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Earthbound

A giant leap for mankind, a short drive for my family

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Neil Armstrong’s footprint on the moon, July 20, 1969. (Getty Images)

We were driving up the New York Thruway, my mother and I, wearing sunglasses, tanning our arms out the window, listening to Top 40 on the car radio. The song playing just then was called “In the Year 2525,” by a previously obscure duo named Zager and Evans, and it had risen to a hit more by lucky timing than tuneful hooks. In July 1969, as Apollo 11 hurtled toward the moon, the song prophesied the future of humankind.

More importantly to me, it provided some diversion from the grim duty at hand. My mother and I were heading toward a more proximate version of terra incognita, the summer camp where my sister Carol was being driven to despair. On this day, my mother would decide whether to accede to Carol’s pleas and bring her home.

Within days of Carol’s arrival at the camp two weeks earlier, we had received a string of desperate letters from her. There was, of course, no email then, no cell phones, no lenient rules about campers calling home. There were only those letters, coming day after day, filled with capital letters and exclamation points, the pages all but spotted with tears.

After enough of them, my mother could no longer ascribe the problem to homesickness. Besides, Carol had gone through a month at a different camp the previous summer without the slightest pangs. So my mother tried replying to Carol with advice for making friends, and she also placed a call to the camp’s owner, asking her to intercede.

None of it helped. The letters kept telling their tales of torment and ridicule—the cracks about her looks and her walk, the flashlights beamed at her sleeping eyes to force her awake. The camp director, evidently in response to my mother’s call, sifted through Carol’s footlocker, only to inform my sister that her clothing wasn’t up to par, as if to say the persecution was entirely justified. It was at that point my mother resolved to drive up and see for herself.

I went along only on the pretense of moral support. In fact, I felt complicit in Carol’s harrowing summer. On the day our family had dropped her off at a Westchester mall for the camp bus, my father got uncharacteristically lost making the last few turns. I’d been a reluctant party to this errand, and the prospect of any additional delay that kept me away from my friends and our daily Wiffleball games put me in the mood to punish.

As everyone in the family knew too well, Carol was a fragile soul. At 13, she was already five-foot-ten, full-breasted, and having her period. Maybe if she had been confident and assured, her early development would have been an asset. But she was epileptic, too, prone at unpredictable times to slip into petit mal seizures that we delicately called “spells,” and the rest of the time rendered vague and phlegmatic by the barbiturates that were medicine’s blunt instrument against her disease. So what could have been precocious allure came off as insecure gawkiness.

Most of the time, as the older brother, I had readily upheld our family code to protect her. Short and toothy, motormouthed among boys and tongue-tied with girls, I had enough anxieties of my own. The morning of the camp departure, though, I took aim. The latest of my sister’s indignities was a set of braces, and something in the metal turned her teeth an algae color. It happened only in a slender strip along the metal, invisible to any casual eye, but of course Carol imagined it being gaudy as neon to the world.

“Green teeth,” I started chanting in the car. “Green teeth, green teeth.” My father took a hand off the steering wheel to try to swat me into silence. Out of his reach in the back seat, I kept up the mantra, until Carol broke into sobs. By then we were finally at the mall, and the bus was ready to leave. The last I saw Carol, climbing aboard, she was still weeping.

By the morning of Apollo 11 and Zager and Evans, it was two weeks and a couple of days later, and my mother and I were pulling into the camp’s entrance. The owner met us and escorted us to Carol’s bunk. There she waited, along with her tormentors, who apparently had been summoned for the occasion.

I only needed one look at those girls to intuit what had happened. This camp was a Jewish camp, not in the sense of being operated by a denomination or a Zionist group, but in the de facto sense that most of the kids were Jews from New York’s prosperous suburbs. The girls had tans, and gleaming black hair, and tight bodies in their tennis whites.

My sister and I had always felt both inferior and superior to kids like that. We’d grown up in a Jewish family with radical yichus—grandparents who’d been anarchists, a father who marched in May Day parades, a mother who rejected her conventionally religious upbringing. We prided ourselves on knowing the lyrics to Tom Lehrer songs and subscribing to I.F. Stone’s Weekly.

The dividing line we drew wasn’t one of class, exactly. My father, to his own surprise, had grown into a successful capitalist with a company that designed and manufactured microbiology equipment. If anything, his financial success made us more adamant about not defining ourselves and our Jewishness by bank account and tax bracket and address. Being Jewish was about having politics, a certain kind of politics.

But faced with the reality of Jewish kids from the Five Towns or Millburn or Scarsdale, kids with social ease and fashionable clothes, my sister and I shriveled. Instead of disparaging their vapidity and materialism, we envied it. Or at least I did. A lot of times, I wished I could trade my class consciousness for a talent at flirtation. I wished I’d been one of those boys welcomed into the sanctum sanctorum of spin-the-bottle on the bar mitzvah party circuit.

As if they had been warned or prepped about our visit, the girls chatted amiably with Carol, making the summer’s woes seem nothing but typical camp pranks. I could see the insincerity of their show in about three seconds. I could also see, to my shock, those girls looking attentively at me.

I realized it was the sunglasses. The sunglasses, sea-green lenses and golden frames, were the only cool thing I owned, all the more so because they stood in on sunny days for the black horn-rim spectacles I normally wore. I dated my incompetence with girls to the day in sixth grade when the optometrist informed me I was near-sighted. All the camp girls knew, though, was that these sunglasses looked sort of like the ones Peter Fonda wore in Easy Rider.

I could have told those girls to leave my sister alone. I could have put my arm around her shoulder. I had this brief, flickering moment of status with her foes; they might actually have listened. Instead, I stayed silent, feeling that rare intoxicant of female interest in hapless me.

The visit ended and Carol walked with my mother and me to the car and we took stock. The girls didn’t seem so bad, my mother offered. Maybe things would work out now. Life is about getting along with all kinds of people. Carol didn’t press the case about going home. And, again, I said nothing on her behalf.

A couple of days later, the next letter arrived, every bit as heartbreaking as the rest. There was just one new twist on the degradation. Carol wrote us that, after my mother and I had driven away, one of the girls said, “You’re brother’s so cute. What happened to you?”

Neither my sister nor I remember if she was back home in time to see the lunar landing on July 20, 1969. We can only recall that our mother fetched her, so broken, sometime before visiting day.

A few months ago, I was sleeping in a hotel room when the clock-radio went off at four in the morning. Through my grogginess, I became aware of the sound of a song. It was “In the Year 2525,” and all the memories of that day at camp flooded back into my brain. On this day, the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind,” I do not think of humanity’s capacity for achievement and wonder and transcendence. I think not of being stellar but oh so earthbound.

Samuel G. Freedman, journalism professor at Columbia University, is the author of six books. This is his first article for Tablet Magazine.

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Earthbound

A giant leap for mankind, a short drive for my family

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