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Walter Cronkite and the Summer of ’69: A Reflection

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July 24, 1969. Cubs vs. Dodgers with Kenny Holtzman pitching. It was a magic season for the Cubs, magic that was broken before September destroyed the hopes of Cubbie fans old and new. But on that day, about an hour and a half before the first pitch, I was sitting, as I had often that season, in the grandstands with another few thousand people watching pre-game batting practice.

Some there were kids like me (I was 14) and some were veterans. And from the crackly public address system came word that the Apollo 11 astronauts were about to land safely on earth after their historic mission to the moon. Everything and everybody stopped: batting practice, the beer vendors, the frosty malt guy, even the legendary and notoriously rambunctious bums of the left field bleachers. Everyone understood as we listened to Walter Cronkite describe the splashdown, even days after the actual moon landing, that we were experiencing history.

Anti-war youth and hard-hatted construction workers put down their verbal weapons and stood together in that moment at Wrigley Field and everywhere else in this country, and across the globe, as the three astronauts, Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins, splashed down safely in the ocean days after the historic lunar landing. It was the culmination of eight days while the world watched, waited, and stood in awe together.

It was something good and unifying in an era of divisiveness and conflict. The war in Vietnam continued to rage and the generation gap never seemed wider. But during those days—from blast off on July 16th through the lunar landing on the 20th and Neil Armstrong’s remarkable words as he took that first step on that most foreign of soil to the crew’s safe return home on the 24th – we were a global village before we knew such a thing even existed, connected by transistor radios, television images, and Walter Cronkite.

When the Eagle landed on the moon on July 20, Cronkite, that most veteran of a generation of hardened newscasters, a pioneer himself, had been rendered speechless. Emotional, and wiping tears from his eyes, Cronkite had nothing to say, and perhaps, appropriately, no words were needed. With only the astronauts’ and Houston Control’s exchanges, and CBS’ simulated pictures, we shared the landing and the emotion of the moment.

Soon the simulation was replaced by real, live images from the surface of the moon, as Armstrong descended the steps of the lander and onto the moon’s gray, powdery surface. “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind,” said Armstrong as he made the final step from the lander’s ladder onto the surface.

Cronkite’s experience was ours. He didn’t presume to know more than we did, but expressed what everyone seemed to feel, an avatar to our own emotions in that moment. He watched along with all of us, even initially missing the second part of Armstrong’s now famous (and often satirized) quote.

“Neil Armstrong, 38-year-old astronaut, standing on the surface of the moon,” was all Cronkite needed to say. I don’t remember much about the moment he landed. It was late, and my parents had thought to wake me up from a sound sleep to share in the experience of the first steps on humankind’s first steps on the moon. But a few days later, standing among the throng of baseball fans in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field, I fully felt the impact of a “shared historic moment,” and it’s what I remember most about that week 40 years ago.

The Cubs won that day and were on their way to World Series, or so we all thought (or wanted to believe) at the time. They folded (as was their custom) by late August, but that shared moment in time has stayed with me for forty years. There were no Blackberries, iPhones; no pagers to keep you up to the minute on the unfolding events, just everyone listening to the trusted voice of Walter Cronkite, his voice, somber; the gravitas of the moment imbued in every word, narrating their journey—and ours—into the hitherto unknown and back to terra firma.

In an irony that would not have been missed by the iconic television newsman, Cronkite died yesterday, Friday, July 17, 2009, forty years exactly after that week’s events. It seems so long ago, that July week in 1969. The footage and simulations seem antiquated in the instantaneous and high-tech nature of the news today. Even more so with the advent of Twitter and its on-the-ground, on-the-spot reporting, unfiltered and raw. An as-it-happens experience.

On the other hand, maybe the Twitter feeds are more like Cronkite’s reporting of the moon landing than it appears. Or Cronkite’s on-the-scene reporting of the Vietnam war or protest marches on the streets of America. Raw and somehow more real, so unlike the packaged and spin-controlled news of cable TV, Cronkite’s reporting had immediacy and impact, telling it like it was, not what the inevitable spin-doctors, analysts, and strategists would have us believe.

“And that’s the way it was,” Cronkite would sign off each night of the CBS Evening News. That week in July 1969, when we were for that moment a nation unified in awe, listening, watching, and holding our collective breaths right along with Mr. Cronkite.

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,” said Charles Dickens of another era, another place (Tale of Two Cities). We went to the moon, and the promise of President John F. Kennedy’s dream was fulfilled. Yet the war raged on as did the generational and racial low-level warfare at home. But we went to the moon, and for that week in mid-July, 40 years ago, and that “small step” for man, nothing else seemed to really matter. Even to Walter Cronkite.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • The best thing I liked among all the accolades for him this weekend? People said he was a genuinely nice man.

    That beats the pants off anything else you could say.

  • Barbara,

    That was an excellently written article. Far better these few pieces on a true icon of news broadcasting, Walter Cronkite, than the orgasmic outpouring of trash on an overrated singer who died from a heart attack recently.

    Perhaps, the only thing you failed to mention (understandably, you were only a kid in 1963) was that Walter Cronkite was a national avatar in many events in that troubled series of years where he was an anchor for CBS News, once the best in the business.

    kol hakvód – all honor to you! Full marks, Barb!

  • Barbara S Barnett

    I was weaned on “That Was the Week That Was,” where Tom morphed from a Math professor to a troubadour of the times

  • A fitting video link to this memorable song.

  • Orange450

    We were a loyal Huntley-Brinkley family. Probably because of the ending theme (2nd movement of Beethoven’s 9th).

    My Viennese father – who shared a birthplace with Beethoven – raised us on that music. And even tho’ my dad was, and still is, more of a newspaper/radio person (he’s 87, ‘bis 120, and still doesn’t have a TV!), he enjoyed H-B because of the music.

    Eventually, I became a devoted Tom Lehrer fan, and discovered that he’d immortalized them in “So Long, Mom”:

    “While we’re attacking frontally,
    Watch Brink-a-ley and Hunt-a-ley
    Describing contrapuntally
    The cities we have lost…”

    How sad is it that nothing’s changed since that song was written, in 1965?

  • Barbara S Barnett

    Glen, thanks!
    Orange, thanks for sharing that memory. I think many of us have our memories of Cronkite, and yours is especially personal.

    Those newsmen of the day held special places in everyone’s memory book no matter how old or young. I remember when I was really young, Lowell Thomas’ newscast played on the radio every night during dinner. My (much older) brother was actually named after him!

  • Orange450

    A lovely article, Barbara.

    For 32 years, I’ve treasured the memory of a very brief personal interaction with Walter Cronkite. It was 1977, I was a college senior, and he’d come to my NYC school to deliver an open lecture to the student body on modern communications media and broadcast journalism. These were not my specific areas of interest, but I would have gone to listen to Mr. Cronkite speak about anything, so I attended.

    I had made sure to arrive early, in order to get a good seat, so I was sitting towards the front. Mr. Cronkite took questions at the end of his lecture, and I was one of the lucky ones to be called on. This was before the days of wireless mikes, the large auditorium was full, and I still remember my excitement, nervousness, and the necessity to almost shout my question so that it could be heard on stage.

    I don’t remember my question, but I remember how graciously Mr. Cronkite answered me. Something in his response raised a laugh from the audience, and he directed a twinkle at me. His warmth and genuine interest in students were palpable.

    As silly as it sounds, I’ve felt personally connected to him ever since.

  • Great article Barbara.