Monday, July 20, 2009

"Magnificent Desolation"...

I was 19 at the time and attending an eastern university - where for the past year I had enjoyed way too much social life and done way too little school work...understandably, a source of significant consternation to my parents. In a month, the "Woodstock Festival" would rock my generation with music, mud, twenty-mile line-ups, and the 500,000 guests who headed "down to Yasgur's farm". In two months, I would meet my event that would bring much relief to my parents, and immense joy to me. It would be another two years before my father's love of his home-built kayak would send me scurrying (with limited funds) for a couple of fibreglass whitewater/touring "singles" for J and I.

On this particular summer weekend in July of 1969, in the midst of a summer job working for the railroad in remote regions of British Columbia, we had managed to scrounge a ride on a freight train headed to Vancouver. It would be several days of rare and welcome respite from the physically exhausting work of digging holes for replacement telegraph poles along the historic Canadian Pacific railway route - by hand with only a bar, shovel and "spoon" for tools. The accomodations in Vancouver would be "5-star" luxury, in comparison to the rough and ready conditions of the old railroad coaches that were hooked up to the end of passing freight trains and parked in forgotten railroad sidings. This would indeed be a supreme party weekend!

One of my fellow workers and a good friend, with whom I spent three summers on the railroad, was a student from Montreal, and a member of the Delta Kappa Epsilon ("Deke") fraternity. He had miraculously arranged for three of us to stay at the "Deke House" on the UBC campus for a couple of nights. We had been away from "civilization" for over two months and had begun our jobs back in May with longer-than-shoulder length hair, unruly beards, and a firm belief in "peace, love, and happiness" - it was, after all, 1969! Anyway, after two months of digging holes and breathing telegraph-pole-creosote in the most isolated of mountain passes, our "language" and social graces had deteriorated to the point where we took great pleasure in making the more refined and "citified" members of the frat house blush - or at least squirm at the thought of us bunking in. I suppose we might have stood out just a little on campus - even if it was 1969!

Working on a railroad gang, in those days, meant being away from the news and the likelihood of timely communications in general. We didn't even have telephone service of any type while working along the ribbons of steel. I had probably forgotten that this particular weekend was going to make history - more dramatically, perhaps, than any other event the world had ever seen! By Sunday morning, however, we were well "up to speed" on what was going on and were completely transfixed, even mesmerized, by the events transpiring before us on the TV screen, 40 years ago today, in the fraternity house common room. What was happenening before our very eyes made us forget every idea of "partying" through the weekend. Reality was by far surpassing anything that we could have imagined ourselves doing!

Just after lunch hour, Pacific Daylight Time, a spacecraft landed on the Sea of Tranquility - on the surface of the moon. Some six hours later, a Lunar Module camera transmitted live coverage of Neil Armstrong stepping off the ladder and touching the surface dust - almost 400,000 kilometers from our fragile, island planet. Several minutes later, Buzz Aldrin joined Armstrong on the surface while Michael Collins flew his lonely solo mission, in lunar orbit, awaiting their safe return. Overwhelmed by the awesome drama of this extraordinary event, I'm sure there were few words that could have adequately described what we, and so many around the world, felt.

Forty years ago today: the first footsteps on the moon. Since that day, I have grown and matured and, I pray, gained at least a little wisdom. Over those four decades I have often looked up at the stars and the moon as, when a young child, my father and mother taught me I must often do - and remembered that very special day. As I record these memories, I am on Gabriola Island, and I can look across the Strait of Georgia to Point Grey on the mainland. From here, I can easily see the tall buildings of the University of British Columbia. Somewhere, amidst those buildings, a group of students once sat, in a fraternity house common room - forgetting, at least for a while, their own egos, their own needs, and their own immediate concerns. Forty years ago, almost to the moment, we earthlings discovered that there need be no "ceiling" to our dreams when, with unfailing spirit and enthusiasm, we can work to make them come true.

Could we even dream of a world that might one day know "peace, love, and happiness"? Yes, we could do that. I think we must do that.


"Magnificent desolation" - Buzz Aldrin's description of the lunar landscape.


  1. Ah yes I actually do remember this day ....(just didn't know the date) but it was a very exciting moment. It seems like only yesterday hard to believe it was 40years ago.

  2. The possibilty of "peace, love, and happiness"...some may say that we're dreamers - but we're not the only ones...

    I say "why not" - it's just going to take creating some "balance" in the world. Geez, if we can get to the moon!

    Jarv (there in '69)

  3. Yeah, we rock on Dunc' - it's a good time to be alive! See you on the water sometime - or maybe above the tree line?

    John C