The “Where were you when …” questions define each generation. My mother, for example, remembers the euphoria in the streets accompanying the announcements of the end of World War II in Europe, then in Japan. Nearly 20 years later, she heard on the radio that US President John F Kennedy had been assassinated. She ran next door to tell the neighbour, who said she must have misheard because surely that could not be right. For my generation, the September 11 attacks in the US are still sharp, as is learning that Diana, Princess of Wales, was dead. I am in Cape Canaveral, courtesy of Universal Pictures, which is promoting the First Man film based on the biography of astronaut Neil Armstrong. I was at Iwitahi School on the Napier-Taupō Rd in July 1969 when Armstrong walked on the moon.
The school had only two teachers – my mother and father – and 60 pupils. We had a big radio in our classroom and Dad turned it on early so it could warm up in time for the broadcast from the moon. Space fever was everywhere. At school we had made the solar system out of balloons encased in papier-mâché. The painted planets hung from the classroom ceiling as we listened through the static to Armstrong taking his giant leap for mankind. We marvelled at living at a time when not only had this momentous event occurred, but we could listen to it live in the heart of the Kaingaroa Forest. I felt technology had surely reached its apex.
Flying to Orlando, I got talking to a man who grew up around here and recalled the scenes when rockets were being launched in the Apollo era. Everyone would find a vantage point, he said, particularly along the beaches and on boats. It must have been an amazing time to be a Floridian. However, he also remembered standing outside watching the launch, in January 1986, of the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded less than two minutes after lift-off, killing all seven crew. Nowadays, we presume we can watch anything live. The pictures may stun us but the wonder that they exist at all has been replaced by indifference or, worse, a sense of entitlement.
As I took a road shuttle from Orlando Airport to my hotel, eight of the other passengers turned out to be going on a cruise. They comprised three different family groups, all American, who did not know each other before the shuttle ride. When they realised they were going on the same ship, they compared notes about previous cruises. One woman had once booked an ocean-view room but had ended up overlooking the deck. This turned out to be just as well, she jested, because she had taken her young daughter and if she could have, she would have pushed her overboard. She had left the girl at home this time. Because I share the view of whoever it was who said that being on a boat is like being in prison but with the added risk of drowning, I had nothing to contribute to the discussion about cruises. However, my fellow passengers were nice, bright people and I enjoyed listening to them. I was sure that back home inside the Beltway, everyone I knew would be talking about embattled Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. He went to school at Georgetown Prep, just up the road from where I live, and my friends were in the same year group as he was at Yale, though they did not personally know him.In the shuttle, I felt I could have driven for 24 hours and no one would have mentioned the Supreme Court. I was yet again reminded that there is more than one America.