My parents are part of what we now term "the greatest generation." My mother is very nearly 94; were he still alive, Daddy would be 99. Their group of Americans transformed the world, indeed. From horse-drawn carriages to space travel, from the first phonograph to streaming video on the Internet, from telegraph to instant cell phone communications, they've seen it all transpire in their lifetime. They witnessed two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the unspeakable tragedies of 9-11-2001 and so much more.
Being born halfway through the 20th Century in America and raised in a small Georgia town, back when stores closed on Sunday and fans bowed their heads while a preacher prayed before every Friday night high school football game, heightens my appreciation that I'm an American by birth and Southern by the grace of God.
Folks my age may not have seen as much as "the greatest generation," but we've certainly benefited from their leadership and enjoyed the fruits of their labor. In our own right, though, we have experienced quite a few remarkable things.
Although not contiguously, I taught social studies in Georgia's public schools for more than 20 years, spanning four decades and parts of two centuries.
Each school year I tried to infuse excitement for social studies into my students; the easiest way to accomplish that was simply to tell them about three of the most exciting moments in my life which remain as emotionally stirring to me today as they did when they occurred back in the Dark Ages.
The first occurred in January 1961, when President John F. Kennedy charged my generation in his inaugural speech, to "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."
Are those words not electrifying even now? Get up! Get moving! Do something with your life! Don't sit there on your backside and ask what somebody else is going to give you! Ask what you can do for America, and make her greater!
Later, Kennedy challenged us to send a man to the moon and return him safely to the Earth, and before the decade ended.
I sat, mesmerized and unbelieving, trying to digest those words. Did the president really say "to the moon, boys, tallyho?" How amazing those words were in a day when jet airliners were a rarity.
How would we do it? The Russians had every school in America practicing radioactive fallout evacuation procedures as Sputnik orbited overhead. Down at Cape Canaveral, our own rocket scientists were busily dodging shrapnel as our efforts routinely exploded on the pad or were detonated shortly after blastoff.
Yet we began, slowly picking up momentum little by little, from the solo-piloted Mercury to the twin-seat Gemini programs and on to the three-man Apollo program. Racing the Russians, trailing in almost every significant category, NASA endured the disastrous Apollo I fire on the pad and revamped everything, though it meant losing more precious ground to the USSR.
All of this, remember, was being done against the backdrop of an American society being turned absolutely upside down daily by civil rights demonstrations, the Vietnam War, the assassination of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the rise of prolific drug use, free love, the revolutionary impact of The Beatles on rock-and-roll, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of apocryphal events.
Any one of those things would have stopped most countries in their tracks. But through it all, America's will to complete JFK's challenge never wavered.
And so it is that this weekend we celebrate the 40th anniversary of that third electrifying thing from my youth. Neil Armstrong, NASA's only civilian pilot, stepped off the lunar module, Eagle, onto the surface of the moon and announced: "That's one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind."
A few minutes later, "Buzz" Aldrin, the second man on the moon, uttered, simply: "Magnificent desolation."
Overhead, Michael Collins orbited a bit nervously in command module, Columbia; if his shipmates' single rocket motor failed to ignite, he faced a long, solitary ride home.
The rocket lit, of course. Americans, and indeed the entire world, celebrated as President Richard Nixon greeted the Apollo 11 crew aboard USS Hornet after their splashdown in the Pacific.
It boggles the mind, really, when you consider that the entire amazing episode, starting from scratch and ending with footprints on the moon, all occurred in one fantastic decade. And it leads me to conclude, when I ponder those unanswerable questions posed by the universe itself that when they set their minds to it, what Americans can accomplish is as limitless as the great abyss, itself.
Nat Harwell is a long-time resident of Newton County. His columns appear regularly on Sundays.