By former Assemblymember Steve Sanders
Much of my childhood growing up in Stuyvesant Town was shaped by politics, current events and sports. Not surprisingly, it still is.
The summer of 1969, fifty years ago, was a time of extraordinary and nearly unfathomable moments. For those of us who were part of that generation it left indelible memories.
The year before was marked by tragedy and turmoil the likes of which we had not seen before. The urban street riots and looting across the nation. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy rocked us to the core. The anti-war protests that enveloped the Democratic National Convention in Chicago while hundreds of American soldiers died each month in Vietnam.
The anger stirred by George Wallace who ran for President mostly on his racist segregation policies, and carried five southern states in a contentious election that ultimately Richard Nixon won by a hair.
My personal sports hero Mickey Mantle limped to the finish of his incomparable but injury-riddled Yankees career. Towards the end of 1968, we were all exhausted. America was deeply divided and angry.
But then something happened. On Christmas Eve, the Astronauts of Apollo 8 led by its commander Frank Borman circled the moon in their tiny space craft just miles above the lunar surface. From that venue, they recited the opening passage from the Book of Genesis with the crystal blue colored Earth in the background. It was a sight never before seen. For a moment we all felt connected, united as fellow inhabitants of our fragile planet. Perhaps that was a good omen of things to come in 1969.
In a less significant, yet memorable moment just several weeks later in January the upstart underdog New York Jets football team, led by its young brash quarterback Joe Namath, scored a monumental upset over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in the third-ever Super Bowl. Somehow 1969 already felt different to me.
As the cold winter thawed and overtaken by the warmth of summer there was something undeniably wonderful in the balmy air. The perennial last place New York Mets were actually winning baseball games in Queens. Shea Stadium was the place to be as the Mets staged miracle win after miracle win. It was raucous, but most of all, it was joyous. Seaver, Kranepool, Agee, Jones and Koosman, the new boys of summer.
But then we all paused for a week in July and turned our rapt attention to Cape Canaveral where on July 16, Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neal Armstrong blasted off aboard Apollo 11 on their historic mission to the moon.
Four days later and nearly a quarter of a million miles away, the drama would unfold before our very eyes. With Aldrin and Armstrong now in the tiny lunar landing vehicle named “The Eagle,” they descended towards the surface in search of a safe landing spot. And with only seconds of fuel left, they touched down in the Sea of Tranquility. The NASA Space command in Houston erupted in celebration and breathless relief as they heard Armstrong utter the words “The Eagle has landed”.
Most of the world, which was tuned in to that moment, had no idea what a close call it was from disaster. A few hours later, American astronauts walked on an alien terrestrial landscape for the first time in human history. After several more days, the crew of Apollo 11 returned to earth and were treated to a ticker tape parade through lower Manhattan.
All the while, the Mets continued their miraculous run. They went on to also upset another heavily-favored team from Baltimore to capture the World Series. The Amazing Mets became the most unlikely baseball champions in history.
At the same time, I started my college years, not knowing what the future might hold in store for me, but now believing that anything was possible.
For that was the way it was 50 years ago in 1969. A time of dreams, the summer of miracles.