I’m going to get up on my soapbox for a second. It’s a small one, I’m not sure I like it, and I’ll probably return it for a full refund, but I’m on it now so listen up.
Saturday July 20, 2019 was the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. The Apollo 11 mission sending Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface of the moon (with lonely Michael Collins orbiting above) was what historians call a ‘Big Deal’ for mankind, and is by all accounts a proud day for the world. It’s an especially proud day for the United States, as Americans can rightly beat their chests and say their country was the first to send people to the moon. USA! USA!
However, in the week leading up to the Apollo moon landing anniversary, I wasn’t feeling especially proud of my country. I was deeply disheartened by the xenophobic tweets President Trump sent about ‘The Squad’–four congresswomen of color–telling them to go back to the countries they came from. For those keeping score, three of the four in ‘The Squad’ were born in the United States and all are citizens. I was even more saddened to hear about the ‘send her back’ chants a few days later at a Trump rally referring to Rep. Ilhan Omar, which I’m pretty sure is the most overtly racist and xenophobic thing to have happened in the United States in my lifetime. And I was even MORE saddened to hear that after our President did nothing to rebuke this sort of behavior, his popularity increased in the polls. It doesn’t even matter if Trump knew what he was saying was racist or not. “This is a good direction for the country,” said a disturbingly large percentage of the population. Or at least they said ‘I am complicit in this.” I don’t care if you disagree with The Squad’s politics, or if you think they hate America (they probably don’t. Just saying). Telling American citizens to ‘go back where you came from’ isn’t patriotic. This is un-American, and you’re allowed to call it out even if it’s coming from your team.
One of the things I talk about in The Waygook Book: A Foreigner’s Guide to South Korea is the difficulty of coming back to your home country and finding out everyone has become divisive and vindictive, that no one agrees on anything. No one agreed on anything when we left the U.S., but now everyone you disagree with is not only wrong, but bad. I thought I could leave the country for a couple years, that you all had it together. Clearly, you needed me because this is not the United States I was taught about, that my parents raised me in, that I believe in now. This is something different. This is something scary. And I’m not for it. These events put me at the nadir of my patriotism.
I desperately needed a salve for my patriotic woes. I needed to be reminded of a time when Americans came together with the world and celebrated something extraordinary. So with that in mind, I took my family to Wapakoneta, OH, birthplace of Neil Armstrong and home of the Armstrong Air and Space Museum. The town pulled out all the stops to mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and I wanted to be a part of it, part of a reminder of something bigger than identity politics.
The Armstrong Air and Space Museum
It was going to be a sweltering day, but by the time we arrived at 10:00am runners were just finishing their Run to the Moon race near the museum entrance. Vendors had set up their food trucks, science displays, and inflatable spaceship bounce houses for the day. Already there was a line about 20 people long out the front door of the museum, the inside already crowded. It was nice to see that I wasn’t the only one who felt the magnitude of the occasion warranted a visit to Neil’s hometown.
There were so many people, in fact, that for about the first half of the museum we stood in a line that snaked through the exhibits. The first thing you see as you walk in is a commemorative wall of all the astronauts from Ohio, which is an impressive list including Armstrong, John Glenn, and Jim Lovell. While the museum focuses on Neil Armstrong’s career, it also tells a narrative of where the American space program was at the time, the significance of the Apollo moon landing, and where the space program has gone since. Highlights include some of Neil Armstrong’s space suits, a moon rock, and the actual Gemini VIII spacecraft that Armstrong piloted prior to this Apollo mission.
Back outside, the line–and the heat–had increased significantly, though there was no sign of delaying anything because of the temperature. A strong breeze made the day manageable and we browsed the science exhibits for kids, the merch capitalizing on the day, and the rides. Volunteers handed out watermelon wedges so I nabbed a few and we grabbed some shade under a pine tree. From this vantage point, I breathed in the proud and hopeful atmosphere of the day (and the humidity). Visitors poured in with their NASA shirts. Kids ran around clutching their stuffed Saturn V rockets like teddy bears. It was a pilgrimage site, full of people who had traveled to celebrate the wonders of the universe, the dedication and persistence of scientists and brave astronauts, and the humble roots of the first human to step foot on the moon. It was a comforting reminder that we in the 21st century still allow ourselves to be awed by significant events bigger than ourselves despite the 24-hour news cycle.
At no point was this atmosphere more on display than at the stage set up outside, which showed a live feed of a Soyuz launch in Kazakhstan on its screens. Aboard was a multinational crew headed to the International Space Station. Though the launch date was reportedly coincidental, the relevance of the launch was not lost on anyone: marking the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing that was a direct result of a heated space race was an international crew–an American, a Russian, and an Italian–heading to the International Space Station in the name of cooperative science. Indeed, space travel is more often a cooperative affair than not these days.
Interpreting the live feed was astronaut Sunita Williams, another Ohioan, who provided information about the goings-on inside the spacecraft and other launch details. Some minutes after the initial launch, she began to take questions from the audience. A man raised his hand and accepted the microphone with his smartphone pointed at the stage. He was from India, he explained, and his son was watching live via his phone. Together, they enjoyed watching Williams’ YouTube videos. “The moon landing is important not just to the United States, but to all of us,” he continued. “What words of encouragement can you offer the young people of the world who want to be scientists?”
Sunita replied with something along the lines of “there’s a lot resting on you” to the kids, that future moon or Mars missions will likely be manned by today’s youth. Honestly, her answer was less important to me than the moment itself. Here was a man from the other side of the world in Wapakoneta, OH to celebrate a day that belonged to the world, and he wanted to share that moment with a live astronaut with his son. And on the screen was a rocket hurtling toward the International Space Station. I got a little emotional.
Throughout the day, I thought of the unifying nature of the event. I thought about how proud I was to be an Ohioan, to be an American, how awesome it is I get to live in this country where people from Wapakoneta can be the first person to walk on the moon. I got nostalgic. We all like nostalgia these days. Surely Apollo 11 is a symbol of a simpler, more unified time in our country, right?
A quick recap of 1969
- The Stonewall riots launch the wider civil rights movement for LGBT folks
- Protests, some peaceful, some not, continue to speak out against the Vietnam War across the country
- The first draft lottery since WWII summons Americans to fight in Vietnam
- The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland is literally on fire
- The Manson Family is murdering people in California
- Hurricane Camille kills 248 in Mississippi
That all came after 1968, which in one year saw the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of both Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F. Kennedy, civil rights riots, violent protests at the Democratic National Convention, and ongoing student protests against the Vietnam War. 1970 doesn’t look much better with the U.S. invasion of Cambodia and subsequent student protests that lead to the National Guard shooting students at Kent State University.
1969 hardly looks any better than 2019. So what are we to do? Wait for another Apollo 11-like event to bring us together, albeit momentarily? What could be our Apollo 11? I really don’t know.
In the meantime, I have a couple humble suggestions:
- Stop it with the political memes. Stahhhp! You’ve got one in the hopper, I know you do. Take your finger off the mouse and move on. Don’t share it.
- If your TV is currently tuned to a cable news network, kindly change the channel.
- Go outside. Say hi to the neighbors. See how they’re doing. Find common ground with them. Football, the Avengers, whatever. There are so many TV shows, so much culture to consume, that there are precious few unifying cultural entities these days. Nothing is perfect, but consider setting aside your reservations about one or more of these major common denominators and joining the conversation.
- If the neighbors say something you disagree with politically, assume they are a good person who has a different life experience from you. Brainstorm how they arrived at their opinion and why it’s different from yours.
- Tuck that information aside and tell your neighbors to have a great day.
- Consider that your political party does not own a monopoly on patriotism, that there is more than one way to love America.
- Make sure your patriotism is inclusive of all Americans.
- Now watch a funny movie. I recommend Dumb and Dumber.
You’re not going to listen to me. You’re going to share a meme on Facebook in five minutes that confirms what you already believe. You’re going to flip back to Fox News or CNN. You’re going to assume the worst of the opposite political party. It’s easy. It feels good. But it’s harmful to the United States of America. Patriotism shouldn’t be harmful. Patriotism should improve your community. Patriotism is community.
Back to Wapakoneta
The Armstrong Air and Space Museum is small and priced accordingly at $10. If you’re driving on I-75 in need of a pit stop, the museum is right off the highway and makes for a fascinating stretch break on a long road trip. There are plenty of fast food joints around as well (we had lunch at that all-American greasy spoon, Waffle House). There are a couple other good points of interest while you’re in town.
Neil Armstrong’s house
You can’t go inside, but it’s a good-looking house right on the corner proudly bearing an Ohio and American flag. Middle America at its most picturesque.
The Temple of Tolerance
Resident Jim Bowsher built a labyrinthine rock garden in his backyard for…reasons. Because why not? We pulled up to the house, which from the front looks like exactly the kind of house you run past, covered in vines and memorabilia as it is. The city website says to call to confirm, but Jim’s phone went straight to voicemail with a message that we were welcome to walk to the back, that Jim was off making the world a better place. We walked through the overgrown driveway and opened the creaky gate to a weird wonderland of universalist spirituality. Stacks of rocks here, bust of Abraham Lincoln there. I recommend going with a partner: despite its tranquil name, the Temple of Tolerance gives off something of a serial killer vibe with its hodge podge decorations and shaded twists and turns. Or it could’ve been the heavy metal music coming from the neighbors. Keep heading toward the back, though, and you reach the actual temple itself, a much more open and impressive sculpture that smacks of ruins in the jungle. I’m not sure what it all means, but it means something and you should definitely see it. There’s a donation box on the front stoop of the house, but you’re not obliged to pay anything.
It’s the spirit of this blog that one of the best methods of fighting against racist, xenophobic thoughts is travel. The more people you meet out there, the more you realize they’re a lot like people around here and that no one has all the answers. I’ll leave you with a quote from Mark Twain:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Now where’s the receipt for that soapbox?