Column

Kerth: Searching for footprints from past that last forever

A couple of months ago, while a friend and I drove through western Illinois, I realized that we only were a short drive from Macomb, where I had gone to college at Western Illinois University in the late 1960s.

We decided to swing west and check out the university, which I hadn’t visited in decades.

But aside from visiting the campus, high on my list of things to see was the little cottage at 435 N. Chandler St.

It was the tiny house my wife and I had rented for $68 a month in the summer of 1969, as we went to summer quarter classes.

It was there on July 20 of that summer that we stood, hand in hand on the gravel driveway next to our red-and-white 1962 Chevy II, and stared at the moon as Neil Armstrong pressed the first human footprints ever to be made outside of Earth soil.

As we stared at the moon on that long-ago July night, I shuffled my feet, making my mark in the gravel. A quarter-million miles over my head, Neil Armstrong did the same thing.

Those footprints, in the absence of wind and rain and atmosphere, might last a million years.

Gail and I had just gotten married in June, and I would earn my bachelor’s degree less than a year later, when I would have to decide if I wanted to press on and work toward a master’s degree or seek a job as a teacher.

And as we stood staring into the sky, I was awestruck at how much and in how many ways our lives were changing. It made me dizzy to think of it.

And yet, the very thought that men were walking on the moon gave us courage. If they could do that, then we could do anything.

We would find a way to survive Vietnam. We would find a way to earn a living and raise children. We would find a way to keep our promise to love and honor each other until death do us part.

And now, this summer 50 years later, it was important to me to return to that spot where we gazed at the moon and wondered how in the world we would make it all work.

At the start of any epic journey, doubt creeps in and threatens to paralyze all action. It must have felt that way to all the scientists, technicians and astronauts at the start of the Apollo program.

After all, they faced challenges for which there were no solutions – at least not at the time. They put their trust in technology that hadn’t yet been invented. They trained for missions for which there was no plan B should anything go wrong.

And yet, they made it happen in the only way that any epic challenge happens, whether it be a marriage, a career or a moon landing – step by step, day by day, failure by failure until the goal is reached.

It was, as someone once said, like driving through fog at night. You can never see any farther than your dim headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

It must have seemed an impossible dream in September 1962, when President John F. Kennedy said: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”

And yet, impossible or not, when Kennedy spoke those words, less than seven years later, Neil Armstrong took that one small step for a man on the moon.

And to a young man and his young wife, holding hands on the gravel drive and staring up at the moon as the successful mission unfolded, Kennedy’s words served as inspiration.

Our new marriage – and our new careers that loomed – we chose not because they would be easy, but because they would be hard, because those goals would serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because those challenges were ones that we were willing to accept, unwilling to postpone. And we intended to win at them.

And win at them we did. Gail and I both enjoyed successful careers as teachers, each of us retiring after spending our entire career at only one school.

Our marriage was as successful as any marriage could be, and it lasted until death parted us a little more than a year ago, after being together for almost 50 years.

So, this summer, I wanted to go back and stand once more where I stood then, when all our epic journeys were just beginning.

As I turned onto Chandler Street, I slowed down.

The little cottage at 435 N. Chandler would be on the right side, only a few houses from the corner.

And yet, as I read the numbers on the houses, I realized that something was wrong.

The little cottage was gone. Sometime over the past half-century it had vanished, and along with it the little gravel drive where we stood holding hands, gazing at the new-trod moon.

I sighed with resignation, but I can’t say that my heart was filled with sadness. Because all epic journeys must sometime end – cottages, careers, lunar missions, marriages.

The world spins through season after season.

The moon cycles through phase after phase.

Yet, through it all, we leave behind indelible footprints in fragile dust that will never be erased in a million years.

And oh, what a fun stroll it has been!

• Tom “T.R.” Kerth is a Sun City resident and retired English teacher from Park Ridge. He is the author of the book “Revenge of the Sardines.” He can be reached at trkerth@yahoo.com.

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