Fifty years ago Saturday my stoic father, Polish-speaking grandma, normally chatty teenage sister, tearful mother and I sat speechless on our living room couch as we watched men land and then walk on the moon.
We were dumbstruck.
So was Walter Cronkite.
If you’re old enough, you might remember what that dean of American journalists said to us viewers when the Eagle landed. Cronkite removed his ubiquitous black-rimmed eyeglasses, rubbed his (probably sweaty) hands together, suppressed a tear or two of his own, smiled like a kid in a candy store and said:
And do you remember what he said when Neil Armstrong later stepped onto the moon’s surface?
And then to his broadcast partner, former astronaut Wally Schirra:
“Say something, Wally. I’m speechless.”
Cronkite, a war correspondent who had flown on bombing raids over Germany, eyewitnessed the Battle of the Bulge, the Nuremberg Trials and the Tet Offensive, could only express his own amazement and joy this time with childlike exclamations. Yet, those four words expressed perfectly our own thoughts and feelings. Yours too, maybe.
My journalism teacher, Hattie Steinberg, preached that if you want people to care about what you write, “Check your ego at the door.” She added: “Less is better.”
To drive home her point, she slashed and gutted our pretentious, fancy-schmancy rhetoric mercilessly. Once she scrawled across (not in the margin of) my “editorial” about the military draft: “What in the world are you saying here? Stop showing off. Just say it!”
Then she handed me her copy of George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.”
“Read this,” she said. I did. Orwell rails against fancy-schmancy, pretentious rhetoric. Especially politicians’. Miss Steinberg had underlined two of Orwell’s six nonnegotiable rules of writing well:
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Later into that midsummer night in 1969 and right up through splashdown, the TV networks brought on sci-fi authors such as Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut and a bunch of scientists and journalists, all of whom opined about the moon and our arrival on it. Elected officials chimed in, too, of course.
Bradbury: “I’m willing to predict tonight that by the end of the century our churches will be full again. ... Because when we move out into the mystery, when we move out into the loneliness of space, when we begin to discover we really are three billion lonely people on a small world, I think it’s going to draw us much closer together.”
ABC’s Harry Reasoner: “The moon has always had a sort of spooky or evil quality to it. Strange things were always happening by the light of the moon, and most of them were unpleasant.”
Eric Severeid, Cronkite’s more cynical broadcasting partner: “Of course, the moon now is something different for the whole human race. There’s a price for everything. When you got the telephone you lost privacy. When we got the airplane, we lost a sense of travel. When we physically possess the moon, I suppose it will dawn on us … that spiritually we lose the moon we had for thousands of years. At least in terms of its remoteness, its wonder and mystery, the romance and poetry of it. There’s a line in Shakespeare’s Henry IV … that says, ‘methinks ‘twere an easy leap to pluck bright honor from the pale-faced moon.’ And how any actor henceforth can utter that with a straight face, I don’t quite see.”
President Richard Nixon: “This is the greatest week in the history of the world since Creation.”
But from what I can remember, compared to Cronkite’s “Whew boy!” and “My golly!” all those lofty pronouncements seemed like verbal froufrou.
To me, Cronkite had said it all with four words.
Miss Steinberg would have been pleased.
Dick Schwartz lives in Minneapolis.