07/21/2014 07:10 pm ET Updated Sep 20, 2014

A Grandmother on Moon Thoughts, 45 Years Later

Time and attention are quirky. We were in Washington when the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957 starting the Space race, aware but focused more on new baby, new job.

We had returned from Malaya on our first Foreign Service posting and were in Virginia on home leave on May 25, 1961, when John Kennedy, new, young and charismatic, speaking in a special joint session of Congress, challenged Americans to land a man on the moon and safely home again by the end of the decade. The TV was on and we heard it. Good thing, too. The space race punctuated our lives that decade.

But what I remember is that it was a particularly cool spring. We had been two years in the tropics and only had warm weather clothes that fit our growing young so had to scrounge sweaters, overalls and footed jammies from friends.

On the first hot day, June 4, we left again, headed to the American Consulate in Kaduna, Nigeria; fifteen degrees above the equator, a four-hour bumpy ride south of Kano and the NASA talking station. The station, one of a group spaced around the world so Mission Control could monitor satellites and talk to the astronauts, was located in Kano because there was little chance of atmospheric interference.

John Glenn's circumnavigation of the earth was scheduled for January 1962. My husband, the vice consul, had business in Kano about then so we piled the kids into our car, bumped through the dust to visit the big city (well, sprawl, low, mud buildings but ancient; one stoplight, always red). The NASA station on the outskirts of Kano with all its dials, screens and buttons, was fascinating particularly to our six year old. "Jerry, keep your hands in your pockets."

"Sorry I can't invite you to be here for the launch," the station manager apologized. Too many people wanted to be in on the action, so even friends and official colleagues had been banned. Just as well, as it turned out -- bad weather in Florida and then more bad weather at the landing site. Postponement after postponement. Finally, Friendship 7 blasted off on February 20.

When the mail arrived three weeks later, my mother had written from Virginia:

"Today, I had time to iron two pair of pants and five shirts and John Glenn was passing above your house."

Over the next 18 months, there were other satellites, manned and unmanned. On clear nights, we could sit in the courtyard of our house in Kaduna, roofed by a blue-black sky dotted with stars and, if we timed it right, awe guests by pointing out the slowly moving 'star.'

Charley, our fourth, was born when we got home from Kaduna. Unlike the older ones, he grew to talking toddlerhood in front of a TV and trying to get in a word edgewise competing with his voluble sibs. One launch after another kept them, and all Americans, enthralled with space. When, at about 18 months, he first learned to count it was:

"Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, blast off!"

We were again on home leave, from Jakarta this time, staying with family in the Virginia suburbs when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, ending the space race. I was 35 that day, four years younger than the astronauts, all three born in 1930 but who seemed so much older than I was, not possibly my contemporaries.

That night was balmy, as I remember, almost steamy, as Washington summer nights can be, not truly dark until nearly 9:30. Mosquitoes buzzed and fireflies, chased by over-stimulated children, flitted. We had devoured one of Mother's birthday dinners. Oven fried chicken was her usual extremely popular specialty. I am sure she had cake and ice cream--what is a birthday party without? But there was also watermelon, because she knew I loved it.

Excitement reigned, not for my birthday, but for the Apollo landing. We all watched the space capsule land on the moon at 4:10 in the afternoon, fuzzy grayish images as it eased down. But in the evening after a day of running and with stuffed tummies, the kids conked, not at all curious about this momentous occasion, bored because it had co-opted their programs.

About 10:30 p.m. EDT, we forced them up again, protesting loudly, and then sprawling half awake on the floor in front of the TV. Our family joined people around the world breathless as the foot appeared on the ladder and then on the moon.

"One small step..."

In the words of historic accounts, the moonwalk started on July 21, 1969 at 2:56 UTC. But in my memory, in my experience, with the quirkiness of time and attention, it was July 20, my thirty-fifth birthday, when I was no longer young but not yet middle-aged.

Time is tied to the spot where we experience it and the passage of the sun, not the moon, or circulating the earth in space. So the official clock that marked this event, all such events, was set to UTC, Coordinated Universal Time, a more carefully calibrated form of Greenwich Mean Time. It was 10:56 p.m. on July 20 in McLean, Virginia, in the depth of night, but July 21 at 5:56 a.m. in Addis Abba, where it was about sun-up in the morning, and at 11:56 a.m. in Jakarta, with the sun full throttle. At that single moment, at all those times, on both those days, in all those places, forty-five years ago, Man cavorted on the moon.