Finding the best of us, like the times of Sputnik

February 3, 2015

It was a Friday night in October of 1957.  I was eight years old.  The “whole neighborhood” (4 or 5 families) was gathered together on our quiet street, necks craned, excited, silence interrupted by respectfully hushed questions of “Is that it?”  Eventually a small crescendo of “There it is!” and “Yes I see it too” gave voice to the unified triumph of discovery and awe.  We watched as a tiny, blinking light crossed the sky on a true path, coming from the direction of Highland Street, passing over Shaw’s Nursery and eventually disappearing over the trees that led to Bacon Street.  When it was gone from sight we didn’t want to go back inside, as parents and children together spoke of the shared experience with happiness and amazement.  We had just seen Sputnik, out in space!

Now I know that the memories I have of one evening’s experience dating back more than 57 years may well be a little enhanced, but I have no doubt of the heart of the matter—that 4 or 5 families stood together as one little tribe and shared something that rooted them in place, together.

This is what my mind does next as I search for associated memories and images:

I think of a teacher and 6 others perishing high in the sky inside a capsule rocketed from earth almost 30 years ago.  And a late Saturday morning perhaps a dozen years ago when most of the country was looking up, trying to see the trail of another American space tragedy that killed 7 upon re-entry.  With the exception of the “One step for man…” declaration from inside the sealed helmet of a man on the moon, I do not recall another magical, positive experience.  Maybe it’s only me and some kind of warped recall system, but the images that now flash by include the government building in Oklahoma blowing up, another building burning in Waco, Texas, and the saddest counterpoint of all, a Tuesday morning in September more than a decade ago in which we stood as one, transfixed by another precedent of terror and destruction.

Bear with me while I share some more of my thought process.  I wonder why my more recent images in memory are so negative.  I wonder if, within my age group, I am alone in this or if it’s shared.  Maybe it has to do with that sort of naturally occurring development we call “experience” or “informed cynicism” that marks a normal delineation between the innocence of youth and what follows.  And so is this a sort of self-fulfilling syndrome, a “get what you look for” deal?  And it feels even worse when I visualize an overlay of what I see today in too many families over that experience from 1957—instead of those 4 or 5 intact families I imagine a single mom with her 2 kids, another family with both kids texting and not even looking up, and the rest at home in separate rooms in front of glowing screens.

One of the precious attributes of this Shelter at 263 Main is its ability to connect people with each other in real time, and to do so on a platform of optimism and idealism and humor.  Unlike my personal experience with the first sighting of Sputnik, these events are private affairs for the most part that do not cause everything to stop.  But these connections and donations of support for others, sometimes coming from a child who chose to forego his or her own birthday gifts so others in need could benefit, may be the clearest contemporary examples of what I remember from the fall of 1957.  And I now believe that this little Shelter promotes some of the moments that are the best of us, small events that bring us all together as much as they appear to be focused on those “in need.”  We are all in need.