December 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, I was on Langdon Street in Madison Wisconsin. April 12, 1944, the day Franklin Roosevelt died, I was on a hillside in Germany.
The day man first landed on the moon, twenty-five years later, was expected to be a similar nation-binding day. Two months before the event I was commissioned to do a documentary: A Day in the Life of the United States. It wasn’t supposed to follow the mechanics of the Apollo 11 mission. It was to be a portrait of the United States on a summer Sunday afternoon.
I sent out 43 camera teams. Anybody at CBS News who had an idea needed only to jot it down. I received over a hundred suggestions and commissioned thirty one. The only requirement was that they be photographing at the moment of touchdown.
What we would like to show you, our great great grandchildren, are some of the things that usually go unrecorded: the sound of our accents, the look of our faces, how we were with one another—on the day man first landed on the moon.
History, you’ll know on what day the Vietnam War ended. You’ll know whether the racial tension in this country tore us apart. We hope you’re there, history. We hope we didn’t blow the world apart…or pollute our genes… or disappear in the apocalypse.
In my twenties, one of my favorite writers was John dos Passos, author of the trilogy USA. He is not read much today. USA was an attempt to make a literary photograph of the whole country; a collective word portrait of America in the late 20’s, rather than a series of plots. Although there was no television, there were movie newsreels. In USA, dos Passos wrote a series of views called The Camera’s Eye, and Newsreels; imaginary pictures as if photographers were there.
In 1969, now that the cameras’ eyes were truly there, I could follow the writer’s vision.
Correspondent: On the day man landed on the moon, our forty three cameras recorded only one hundred hours of American life…and Americans gave up some five billion hours of their lives this day.
If you listen closely, you’ll hear some of the short stories that make up the great American novel of our times.
FILM CLIP: the lower East Side of Manhattan—
Merchant: Hey, we talk languages here. (TALKS SPANISH) Hey, I got it on sale here. Hey, help me keep my wife in the country.
FILM CLIP: Birney, Montana—
Man: Money doesn’t make a bit of difference as far as happiness is concerned.
Woman: Oh the heck it doesn’t! You’ve got to have enough to live on, to pay your bills and send you kids to school. And if you don’t have that amount of money, and you can’t do it —-
FILM CLIP: Brookline Massachusetts Old Age Home—
Interviewer: Do you fear dying?
Old Man: Well I’m not in any hurry about it. I’m thoroughly conscious of the fact it’s coming, so why fight it?
FILM CLIP: Chicago, Illinois, 43rd and Langley—
Black Man: We blacks have been here since Jamestown, but we haven’t cleared customs yet. Four hundred years of traveling, and it’s been economy class all the way.
FILM CLIP: Las Vegas, The Little Chapel around the Corner—
Preacher: So now that the two of you have found each other and are come together, perhaps we can be at the end of having just two halves.
FILM CLIP: Las Vegas, The Slots—
Woman: I don’t get along with him. He went over the baccarat tables and he’s playing with one hundred dollar bills, so he said “Here honey, here’s some nickels, go have fun at the slots.”
On the day we landed on the moon we picked up many people watching other news. One day earlier, Senator Teddy Kennedy had driven off a bridge in Massachusetts. A woman with him had been drowned. The senator went into a nearby town, but before he reported the incident, the political power of the Democrats surrounded him, and his press agent, one David Burke, refused to let anyone say anything. The news department at CBS had appropriated one of my camera teams and it was hanging around Edgartown waiting for Burke to let the senator talk.
“Burke’s a hard ass,” the newsroom supervisor said.
Later, I would find out how hard.
Celebrities were watching…
FILM CLIP: (ON THE DAY OF THE MOON LANDINg)
Pamela Churchill: I think the moon is romantic.
Herman Mankiewicz (writer of Citizen Kane; director): You’ve got to have some suspense going for you when you get there. You know you just can’t get there and then—-you know it’s a big nothing. They get there…they’ve got to get there just in time for something.
Pamela Churchill: And they spend two hours there—-what do they do for two hours?
Mankiewicz: Study their lines if they’re working for me. (LAUGHTER)
FILM CLIP: Travis Air Force Base, San Francisco—
Correspondent: Even before July 1969, Vietnam had become the longest war in American history. A quarter of a million men had been wounded in that combat. The wounded were brought in ambulances, and before they were hospitalized again, a full colonel who was a finance officer addressed them. The amputees listened to his speech.
Colonel: Now when you left the live fire area, most of you left all or at least a part of your personal gear behind. Submit a claim for all items of personal property which are lost. Please bear in mind the only way old Uncle Sam can repay you for your personal property which has been lost is for you to submit a claim to the government for reimbursement.
Now the tax exemption that you all enjoyed in the live fire area, gentlemen, will continue so long as you remain in the hospital. So when you start to make out these stateside income taxes, be mighty certain that you take full advantage of all the exemptions you’re entitled to. Exemptions are might hard to come by in the states, gentlemen, so use what you brought with you.
Any questions on this?
Hold on a long shot. Silence.
Then, on that Sunday afternoon, July 20th, 1969—
Houston: 60 seconds.
Eagle: Lights on. Down 2 1/2. Forward. Forward. Good 40 feet. Down 2 1/2. Picking up some dust. 30 feet. 2 1/2. Faint shadow. Forward. Forward. Drifting to the right six down, a half. Forward Contact light. Okay Engine stop ACA out of detent.
Houston — Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.
Houston: Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You’ve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue.
It took me twelve months to edit the material I received from the 32 teams.
This was the first film I made that went significantly over budget. I had held those crews for an extra day and the overage was significant. Then president of CBS News asked me what had happened. I told him. I wasn’t sure the astronauts could get off the moon in their flimsy return craft, the LEM. If July 20th wasn’t to be a day of triumph, July 21st would be a day of national mourning. Washington had made similar contingency plans. Salant agreed. Nothing more was said.
I was no Dos Passos, and I hadn’t captured the spirit of the continent. But, strangely, America’s interest in space, even the moon, began to fade. July 20, 1969 was not Pearl Harbor, nor the death of a great president. The Space Program took up less space and less airtime in the following year.
I edited a thousand hours to two hours, and was asked if I could cut fifteen minutes so a sports event could run late. A Day in the Life of the United States ran on Labor Day Weekend, to a small audience.
Twenty years after Apollo 11, I came back to the event. I did more research. It got me fired.
In all that data recorded above, I missed two cues: “Program alarm twelve-oh-one” and “Program alarm twelve-oh-two.” Twenty years later my research discovered the technical reasons Apollo 11 should not have landed on the moon. Computer malfunction. The corporation that built the computer complained to the corporation that paid my salary.
I should not have known about the complaint.
Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the moon; July 20, 1969: http://blog.aarp.org/2014/12/26/this-year-in-boomer-history/