July 20, 1969: With the speedometer pegged at 80 miles per hour (the speed limit on I-70 in Kansas at that time), my Ford Torino headed eastward towards St. Louis after a visit to in-laws in Colorado.
With the AM radio tuned to whatever station we could find, we listened to news reports of the Apollo 11 lunar lander as astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong guided it to the surface of the moon.
At 3:17 p.m. central time, the words came: "Houston: Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed."
Horns sounded on cars all around us. People waved at each other. Even at 80 miles per hour you could feel the excitement around you. We heard — and witnessed — a historic moment.
We pulled over at a rest stop a few miles later where people milled around and celebrated the moment. A musician strummed a guitar and sang. We joined in the celebration before climbing back into the Torino to continue the drive to St. Louis.
We would get home just in time to turn on the TV and watch the grainy, black & white feed as Armstrong jumped off the final rung of the Lunar Lander ladder to the surface of the moon with his long-rehearsed words: "That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
I heard noises outside the window of our apartment in Lewis & Clark Tower in north St. Louis County and stepped out on the balcony to find neighbors partying on other balconies. The parties continued into the next day.
Now, 40 years later, I remember every detail of that day. We felt pride in our country, in the accomplishment of putting a man on the moon, fulfilling a goal set by President John F. Kennedy earlier in the decade.
America reached a high point on June 20, 1969. Many low points would follow: Dissatisfaction with the war in Vietnam, Watergate, loss of confidence in our government and its leaders.
The pessimism that dominates our society today is a far cry from the upbeat feelings of that day in 1969. Back then we still believed in the myth called the American dream.
Now, for many, that dream is a nightmare. We are a nation split by deep ideological and philosophical divides, an angry and frustrated populace with no faith in our government and little faith in our own resolve.
Four decades ago, at that rest stop on I-70 in Kansas, a young man passed around a bottle of wine and danced a jig.
"Ain’t this country great? We’re on top of the world," he said.
Yes, we were…then. I just wonder if we have the resolve to return.