Oh, what a night… July 20, 1969…
It was 51 years ago that the Apollo lander settled on the surface of the Moon. The awe and accomplishment of the technological and spiritual achievement was global, and yet was deeply personal to everyone who lived through it.
In 1969, the nation suffered through Vietnam protests and Richard Nixon, but there was also Woodstock and the Moon landing.
Everyone — who was alive and conscious on July 20, 1969 — can tell you where they were when Armstrong said it was a small step for a man, but a giant leap for Mankind.
For me, it wasn’t where I was when he set foot on the Moon, but where I wasn’t.
The kitchen in a fast food restaurant was the place that gave my relationship with my father its one, bright, shining moment. It also taught a hard lesson that actions have consequences.
The Summer of ‘69
I was the youngest fry-cook in all of Washington County, 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 Alan had paved the way by working there first.
It was a sweet deal — my starting wage was $1.10 an hour. Do the math, that added up to a whole $10.80 a day and, if overtime was involved, man, that was serious bread. Within a year, I’d gotten a raise to $1.35 an hour. And, of course, those burgers only cost nineteen cents, and a quarter for a cheeseburger so that went much further than today.
At the time, I was very into the whole Moon landing, even more (if possible) than the rest of the country. I’d actually tried to mimick a Gemini capsule with a refrigerator box a few years earlier in our basement (my friend and I were going to stay inside for a week) until my mom made me come up and eat dinner.
Back in 1969, my dad, Harvey, was an American History teacher in Hillsboro, Oregon with two teenage boys and a stressful work environment. He wasn’t a touchy-feely parent like we have today, but a gruff guy who survived both the Great Depression and World War II. Even so, Harvey was pretty clear on the fact that history didn’t come in any bigger size than this.
Actions, Meet Consequences
The boss at the Arctic Circle 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. He and his wife, Julie, had just had 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.
So I asked Mariano if I could trade shifts with someone. No, he said. 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, threw 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 because there was almost no business since everyone else in town was home watching TV. 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. 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 (followed by Aldrin) from the Moon. It was the most exciting TV I had ever seen. Better than the Beatles on Ed Sullivan kind of TV, if you want to know the truth. Part of the attraction was the danger. These guys might die on live TV. Or they might sink into Moon dust and never be heard from again. You never knew.
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 would be 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 teenage fry-cooks.
Over the years, I’ve been fired from other jobs, and as a Hollywood writer/producer I’ve had many gigs terminated by bad ratings and political infighting. I’ve developed a thick skin about it.
All I know is that my dad had never stood up for me quite like that before and never quite like that after. It’s my most vivid memory of the man.
Every anniversary my mind returns to that fateful night. I remember July 20, 1969 as clearly today for turning in my greasy apron as I do for Armstrong and Aldrin doing the Moonwalk.