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Back in the summer of ’69

india Updated: Jul 21, 2009 22:59 IST

In 1969, I was at a small parochial boarding school in Poona. It was a ghastly school. For the two years I spent there, I was beaten up regularly by anyone I disagreed with — which happened often — especially by a particularly manic young lad who later joined the Mossad and was responsible for the rescue of Israeli passengers abandoned to Idi Amin’s murderous whims at Entebbe Airport.

My only refuge — quite apart from the army band which I joined and drummed for, as an escape from the atrocious regimen of military drill — was the world of books and daydreaming. I was about to turn 11.

In the summer of 1969, the real world and the fantasy world took one of those magnificent, unreal leaps into the unimaginable and managed to concoct a scenario out of my fondest dreams into the ungiving material world. I read about it on the way to dinner in the newspaper clipping that seniors would post daily in the mess corridor. Man was going to land on the Moon.

For an 11-year-old boy, this was a mad, implausible and perfect miracle. A human on the moon! The most that had happened was dozens of people going around the Earth and Moon in an endless succession of circular flights. It had become worse than boring; it had become commonplace and dull. This was different. I was doused in breathless wonder.

I kept a scrapbook of the journey from lift-off to touchdown and back (with my own drawings, and such photographs I could manage to squirrel away in those distant days of no television) and was magicked clean out of the world for all of July and much of August. I fell in love with the sciences, remaining scientifically-minded ever since, and was transformed within a week from dunderhead to maths wiz.

Needless to add, I read as much as I could about it. What made it doubly wonderful was that Neil Armstrong shared my birth week, and was born within a month of my father in the same year, August 5, 1930.

The final miracle happened at night. On July 20, 1969, Armstrong landed on another world and spoke those now blunted words for the first time. A world away, a dozen or so of us boys were gathered around an enormous radio in a Common Room, breaking every school rule, listening: the broadcast from the Sea of Tranquillity, to Houston, to Ceylon, to Bombay, to Poona. We could not understand a word through all that radio crackle, of course, and it was almost three in the morning of the 21st by then, but we knew what was happening. The sheer lunatic wonder of it left us sleepless until the next night.

Arjun Mahey teaches at the Department of English, St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi