Walter Cronkite, the Moon Landing and Vietnam

Buzz Aldrin of Apollo 11

Icons continue to perish in these dog days of the summer of 2009. Today it was Walter Cronkite, at the splendid age of 93. He was a fixture on the CBS Evening News for four decades. His sonorous voice was at once urgent and soothing; compelling to watch during triumph, but reassuring in times of tragedy. As a boy growing up in the midwest, Mr. Cronkite illuminated our television set nightly. He delivered to me the grim news of JFK’s assassination, and updated me on the painful and bloody goings on related to the Vietnam war. The sudden death of a beloved president was shocking, while the war was a shock felt in slow motion. Two ends of the experience spectrum perfectly balanced by a journalist who also practiced psychology.

But he was at his best, in my opinion, when he had a major story he could unfold over several days. Man’s first landing on the moon in July 1969, 40 years ago this week, was just such an event. I was way deep into the space program as a child and glued to the TV anytime NASA lit up a Saturn V rocket. I followed the Apollo space program closer than the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team and hung on Mr. Cronkite’s every word. In this still early age of media, the broadcaster was the single most important actor in these dramas. Once there was lift off you had to rely on “artist’s renditions” of the rockets and capsules as they made their way across the vastness of space. My family had been visiting relatives in Michigan during the Apollo 11 mission. All of us crowded around the set, quiet and transfixed on the small screen. In awe as we heard, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” and watched Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface.

Cronkite3Panel

On the other hand, the Vietnam war was the soundtrack of my youth. My oldest sister had a boyfriend who was shipped off for a tour of duty. He didn’t come back. Others returned, but they were forever changed. Our middle child, also a sister, marched in protest of the war. I read about it, talked about it, wrote about it and listed to Walter report the body count every night.

Of course the news is delivered much differently today and with lightning speed through the web. It’s not necessarily better or worse than those days of the network nightly news. But there is something to be said for the relationships we developed with anchors in those days. It was like a friend who knew you as a person and told you stories; happy and sad.

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