Was This Written 50 Years Too Early or 50 Years Too Late?

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I‘ve always been puzzled by this thought: Was I born 50 years too early or 50 years too late? This thought resurfaced this week as I rode the train back and forth to Chicago while the rest of the world dazzled itself with remembering the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11.

It reminds me of a skit I once did as Cubmaster for Peter’s pack. We had our meetings in the cavernous Mendon Firehall. It was always filled to capacity. Filled with boys, their parents, and their siblings.

That night I donned a pair of Buzz Lightyear “wings” (actually they were my young nephew’s and I don’t know how I fit them over my shoulders without overstretching them). After strutting a few steps with those wings, I added a Woody hat on top of my head.

Maybe one of the Toy Story movies was out that year.

In either case, I asked the pack to guess who I was. Some of the boys says “Buzz” and some said “Woody.” I said “Nope” to each guess. Then I looked up to the parents in Pack 105 and said – in a distinct John Wayne kind of voice – “Well, pilgrim, some people call me a ‘The Space Cowboy.’”

And so it has been in my life. Teetering on the precipice of “born too early” while simultaneously straddling the ledge of “born too late.” Some might view this as a fingernails-on-the-chalkboard cringe with the past and the future tugging at each other so hard they shred the present. In reality, it feels more like a symphony of complimentary sounds where the countermelodies of past and future merge to form beautiful music in the present.

I’ve learned to do more than live with this dichotomy. I’ve learned to delight in it. To explore what it means to me and my personal life as well as what it might hint at in terms of broader philosophical implications.

As I sat in my Amtrak roomette traveling through western Pennsylvania and western New York the morning of my return (both trips were overnight, so I slept through most of it), I couldn’t help but notice the remnants of the brick industrial buildings along the siding. These were originally the “ugly” part of the building – the parts that faced the railroad tracks where few people could see them. Most people see the “cleaner” other sides of these once graceful buildings, the sides that faced the street.

What was once merely ugly is now forgotten. Its windows bricked up, its rare wooden parts now sagging, and a clear vision of its future outlined by the vegetation crawling up its sides. My mind drifted back to a time when these buildings represented the hopes and dreams of a vibrant local community. The excitement their owners and their families (and their workers) must have had when they were newly built. They were then the future. Now… now we can’t even call them the past. No one remembers them. It was if they never existed.

If you think about it, that’s the romantic lure of the past. It’s full of stories – all kinds of stories. And it has the advantage of all those stories having a complete story arc – a beginning, middle, and end. You don’t have to guess about anything. It’s there to explore. Like an archeologist exploring layers of dirt. Each relic found represents a dot. Find enough dots and you can begin to connect them. Begin to retell the story of what once was.

In a lot of ways, that was the feeling I had when I wrote Hamburger Dreams. I was living the lives of these long dead people, feeling what they felt, their enthusiasm for their (then) new ventures, the excitement they must have had not knowing which direction their stories would go or how they would end. Everyone has these feelings. It’s no different from today than it was in the past.

Or the future. Only in the future, the dots aren’t ancient artifacts, they’re creative extrapolations. Imagine connecting dots into the future. The possibilities are endless.

I was always fascinated by trains. But space – ah, space – that was my true love.

At the same time I was immersing myself in trains, I dove deeper into astronomy and space exploration. Not just the projected future as seen on Star Trek, but the precise reality of the (then) present as represented by America’ Mission to the Moon.

Do you realize, except for Apollo 13, I was, by coincidence, home from school for every single Apollo mission (at least when I was living in Buffalo). Apollo 13 happened when I was in Miss Powell’s fourth grade class. They brought a TV in the gym and let us watch the splashdown. For all other launches, I sat on the short green carpet in front of our black-and-white TV watching game shows hoping for a “Special Bulletin” with a mission update.

I played with my Matchbox cars building imaginary cities. That’s not all I imagined. I imagined a future. A future fifty years from where I sat back then. A future of technology, of promise, of joy.

Did that future turn out the way I imagined when the elementary school me followed the Apollo program on TV?

Of course, the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 juxtaposed with riding the rails gave me ample time to consider this long-held question: Was I born 50 years too early or 50 years too late?

I think I got the answer the very evening that marked Neil Armstrong’s first step fifty years earlier – July 20th.

That night I had to pick up Cesidia at the Buffalo Airport at 12:30 am. Of course, I had Catarina (who had just driven in from Rhode Island) and Peter in the car with me. When we got back home (around 2:30am) we spent about a ½ hour outside because Peter insisted he needed a picture of the moon on July 20th to compare with a similar picture 50 years earlier.

All the kids were outside that early morning as the clouds parted long enough for Peter to get the picture. We all participated in this memory. Peter got his picture, messaged it so it matched the July 20, 1969 photo, and posted it on Instagram.

As I watched the kids enthusiastically interact with each other during this venture in nocturnal photography, something dawned on me.

It turns out I was born just right.

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