Giacomo applies a pen to the paper napkin, sketching a circle and tearing the tissue at the ends of his marks.
“And like this?”
“We’d say full moon,” I tell him.
We are at a house in L’Aquila, and it is the end of the summer.
“Plenilunio,” he responds.
Giacomo is my host father in Italy the summer I turn seventeen. We are all spending a weekend in a city some distance from the family’s hometown of Rieti.
Giacomo was not really his name, I should say. I could only remember that maybe it started with a G, so I’ve named him after my father’s grandfather.
“That’s a crescent moon.”
It is a warm evening and we have just finished dinner out behind the house. Maybe the town is not L’Aquila. This morning I asked the old boyfriend from those years if I mentioned the town or the man’s name in any of the emails I sent him that summer, which I’ve lost.
He said I hadn’t, but recommended the name Giuseppe.
Giacomo, or Giuseppe, draws another crescent moon.
“That’s a crescent moon,” I repeat.
He indicates that I had said that about the other one.
“They’re both crescent moons. They’re the same.”
“They are not the same.”
We must be speaking a language between English and Italian. It’s likely that he is speaking English and that I am speaking Italian, except for the translated lunar phases. My host mother would often chide him for practicing his English with me, since I was there to learn.
The two images look the same to me.
“They are not the same.”
The two moons he has drawn are mirror images, a fact I overlook because there is no linguistic distinction between them in common English. I feel foolish when I realize. They had seemed truly identical to me.
In Italian, the one bowed towards the right is a luna crescente, like ours. The left is a luna calante, or declining moon. We would say waxing and waning. The Italian terms make more sense: crescent, like crescendo or increase, implies that the moon is inflating towards its full circle. Waxing crescent and waning crescent are respectively redundant and contradictory.
I double-checked with my father that his grandfather’s name was Giacomo.
The point of this story is that you can stare at something for a long time and overlook its obvious qualities.
So, I used to spend a lot of nights looking at the moon, to get a sense of the surface of the moon. You’ve got the maps, but because of the reflective properties of it, you can only see one small section at a time. As it goes from waxing to waning, the line from dark to light moves across the surface, and you can only see it at the line because of the direct light.
You had to go out there for two months of the summer to be able to see it.
In 1961, America needed something to capture its collective imagination. Yuri Gagarin, on behalf of the Soviets, had just become the first human to orbit the planet, and America was flagging in the space race. The next year, Kennedy made his Address at Rice University on the Nation’s Space Effort, in which he famously said, “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard...” It was a sweltering Texas day when he delivered the speech, and it was a hot Florida night when Apollo 11 took off, seven years and two presidents later. Not that it mattered past the launch: There’s no weather on the moon, just shadow.
It was an era of discord, of race riots, a downward-turning economy, and a war in Vietnam. It was easy to argue that the moon project was frivolous—that putting money towards the space program was ludicrous when there was still poverty in America. Other proposed projects for the money included public school lunches. But the moon became Kennedy’s frontier. My father says that his own working class family, with his mother as the notable exception, was skeptical about the whole thing for a while.
Well, ever since Kennedy in his inauguration talked about putting a man on the moon Before This Decade Is Out, the whole space program was a top of mind thing. There were missions every few months. The sort of anti-Communist thing, the Space Race with the Russians, was less compelling than the idea that this was some kind of prophecy. Manifest Destiny. They used to stop class for us to watch rocket launches.
It comes into consciousness with me when Glenn takes off and they interrupt Romper Room and I’m annoyed and my grandmother snaps and says, “Hey, this is history. Watch it.”
Dr. Abe Silverstein was reading a book of mythology at home in 1960 when he chose the name Apollo for the manned missions to the moon and back. “Apollo riding his chariot across the Sun was appropriate to the grand scale of the proposed program.”
Grand and dangerous, pulling the sun across the sky is no easy task. Take the story of Phaethon. There are many versions, but the one in Ovid’s Metamorphoses goes like this: Apollo had a son with a woman named Clymene, and the son grew up without knowing the god. The son, Phaethon, doubted that Apollo was his father, so he traveled to the palace of the sun to ask. Apollo welcomed him, and promised Phaethon any favor to banish his doubts. Phaethon immediately asked to drive his father’s chariot for one day. Apollo tried to dissuade him, arguing that even Jupiter could not control the team of horses or ride against the momentum of the turning sky. Along the track were the beasts of the constellations: Taurus, Sagittarius, Cancer. Apollo feared for his son, and asked that Phaethon look him in the face and instead accept his patrio metu, fatherly anxiety, as proof of his paternity.
Phaethon, however, insisted. Apollo had made a promise, and could do nothing but implore his son to reign the horses firmly and follow the wheel marks in the sky.
When the horses left the earth, they felt the lighter load of Apollo’s son and immediately strayed from the track, setting fire to normally cold constellations and—when Phaethon dropped the reigns—scorching the fields, cities and nations below. The earth herself implored Jupiter to end the catastrophe, and since the clouds and rain had been burned away, Jupiter’s only choice was to demolish the chariot. He launched a lightning bolt at Phaethon, who then fell, burning, from the sky. He was buried with the inscription:
hic situs est phaethon currus auriga paterni
quem si non tenuit magnis tamen excidit ausis
Here lies Phaethon, driver of his father’s chariot
which, though he could not manage, he
nevertheless fell from a deed of great daring.
The technology the ancients used to get to the moon would be like doing it today with pocket calculators.
There’s always this beep. The Federal regulation says there has to be a tone every twenty-five, thirty seconds. Finally they open the door, video, you see him taking steps down the ladder. He pauses at the bottom of the ladder and says, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” and then takes a step on the moon.
And I didn’t realize at the time: he kind of blew the line. It’s supposed to be “a man.”
But then they kind of change the camera around so you can see they’re actually on the moon, see them hopping around like bunny rabbits. You can see they’re starting to have fun with it. Pogoing. They unfurl the flag—it’s got a wire thing in it to keep it out. And it was just great.
That we even have a moon is a peculiar feature of our planet. Moons are uncommon on planets close to their stars, because the massive pull of a sun far overwhelms the rocky bodies that immediately surround it. The moon also has an unusual composition: a rock with no metal, the same density as our mantle, it is larger and lighter than the more common moons of the outer planets, which are often composed of passing solar system debris picked up and looped into orbit.
The reigning speculation as to why the moon is there is the giant impact hypothesis, which postulates that a large, Mars-sized object hit Earth four and a half billion years ago. A singularly unlikely event. The impact would have been sufficiently powerful to heat the Earth enough to melt its surface and essentially splash planetary material out into space, where it would accrete into a satellite as it circled the earth.
The presence of this large satellite stabilizes the Earth’s axial rotation; it does not wobble far from its twenty-three and a half degree tilt. This creates the climate consistency that allows for the evolution of complex, multi-cellular organisms. The reliable rhythms of the planet’s water throughout its history are thanks in large part to the moon. Without it, it is unlikely that life as we know it would have formed.
They’re doing all these collections they had to do. I think the guy hit a golf ball, you know, and that’s it! It was kind of dumb, just a flag and the guys doing a moonbounce. But it was exhilarating, and there was also a sense of peace.
When I think of it in retrospect, there was a sense of peace that came from it. Deep. An abiding sense of peace.
On their 1968 mission, the Apollo 8 astronauts were able to take a picture of the whole earth from the moon—the first picture of its kind. The most famous image of the earth though, Blue Marble, was taken four years later. In his thesis for Reed College, Dao of Dasein, Ahmed Moharram Kabil collected responses to such a perspective from figures such as the Dalai Lama: “The image of a blue planet floating in deep space, glowing like the full moon on a clear night, brought home powerfully to me the recognition that we are indeed all members of a single family sharing one little house.” Or Heidegger: “I was certainly scared when I recently saw the photographs of the earth taken from the moon. We don’t need an atom bomb at all; the uprooting of human beings is already taking place. We only have purely technological conditions left. It is no longer an earth on which human beings live today.”
Such an image has the potential to be both a totalizing and alien experience. A photograph of the planet from an exterior body, the moon, both unifies and otherizes the Earth. It emphatically declares that it is an object: one of many.
You just never saw edges like that on earth, you know. There’s something different or beautiful about it. The purity of the color. So that was my experience of the moon in 1969.
And you know partly it’s self-referential and partly it was social and partly it was aesthetic. But in the end I think you know the landing itself felt transient and it was a way of focusing on this object that was kind of strange and beautiful.
My father was eleven years old when Apollo 11 launched. I called him because I was writing about the moon and I wanted to hear a first-hand account of the landing.
So we’re out visiting my father and his wife Loretta. I loved Loretta because she was very kind to us. It was pretty good living because my mother—my father had this apartment, it was a corner apartment which was cool. It looked out over Great South Bay. It was a hot night. We didn’t have air conditioning, so the windows were open.
My father is there, he’s excited, because he was a jet pilot in the sixties, and this was just the ultimate. Like oh God, that could have been me. He was fascinated and excited by it, but also down on himself.
Loretta’s making us food and keeping things fun.
We’re all sitting in this big queen-sized bed, waiting for this thing to happen.
With grateful acknowledgement to Charles Langmuir’s How to Build A Habitable Planet for information about the moon’s formation and planetary effects, and to NASA’s website for details about the Apollo missions.