2009.12.16 The Man on the Moon

In 1969 I was spending my second summer working in Ben Tillman's crew refinishing desks for the Baltimore City Public School system. They only paid us as teachers for the ten months school was in session, and needless to say it wasn't much, so we were glad to have a chance to earn some extra money. We'd spend a couple of weeks at each school, sanding down the desktops and re-varnishing them, although the latter task was reserved for Tiny Shaw, a huge man who could handle the spray gun and didn't seem to mind exposing himself to whatever it was in the varnish that made it necessary for him to wear a face mask and work inside a plastic tent. I don't know if they paid him extra or not.

At lunchtime we separated into smaller groups, sometimes in different rooms. I gravitated to the one with Mr. Barrett and Daniel Simmons. Mr. Barrett was a preacher in his free time, and Daniel was about my age. Most of the conversation consisted of Daniel asking Mr. Barret about the Bible, so I could fit in just by keeping my mouth shut, between bites. I was the only white guy on the crew and on top of that a recent graduate of an "elite" school, Johns Hopkins, so I felt a little self-conscious.

That second summer, I noticed a change in Daniel. He was still very respectful to Mr. Barrett, but he was more agitated, more inclined to argue, sometimes having his own point to make rather than just asking for guidance. On occasion he would take on the whole group -- for example, challenging us to explain why Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president of Egypt, was considered to be a white man. "Does he have dark skin? Thick lips? Kinky hair? A broad nose?" The answer to all of these questions was yes, so Daniel was right. If Nasser had been an American, most people would have considered him black.

Then, that Monday morning when they landed on the moon, he seemed to lose it altogether.

There was a TV going and the atmosphere was subdued. We had all been rendered speechless, I thought, filled with awe at the sight of two people walking on the moon. On the moon! Most of us were against the war, as most of the country was by that time, and it was a subject we generally avoided. Feelings had worn too thin. Once you knew which side of the barricades people were on, which was one of the first things you learned about them, there was no more reason to talk about it -- unless you were looking for a fight, which you could have more easily just by wearing a peace button or a beard. But this was different. It was above politics, something, maybe the only thing, that we could all feel good about and share, as Americans and as human beings, even with Nixon and Kissinger.

"How do you know that's coming from the moon?" Daniel exclaimed at one point. "How do you know they're not filming it in a studio right down the street, or in Hollywood?"

"You can't be serious," I said, "We're watching it with our own eyes, right in front of us."

"What do you see? You see two people in space suits walking around and they tell you it's the moon. Why do you believe it? I don't. Prove it!"

I couldn't prove it, of course, and I didn't want to push it. I thought he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Nasser was one thing, but this was taking logic or whatever it was he was exercising too far. Or was it because the astronauts were white? Because it was not man on the moon, but the man? I didn't dare ask, but that's what I thought. He couldn't get past the race issue, not even for this.

A few weeks later the job ended, and I never saw Daniel again. Too bad. I'd like to meet him again and tell him he was right. I'm still not sure about the moon, but I've seen evidence that the photos were faked, and after all I've learned about the government's lies since then, I am disinclined to believe anything they say. This is not a subject I've looked into much, because frankly I don't give much of a hoot whether "we" landed on the moon or not, but I am content to be in the 5% that are "undecided," according to a 1999 Gallop poll.

Daniel was right to smell the snake oil. So were the thousands who had rioted after the murder of Martin Luther King the previous summer. I don't remember anybody saying it, but even if they had I wouldn't have heard it, any more than I could hear Daniel. The Kennedys had been shot, too, but I just didn't get it. I was against the war, hated Nixon and the war-mongering Establishment, which I thought was alienating enough, but in fact I was still clueless.

What could Daniel have told me, then, to make me understand? I suppose the answer to that question, if there is one, would be worth a lot. What does it take to make another person, especially a mollycoddled honky like myself (sorry, Self), understand what it's like to be jived, deep and hard, way down in your brain so that you don't know your own name anymore, to feel the cobwebs on your own skin and the giant shadow looming, to know it's just a matter of time before you, too, are eaten? How do you unlearn what they've taught you in school, learn that good ole Uncle Sam is Uncle Same from war to shining war, that the city on a hill is nothing but a heap of blood-drenched bones and guts, that Miss America is a Barbie doll that walks and talks but just can't lose that squeak of plastic?

It's a hard truth, and maybe I'm overstating it, but I don't think so. It is the truth, and a lot more people know it these days, after 9/11, two more fraudulent wars, and the in-your-face fascist reign of the Bush/Cheney gang. Even with Black Barbie and Ken living in the White House, as we are beginning to see, nothing much has changed. The go along to get along black president has forgotten most of what his preacher told him, e.g., about AIDS being biowarfare, or claims not to have heard it in the first place, promises peace through perpetual war and prosperity through bank bailouts, and doesn't want to hear from the tens of millions of his countrymen who want truth and justice about AIDS and swine flu, 9/11, the assassinations, and a lot of other things, not a black Big Brother.

I like to think that Daniel is still around, still nervous in the service of the truth, and saying, like me too now, whenever they tell us how great our country is and proud we should be to have a black president: "Prove it."