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The Amazing Summer Of '69

The first human landing on the moon wasn't the only major story to generate big headlines in the summer of 1969. Within the span of just one month - mid-July to mid-August - three other notable events occurred that even now, three decades later, continue to resonate in our social and cultural memory.

The historic flight to the moon was launched on the morning of July 16, 1969, and over the next four days, as the Apollo 11 crew soared ever closer to the lunar surface, millions of television viewers the world over followed the mission's progress with rapt fascination.

The climax came at 4:17 p.m. ET on July 20 when the lunar module -- code-named Eagle -- landed safely on the moon. A few hours later, the mission commander, Neil Armstrong, stepped onto the lunar surface and uttered the words that were destined to become enshrined in the lore of space exploration: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

Back home, here on earth, many observers were so awed by the towering achievement that they could only shake their heads in speechless wonder. Among those who struggled in vain to come up with words worthy of the occasion was Walter Cronkite, who anchored CBS News' coverage of the Apollo 11 mission. The best he could manage at the historic moment of Eagle's landing was a reverential, "Oh boy!"


Buzz Aldrin

Others, however, were not so tongue-tied. President Richard Nixon proclaimed the moon landing was "the greatest event since Creation," a remarkable assertion by a man who, as a rule, resorted to hyperbole only when he was discussing his own political acumen.

That grandiose claim did not sit well with Nixon's good friend and spiritual comforter, Billy Graham. He and others who were inclined toward a theological view of history firmly believed that between the Big Happening in the Garden of Eden and the first moon landing, there had been a few other events of more than passing significance. (For examples, check out MOSES, Ten Commandments, and BETHLEHEM, Unusual Births.)

Still others compared the Apollo 11 mission to Columbus' first voyage to the New World, and that struck many as a most appropriate analogy. But wherever it ranked on the scale of great historical events, almost everyone agreed that the moon landing was one hell of an accomplishment, a feat that, just a few years earlier, could only have taken place within the fantasies of science fiction.

On Friday, July 18, as the Apollo 11 astronauts were flying through the vastness of space toward their lunar destination, Senator Edward M. Kennedy attended a beach party on Chappaquiddick, a small resort island off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, itself a somewhat larger resort island off the coast of Cape Cod.


Mary Jo Kopechne

Most of the guests at the midsummer bash were young politicos who had worked on various Kennedy campaigns, and in the spirit of the festive occasion, Kennedy had a lot to drink. (This was a recurring indulgence, for in those days the senator was a man who clearly "liked his glass," as the Irish so quaintly put it.)

By the time he left the party, Kennedy was at least one sheet to the wind, and on the short drive to the Martha's Vineyard ferry, he made a wrong turn (either by accident or design) and plunged off a bridge into a saltwater pond. Kennedy managed to struggle out of the car and swim to safety, but a 28-year-old passenger in the vehicle named Mary Jo Kopechne perished in the water.

When it broke the next day, the story of the accident - with all its lurid implications - challenged the space mission for banner, front-page headlines, and it would continue to haunt Kennedy's political career for many years to come.

Tragic death was also the theme of a grisly crime that occurred a couple of weeks later in Los Angeles. On August 8, five persons were brutally murdered in the home of actress Sharon Tate, the wife of film director Roman Polanski. One of the victims was Tate, who was eight months pregnant at the time.


Charles Manson

Arrested and later convicted of the crimes (which included two more murders committed the night after the slaughter at the Tate house) were Charles Manson and three female members of a bizarre drug-and-violence cult he had formed. As the leader of the cult, Manson had ordered the bloodshed, and for years thereafter, the savage crimes would be known as "the Manson murders."

The site of the fourth big story to capture national attention during a one-month span in the summer of '69 was an expanse of farmland in upstate New York.

More than 300,000 rock music fans - most of them in their teens or early 20s - converged on that rural setting for an outdoor marathon concert over the weekend of Aug. 15-17, and by the time the three-day blast came to an end, Woodstock had become ensconced in our musical and cultural vocabulary.

From our vantage point 30 years later, we can see that all four of those stories have had an enduring historical significance. Every one of them - each in its own way - served as a coda to a certain aspect of the 1960s, a kind of "last hurrah" to that raucous and turbulent decade.

The first moon landing was the culmination of the U.S. Man-in-Space program that began with Alan Shepard's sub-orbital flight in 1961. And although it was followed by other lunar landings and by other advances in space technology (notably, the development of the shuttle), those subsequent achievement were anti-climactic in nature. As we know from other experiences in other fields of endeavor, there is something special, even unique, about the first time.

In political terms, it may be said that the opening gong of the '60s was sounded in the summer of 1960 when, in his first speech as the Democratic presidential nominee, John F. Kennedy summoned his countrymen to join him in the adventurous journey across the New Frontier.

By 1969, two Kennedys lay buried in Arlington, yet the torch - once again - had been passed, this time to the last surviving brother. The many Americans who yearned for a return to Camelot now centered their hopes on Edward Kennedy, who loomed as the all-but-certain choice to run against President Nixon in 1972.

Then, nine years to the month after JFK's "New Frontier" speech, came Chappaquiddick. While that tragedy did not exactly ruin Ted Kennedy's political career - he continues to serve in the Senate to this day - it did severely undermine his presidential aspirations, as Kennedy discovered when he finally made his run for the White House in 1980.

Chappaquiddick left an indelible stain on the romantic mystique that had surrounded the Kennedys all through the '60s. Camelot had lost its innocence.

A different kind of innocence was destroyed by the Manson murders. Those crimes revealed, among other things, the dark and violent side of the counter-culture, which had become such a flourishing social force in the 1960s. Many Americans now had to face the sad truth that not all hippies were flower children, who espoused the benign values of peace and love.

A similar disillusion set in after Woodstock, which, in retrospect, clearly stands as the high-water mark of the rock-and-drug culture that swept across America in the 1960s.

But the demands of a lifestyle that revolved around hard rock and hard drugs proved to be too great a strain for Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, two of the star performers at the Woodstock music festival. Both Joplin and Hendrix died the following year, and in the opinion of rock critic Ellen Willis, their deaths symbolized the end of the '60s "as a cultural unit."

A comparable claim could be made about the Apollo 11 mission, the accident at Chappaquiddick and the Manson murders. Each of those events, in its own special way, symbolized the end of the '60s, one of the most revolutionary decades in American history.

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