Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Lunar Landing. . .or Lunacy?

Do you believe that America sent a man to the moon?

Dima is a police officer friend and he’s all business when in uniform. Otherwise, he’s a mischievous kid. Today, he was out of uniform and relaxing at the church building. Even so, he was totally serious.

What’s that again? Our conversation was in Russian, of course, and I figured I hadn’t heard him right.

Do you think it was true – that America sent a man to the moon?

Of course! I saw it with my own eyes on television. I laughed at the words coming out of my mouth. As though being on television made it true.

(Photo courtesy of NASA)

I do remember that summer of ’69. I was heading into my senior year and life was golden. And that July evening, our family crowded around a television to watch the big event. As important as the Apollo landing was, it wasn’t the only milestone that day. Not for our family, anyway.

It was only the second time during my years at home that Dad allowed a television in the house. The first time was November, 1963 for the funeral of JFK. So I definitely remember the moon landing in all its black and white splendor.

Of course I believe it, don’t you?

Nyet, I don’t. For one thing, remember the pictures of the American flag the planted on the moon? Well, there’s no wind on the moon, right? So how could the flag be waving?

Hmmm . . .interesting! This was news to me.

I avoid political discussions and our little chat was borderline. But my interest had been piqued.

Later, I saw another friend, Zhenya relaxing in an armchair. He’s a young guy, steady and objective. Figuring he had overheard our conversation earlier, I asked him what he thought about the moon landing.

Nyet, I don’t think it happened, he said quietly. And that’s what most people here think as well.

I managed to stay calm, detached even during these conversations. That wasn’t hard because, at the risk of sounding unpatriotic, I’ve never been much of a space program groupie. Or at least I hadn’t been until all this came up. On the other hand, I do value honesty. So if we claim to have sent a man to the moon but sent him instead to the Arizona desert for a photo shoot, that’s pretty serious. My curiosity was accelerating rapidly.

* * * * *

That evening I did an internet search and the volume of information on this topic could fill a small crater. At the Wikipedia site, for instance, is a list of hoax claims, ranging from the flag waving issue to the deaths of key Apollo personnel whose demise has been linked to an alleged cover-up. Along with each hoax claim is a rebuttal by someone involved in the space program. Okay, whatever.

(Photo courtesy of NASA)

What I do find interesting is the opinion of the ordinary Cossack on the street. So I’ve been conducting a totally unscientific survey, asking folks, What do you think about the lunar landing: Do you think it really happened or do you think it was a hoax? Here are their responses.

The nyets – it never happened:
A taxi driver, mid 50s: Of course not. It never happened. The thing is, America is so busy wanting to be number one, to rule the world, that they say things like that. Why, look what they’re doing now in Iraq. . . and they think they can push Russia around. But now thanks to Putin, Russia is getting stronger and. . . etc, etc, and etc. . .

Artash, a university student: No, no I think it did not happen. I’ve seen several programs on this and I believe it probably did not happen.

Irina, mid-40’s, clerk at the corner grocery store: Well, earlier I believed it was true. Now I have my doubts after watching some TV programs.

Taxi driver, mid 40s: What difference does it make? Either it happened or it didn’t happen. I don’t care one way or the other, he said with a laugh, gauging my reaction through the rearview mirror.

Lyda, mid 40’s, a clerk another grocery store: I have no idea.

Customer in the grocery store: This 60-something lady was in line behind me and had overheard the previous conversation. I noticed her brown wool coat, brown felt hat and brown eyes to match. When asked for her opinion, she hedged. The real question, is if there is life elsewhere in space. Is there life on Mars? That’s what we need to be focusing our energies. I had to smile. Mrs. Brown is a diplomat typical of an earlier era. Make no waves, offend no one. Mrs. Brown gets the prize for the most politically correct, Soviet response.

Da! The moon landing happened:
A lady who sat beside me on the tram, mid 60s, retired engineer: Of course it happened, why not? Then she launched into a passionate speech about how wonderful the US government is. We talked quietly so other passengers wouldn’t overhear our conversation but, as I learned later, we were surrounded by listening ears.

A young mother: After the tram, I found myself walking in step with a 20-something woman and her preschool son. It was a crisp autumn evening and in the southwestern sky floated a crescent moon. Tell me, I said, what do you think about the moon landing. Did it happen or not? Oh, I overheard your conversation about that on the tram, she said with a smile. And sure, I believe it happened. We had a ways to walk yet so I continued, And you know, we believe that we know who created that moon. Yes, she said, We believe God created it, don’t we? she said addressing her little fellow.

Gheorge, a 60-something construction worker, retired: Sure, absolutely it happened. Amerika was the first to the moon.

Pavel, a 50-something microbiologist and physician turned preacher. Of course it happened. That other stuff is just old Russian propaganda. Ask those guys who think it was a hoax, ask them if they really believe Gagarin made it into space and Belka and Strelka – the dogs – or if that was just staged as well.

* * * * *

And so there you have it folks. There’s the whole spectrum of views. Those who think it is a hoax tend to be younger folks who have seen programs about it on television. But there are skeptics in the US as well. According to a Gallup poll, 6% of Americans consider the moon landing a fraud, 5% are undecided and 89% believe.

So, how about you?

Where were you summer of ’69? Did you catch the moon landing on television? Do you believe it happened – or was it staged somewhere outside Albuquerque?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

I. . .Will. . . Sur-vive!

With a nod to Gloria Gayner, consider please the plight of the Thanksgiving turkey. At first I was an egg, I was petrified... (Bet you can't watch this just once...)

The Evolution of Dance
And now, boogy off a few calories - or let this guy do it for you - with Our Favorites from waaay back!

Monday, November 19, 2007

In a Chair by the Window

Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of. . . a day to do nothing, absolutely nothing. Except to unwind. To sink into an armchair, pick up a book and read in the muted sunlight of a November afternoon. Add some iced tea and it's sheer, unmitigated bliss. In fact, maybe I'll go read some more right now. The sun set an hour ago but that chair and a book or two are calling my name. But first, let me go refresh my tea...

How about you? Do you have a place that invites you to come, sit and recharge?

Friday, November 16, 2007

Pressing on . . .through The 40s

Blame it on The Andrews Sisters but for the last week or so strains of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, have been drifting through my mind… A-toot, a-toot, a-toot-diddelyada-toot, He blows it eight-to-the-bar, in boogie rhythm. . .

I’m just catching up on The 40s, the decade when my parents graduated from high school. That’s thanks to a cache of videos that I discovered, here in Rostov-on-Don, of all places, in the public library. On first floor is the Center of Foreign Language with books, periodicals and videos in Germany, French and English. Lots more.

I only recently discovered a bookcase back in a corner there crammed with videos of US history, many PBS documentaries. First I checked out a set about FDR and his presidency, then another about America between the world wars and now a set about Harry Truman.

I wasn’t looking for historical videos. I was looking for a way to catch up on my ironing. That and polishing my boots. Can anything be more boring? Add a video and suddenly, chores aren't so bad. In fact, I'm considering offering to help the neighbors with their ironing.

My parents and grandparents knew The 40s. Both grandfathers were in WWI and Dad was in post-war Germany. He and Mom married in the late 40s. They were raised during The Depression, of course, and they contributed wholeheartedly to The Baby Boom.

I remember once walking past a university classroom and overhearing a colleague, Ladies and gentlemen, the micro is always affected by the macro. And he repeated himself a time or two for good measure, shouting with the fervor of a small town preacher from a by-gone era. It’s not news of course that whatever is going on in a culture, in a country, in a community affects the smallest unit of society, the family.

When the country is going through bleak financial times, when sugar and gasoline are being rationed, that’s going to affect a family of four boys who live at 315 Broadway Street in Girard, Ohio. And when cloth is at such a premium that hemlines and sleeves are shortened across the nation, a family of four girls in rural Wayne County, Ohio is going to know it. My parents were raised in those families, their lives typical of so many others.

How ironic for me to relive all this history from the comfort of my own living room here on Semashka Street in Rostov-on-Don. Well, it's as comfortable as ironing denim shirts and pillowcases could possibly be. I wonder though, did those Andrews sisters do any ironing? It’s certainly safe to assume they never ironed while watching themselves on video.

How about you: Do you iron? Do you enjoy history? Do you sing Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy - while you're ironing? Or while showering, for that matter?

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Little Laika: Top Dog in the Space Race

(Photo courtesy of Reuters News Service)

November 3, 1957, the Soviets blazed a trail into space by launching the first living creature, a dog named Laika (Little Barker). The project was launched only one month after Sputnik in October 1957, the first satellite in orbit. Premier Krushchev, still heady with the international excitement of being first in space, ordered his space program to come up with something special for November 7th, the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution - when Czar Nicolas II was booted out and Communists came to power.

Soviet scientists were in a bit of a quandary how to top Sputnik and design something special and successful within weeks. No pressure there of course. ;) So when someone suggested launching a dog into space, undoubtedly shouts of BINGO (бинго!) were heard in the laboratory. There was hardly enough time to design a space craft let alone a re-entry craft. And so, unfortunately for the little Laika, along with the honor of being first in space came the dubious honor of being the first cosmic martyr.

Nine days before the launch, two small dogs were selected, both stray mongrels, considered better suited for the harsh conditions than purebreds. Russia is the land of the stray as I often say, so there was no shortage of choices. How the lot fell to Laika is still grounds for speculation. She was chosen because of her good looks, one story goes. The lucky dog needed to be photogenic considering that her face would be printed in papers around the world. Another story is that Laika’s rival was top dog in the hearts of the space scientists and they couldn’t bear to think of her demise in space. And so it was that little Laika was chosen for the auspicious role.

(Photo courtesy of Reuters News Service)

Other questions might surface: Did Laika have any choice? Did she go willingly? did she at least get to bid her loved ones farewell? Alas, some things are left for the ages, the answers echoing somewhere in the stratosphere. For little Laika, the choice was only to do and die, not to ask the reason why.

After Laika’s debut in the space program, other dogs followed her into the cosmos. The most famous were Belka (White-y) and Strelka (Little Arrow) in August, 1960. In a documentary shown on local TV last Sunday, we saw the landing of their space craft, Sputnik 5, out in the steppe somewhere, being met by several folks in a pickup truck, as I recall, including someone in a lab coat and little Belka being helped out of her rig, not unlike a sausage stuffed into a casing. But she emerged happy and frisky and tickled to be back on planet earth. Belka and Strelka were not alone; they were accompanied by a rabbit, 42 mice and 2 rats. All passengers survived.

After she returned from space, Strelka bore a litter of puppies, one of which Nikita Krushchev presented as a gift to a young Caroline Kennedy. The little dog became a family pet only after passing security clearance because this was, after all the height of the Cold War. There was no need for another spy, particularly a four-footed one.

The following spring when the Soviets sent the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin was said to have quipped, I still don’t understand who I am: the first human or the last dog in space.

Photos: Above, that's me with Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. Below, Statue erected in honor of his visit to Rostov-on-Don, July 1967.