In 1969 I was a seventeen year old nerd in high school, using my slide rule to cheat in math class. I was probably the only one in the school who even had a clue how a slide rule worked, let alone owned one.
Most of my teen aged friends were amateur musicians, and I'd fix their broken amplifiers for them. Guitar fuzzboxes were relatively new, and they were expensive, costing well over a hundred dollars in an age where a gallon of milk or gasoline cost not much more than a quarter and a high-end TV set, including oak cabinet, was around $500. I'd take ten dollar transistor radios, usually used and often broken, and hack cheap fuzzboxes out of them and sell them to my noisy friends for chump change.
I also worked at a drive-in theater, and the nights that I had to work in the ticket booth were boring nights, once people stopped coming in and the movie started. I couldn't keep enough library books checked out to keep me occupied, and Cahokia didn't have a very good library, anyway. So I bought a little twelve inch black and white Panasonic TV for the ticket booth. It also came in handy on the nights I didn't work, because we only had one TV in the house (the norm back then) and my younger sister and I would argue about what to watch, and our parents would wind up shutting it off. So now I had my own TV.
The whole world was anticipating Aldrin, Griffin, and Armstrong's trip to the moon. I don't remember what night of the week it was on, but I did have to work. In the summer the drive-in was always busy unless it was raining, which it wasn't.
My boss' name was George, and he and his his brother owned a string of theaters and restaurants. George was a good guy, a short, fat, second generation Greek with a great sense of bawdy humor. But he hated TV – TV was the theater's enemy, the competition that in his mind kept food out of his overerprivileged childrens' mouths. Despite this, tonight I was taking my TV to work and not to the ticket booth; Jim was selling tickets that night.
I pulled up and parked my mothers' car by the concession stand and walked in with my little television.
“What the fuck do you think you're doing with that thing?” George demanded.
“I'm watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land on the moon.”
“No, you're not. We're going to be busy tonight and I'm not having a TV set in my concession stand.”
“Sorry, George,” I told him, “but the first moon landing is only going to happen once. We're incredibly privileged to be alive right now. You can fire me and I'll go home, or I can watch it here. But I'm watching it!” Bill the projectionist came in, cursing himself for not bringing a television, and he saw mine. “All right!” he exclaimed. George gave him a hard time, and they argued about it for a while. I was ready to go home.
George relented, and he was wrong about it being a busy night, as we only had one carload of people; everyone else was at home watching the moon landing. George was one of the few people I knew that didn't care about it. My grandmother was sure that the moon landing was going to end in disaster, as God would surely not let us leave the planet and go to heaven to land on the moon. Everyone knew how dangerous it was, and how after tonight the world would be a completely different planet than it was the day before. Human beings were going to step onto the surface of another world and walk around.
I doubt those born afterwards can imagine what it was like. This was one time history was being made, everybody knew it, and everybody was going to watch it happen on live TV.
“Where in the hell is everybody?” George kept demand-ing, worrying and fretting.
Bill said “They're all at home watching history being made, you dumbfuck,” before going into the projection booth do do his nightly maintenance, which included splicing films where they were broken, firing up the arc lights inside the projectors, and getting the projectors synced. Each movie came on six to eight reels of film, and there was a mark at the top right of the screen that flashed momentarily to tell the projectionist to switch projectors. To the viewer, it was seamless if the projectionist was competent. You can still see the reel change marks on old movies you see on DVD if you know where to look.
The way a drive-in worked, there were short steel poles at every other parking spot, with two speakers hanging on them. You would park your car, and take the speaker, which had a wire going into the pole, and hang it from your car's window by its hook.
There was a reel to reel tape in the projection booth that played the same tape every single night over those speakers. The sun started setting, and that Godawful song from the movie M*A*S*H that I had to listen to every night I worked the concession stand played. “And suicide is painless, it brings on many changes...” What a stupid song, I thought to myself for the seemingly millionth time. I wished they'd get a new tape.
George was cursing the government for sending men to the moon. “What a fucking waste of tax money!” Of course, what had him really pissed was the business it was costing him.
The sun set and the movie started. I don't even remember what movie was playing that night. I watched TV most of the time, and there was only one show on – the moon show, on every channel, except of course every channel had a different moon show, up to the point where they were starting the landing. Bill almost missed one of the reel changes because he was out there watching with me.
As the lander was touching down, all of us were watching in awe, even George. The lone carload's occupants came in to the concession stand. “Is there a TV in here anywhere?”
We all watched the moon landing; me, George, Bill, the other kids who worked there, and our lone carload of customers, on my little twelve inch black and white TV set.
That's one small step for Neil, one giant leap for a young nerd watching it on TV at work.
Jul 20, 2009
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