I swear I saw man walk on the moon. I vividly remember how we huddled around my parents' black-and-white set as the Eagle landed and how those six hours flew before Neil Armstrong emerged and stepped into the history books. I recall letting out the same breath of relief as Walter Cronkite did when he whipped off his glasses, rubbed his hands together and delivered the day's second most poetic line: "Whew, boy!"

There's only one problem with this memory. It never happened.

I was only 17 months old at the time and my love affair with television had yet to begin. Heck, "Sesame Street" wouldn't even premiere for four months.

But those of my generation have seen the grainy footage so many times that we feel we know exactly what it was like to be among the 500 million viewers worldwide who watched it live 40 years ago today.

Of course, we're kidding ourselves. There's no way we can fully understand what it was like to witness such a feat in the midst of a Cold War, when beating the Russians meant more than playing stupendous hockey. There's no way to relive the thrill of seeing Cronkite lead us through a moment of triumph rather than tragedy, following a year that marked the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. It can't be coincidence that Uncle Walter left us last Friday at the same time 40 years ago that the Eagle was in flight. Sweet karma.

There's also no way to duplicate the boyish wonder shared by a pre-"Star Wars" generation that didn't even own microwave ovens and thought color TVs were a rich man's luxury.

"It's hard for someone your age to realize the low level of technology in those days," said Pinky Nelson, who grew up in Willmar, Minn., before serving on three space flights as a NASA astronaut. He now teaches science at Western Washington University in Bellingham. "We were still watching black-and-white TVs. There were no portable radios. There were no computers that didn't fill up a room, no hand-held calculators. To pull off a feat like this that required technology so far ahead of where the average citizen was, it was mind-blowing."

It's possible that many of my generation and younger ones will treat today's anniversary with a mighty shrug. Where exactly did those moon landings get us? It's not as if the astronauts discovered the cure for cancer up there or brought back some scrumptious new cheese. And when will we be able to spend spring break at the Sea of Tranquility?

I hear you. But let's remember that for one shining moment, the world's TV audience bonded -- not because two buildings collapsed, not because a president was gunned down while waving to a Dallas crowd, not because a princess' shining flame was snuffed. We bonded out of joy. We bonded over the unbelievable. We bonded over possibilities. Those are reasons enough to spend a few extra moments tonight gazing up at the moon and whispering: "Whew, boy."

njustin@startribune.com • 612-673-7431