Australia a week in advance, now we could watch live as man walked on the Moon. It was impossible not to feel a thrill of excitement and achievement.

We could not record television programmes in those days, so if you wanted to watch something  you needed to be watching as it happened and was broadcast. Therefore we had the “added excitement” of getting up in the middle of the night to watch man step out on to the lunar surface. Even in the sixties, “a good night’s sleep” had almost moral overtones – so such a break with routine was of itself remarkable.

So on July 20th 1969 I sat in our living room at 2.30 am ready to watch the most unusual piece of television I could ever have imagined. Being in such “normal” surroundings, of course, only made the experience even more surreal.

I was 17 but totally unable to maintain the accepted teenage attitude of “mild disinterest” in everything. Nails were bitten, hands clasped and unclasped, feet tapping. My mother, naturally, had produced a cup of tea and a biscuit, another routine domestic process to highlight the abnormality of what was happening. Our elderly Red Setter lay at my feet, puzzled no doubt by this odd human behaviour, but with one eye half open in case of falling biscuit crumbs.

My mother was housekeeper to a priest. He was also there, intent on the screen, occasionally shaking his head. Earlier, when we had watched the LEM land on the Moon, just around the point when Aldrin and Armstrong realised they were perilously short of fuel, he had muttered: “They won’t do it, they are going to crash.”

It was unusual for him to show such open emotion and I was taken aback for a moment, but then, in one of many learning moments brought about by the moon landings, I saw a snapshot of his life. Born in the 1890s, he had been brought up in an Irish family in a pub on Liverpool’s Dock Road. He had known old men and sailors who remembered the slave trade; he remembered horses and carts lined up outside the docks waiting for the gates to open so the ships – some steam, some sail-powered still –  could be loaded and unloaded. On the eve of the Great War, part of a class at a at a seminary in the north east of England, he had wrecked his knee in a hurdles race and been unfit for service, while his classmates joined up. In 1918, only six came back to finish their studies, out of a class of 20, thanks to the decimation of the Durham Light Infantry. In the second war, he had been chaplain to a huge rest and recreation camp for the US military in central Lancashire. He developed a great tenderness towards the young damaged soldiers to whom he ministered, but could never talk about the distress and fear that he encountered among those war shocked heroes. Now he was seeing man on the moon, and, no doubt, his prediction of a crash was a kind of secular prayer that it would not happen.

My mother had been born in 1917 while her father was fighting at Paschendaele, she had endured Liverpool’s May Blitz during the second war, spending much of her twenties in an air raid shelter, and had been widowed at 39 and left with a five year old son. She would live on into the 21st century as she had always aimed to do, with the better part of a century of life experience behind her.

And there was I – a child of the post war fifties, a 60s teenager, with a life ahead of me which would encompass revolution in communications, travel, and social affairs, some of the advances, at least in part, coming as a result of the event we were sitting down to witness.

In that room was a man whose parents had been born in the 1860s and a teenager whose life would extend in to the second decade of the twenty first century, another take on “living history”.

We each brought ourselves to the moment of Armstrong’s first foot on the lunar surface – our individual histories, personalities, and beliefs. It was one of those few moments in our lives when we realise, as something is happening, that we will always remember the moment. And if it was thus for the three of us, it was the same for the 650 million other humans who were watching together. The memories this weekend will not just be of three heroes, or of spacecraft, or technicians, or of television commentators, but they will be of those with whom we shared the moment and what they meant to us. Apollo 11 – still  bringing people together, fifty years after the event.

Later that day, last thing at night, I followed the usual routine of letting the dog out into the garden. Normally, I would wait at the door till he came back in and I could lock up.

On that night in July 1969 I went out into the garden myself, and looked up at that pale yellow globe, hanging high above the trees and roof tops around me.

I looked at the moon more intently than I ever had before. And I thought: “There are two men up there, on the moon, as I look at it!” It was a moment of pure wonderment, a minute or two when it would be safe to say I was literally overawed. There was a feeling of affection towards them, with elements of protectiveness, and I said a quiet prayer that they would return safely.

I turned to follow the dog back into the house, and feeling only slightly foolish, gave a small wave to the men in the moon.

One of the most intense examples in my lifetime of the mundane touching the fantastical, and the essence of that moment in history.













Published by seánmcp

Former deputy headteacher; Edinburgh born Leitrim man; family man; writer, photographer and sports fan: cricket, football, GAA, athletics. Education & Welfare Officer at Hibernian FC; follow Hibs, Southport FC, Leitrim GAA, Dunedin Connollys GAA, Drumkeerin GAA, Cricket Scotland and Scottish Wildcats.

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