I stop the car just outside of town limits. My brother, Tim, sitting next to me, says, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Escort has landed.”

He’s referring to my “mission,” which I explained on our six-hour drive from Oak Park to Crandon, Wis., Queen of the Northern Woods, as the locals, perhaps wryly, are wont to call it.

We look at the sign – Crandon, Population 1969 – and then at each other. My brother whistles the Twilight Zone theme. Crandon 1969, the last year I accompanied my family on our annual, and eagerly anticipated, two-week summer vacation. Back then, the population barely broke 1,600. Crandon had grown, but not by much. [By the 2000 Census, the population had dropped to 1,961.]

I engineered this return visit because the 20th anniversary of the first moon landing is fast approaching, and everyone will reminisce about where they were when Neil Armstrong first scattered the lunar dust.

As it happens, I was here in Crandon.

The other reason for this trip was the need for a pilgrimage, the urge to return to some sacred source. With the possible exception of Mt. Sinai and Gettysburg, there is probably no ground more hallowed than the place a person spends his summer vacation from age 7 to 17.

At the end of each July, we made the trek from Oak Park in the family station wagon to Keeler’s Resort on the northern shore of Lake Metonga – joined by two other Oak Park families, 19 cousins total, for a fortnight’s frolic. We spent mornings playing softball in the open field behind our cottages. Swimming and water skiing consumed our afternoons. In the evenings, we fished from the end of the long pier for perch and bluegill while our parents gathered in one of the cottages for conversation, graced by frequent laughter, probably the most comforting sound I’ve heard in my lifetime.

That last summer was an eventful one: Chappaquiddick, Cubs vs. the Mets, Woodstock and, most important to me, Apollo 11. What a time to be 17 and approaching adulthood.

Apollo 11 blasted off on Wednesday, July 16. LBJ was on hand, as was Vice President Spiro Agnew, who, trying to steal JFK’s thunder, proposed we put men on Mars by the turn of the century. The Chicago Tribune editorialized that he might be trying to push us too far, too fast. How prophetic.

I was a bona fide space fanatic. I had followed John Glenn’s orbital flight breathlessly, suffered virtual vertigo when Ed White stepped out for the first spacewalk, endured the horror of the Apollo 1 fire.

And now, a mere 18 months after that catastrophic setback, two men were about to set foot on the moon. Clearly, we could accomplish anything. The sky was no longer the limit.

Maybe the effort exhausted us. Maybe we did, in fact, get too far ahead of ourselves.

The price of pilgrimage

Crandon, like the United States, is not on its last legs by any means, but it hasn’t taken any giant leaps in the last 20 years either. There’s a mini-mart gas station at the south end of town, kitty-corner from the abandoned A&W Root Beer stand (a severe blow to our nostalgia agenda). The bait shop across the street where we bought the magically effective “wigglers” (dragonfly larvae) for our fishing expeditions now doubles as a Radio Shack.

Berger’s Rexall Drugs, where, on a perfect summer afternoon, I lost my innocence over a double chocolate soda, is now Crandon Pharmacy, but they removed the soda fountain four years earlier. And the storefront that once housed Hamilton’s Bakery is empty. Every morning, after Mass in one of the cabins, we would make a run for sweet rolls; it seemed unspeakably decadent.

The old railroad depot has been moved east of town, where, in its new incarnation as the Crackerbox Café, it shares something resembling a mall with a hardware store and The Liquor Lode, which features a drive-thru window.

I’d been warned. “It won’t be the same,” people said. But I wasn’t expecting Utopia. Disappointment is part of the price one expects to pay for a pilgrimage. They say you can’t go home again, but you can. It’s just that most of us balk at paying the admission fee.

Besides, it isn’t what you don’t see that upsets you. It’s how much more you see with adult eyes.

Crandon is the kind of place where you can walk into one of the two motels, ask the proprietor if the rooms have cable TV and she’ll say, “No, but the other place does … and it’s newer!” When we show interest in the postcards at the front desk, she says, “Go ahead and take one. They’re not selling.”

A few years ago, Exxon made some noise about mining copper nearby, which hiked everyone’s hopes, but the market price fell and that idea was put on a shelf. Still, merchants remain cautiously optimistic. Things are better now, they say, than a few years ago, and Crandon has the benefit of being the Forest County seat, which generates steady courthouse business.

In the late afternoon, we drive down to the lake for the annual Lions Club Crab Boil. Under the picnic shelter in Municipal Park, members in gold vests raffle off bottles of booze and serve up bright red, freshly terminated crayfish, which thrive in the shallows here.

Over a beer, I put the last 20 years in perspective for my much more conservative brother. The 1960s, I contend, thanks to the space program, will be remembered as America’s “golden age,” and July 20, 1969 as this country’s finest moment. Richard Nixon, who proclaimed the next day a national holiday and got his name on the plaque that still rests at Tranquility Base, was also the first to cut NASA’s budget. The agency hasn’t been the same since.

America hasn’t been the same either. We lost our vision, our hunger for achievement. In the 1960s, we proved we were superb at short-distance races. Unfortunately, the space race is a marathon.

Doom and gloom, my brother retorts. He’s a Reagan disciple and thinks America’s back. He was 6 when the lunar module landed. He was born too late to know how it felt.

“Think back,” I say. “What has this country accomplished in the last 20 years that truly made you proud – something that begins to compare with Apollo 11?”

What about the electronics revolution, a great leap forward for technology?

“Direct by-product of the miniaturization process pioneered during spaceflights,” I reply.

That day

Down by the shore, the lake looks more beautiful than I remember and still seems relatively unexploited. The only noticeable concession to progress is a couple of motorized jet skis skimming across the surface. Rolling slopes on either side still support lush pine forests.

Against a wide swath of reflected sunlight, silhouettes cavort in the water, their graceful motions highly reminiscent of another time. Our moon, the one with footprints on its surface, rises behind us, waxing toward three-quarters. On July 20, 1969, it was just past first quarter. At 3:17:43 p.m. Central Daylight Time when the Eagle landed, I was on the local golf course, my mind a quarter million miles away.

To this day, I can’t look at a golf ball without being reminded of the cratered lunar surface.

While we ate dinner in our cottages that evening, Armstrong and Aldrin prepared to leave the lunar module. We gathered in the lobby of the old lodge at the top of the hill in front of an unreliable black-and-white TV and prayed for good reception. Walter Cronkite noted that some 400 million people had joined us. The whole world was watching.

The picture was fuzzy, a Rorschach test of light and shadow. The voice transmissions, however, made it seem immediate. At 9:56:20 p.m. (CDT), Armstrong stepped off the ladder. The moment came too quickly. “That’s one small step …” My God, he’s down! “… for a man …” I can’t see his feet. I want to see where he touched. “… one giant leap for mankind …” What’s he feeling? “The surface is fine and powdery …” Where’s the awe? It’s what he isn’t saying that I want to hear.

We watched, with gradually diminishing intensity, the collecting of rock samples, the placement of a spring-loaded American flag and the president’s congratulatory phone call. The moonmen stayed out for 2 hours and 20 minutes. All the while, Michael Collins orbited alone, 70 miles above them, in the Columbia command module. I felt sorry for him but would have traded places in an instant.

The moon had set by the time I returned to the cottage.

The next day, the Chicago Tribune reported that people all over the world danced in the streets. In Chicago, 38,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, who had crammed into Comiskey Park, saw the landing as “a sign that our universe is in its last days.”

The Tuesday Trib editorial, titled “Ad Astra Per Aspera,” proclaimed, “It is certainly a day for generosity and aspiration, and all of us chained to this planet must now be able to see, with fresh eyes and insight, that we are brothers in spirit and that we should be reaching out to validate what the moon journey has so convincingly demonstrated: that the unattainable no longer exists. In that sense of unity, let us go forward together.”

By the end of Apollo 11, NASA had spent some $22 billion to fulfill John F. Kennedy’s goal. In the afterglow, astronauts and NASA administrators alike waxed optimistic about the future. At a White House dinner following their triumphant return, Neil Armstrong said, “We hope and think … that this is the beginning of an era when man understands the universe around him and the beginning of an era when man understands himself.”

For a while, the moon looked different: closer, tamed, dry and hard as ancient bone, the romance diminished, but not the mystery. It seemed accessible, close by in the cosmic neighborhood. Now it’s back to being a decorative bauble, glued to the ceiling of our nighttime dome, a purveyor of ambiance rather than a stepping stone to the stars.

Nowadays, Americans are hard-pressed to remember the date of the first moon landing or even the names of the three astronauts. An event of this magnitude should be honored every year by an international day of remembrance. We observe Columbus’ discovery of a new continent, but not mankind’s arrival on another world.

Memory monsoon

First thing Sunday morning, my brother and I drive into the old resort by way of a gravel road that now bisects the old softball field. The lodge is gone. It burned to the ground in 1980. We park near our old cottage, privately owned now by the Eisenschenks of Manitowoc, according to a small sign.

It’s still early. No motorboats disrupt the water’s persistent slap against hard-packed sand. Over a period of two weeks, that sound would permeate and perform, as Coleridge said, “its secret ministry.” Screen doors open and close, then a muffled slam from some distant car door – sounds so familiar, so deceptively intimate.

The scene, of course, unleashes a monsoon of memories, and we commit ourselves wholeheartedly to the important and necessary business of remembering. It is more pleasant than sad, and I feel blessed for having lived it.

But there is an unbridgeable disparity between past and present. The past seems so alive, but it’s all a magnificent apparition.

A single blue heron, with slow grace, takes flight from the surface of the lake.

“Liftoff. We have liftoff,” my brother says, as clear a cue for departure as we’re likely to get.

We turn south on the way out of town. My brother sighs and says, “I feel cleansed.”

I glance over just long enough to see that he’s serious. I know the feeling. It’s the sensation by which pilgrims to the past measure their progress.

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