The Baton

Remember the movie Apollo 13? It came out a few years ago, about the ill-fated third moonshot in 1970. I found the story of its making at least as enthralling as the movie itself. Director Ron Howard and stars Tom Hanks and Gary Sinise shared a memory of their childhood, one I shared with them. There was a lot of faking the flu to stay home those years and catch every patch-out and wheelie of the lunar rover as it rounded Taurus-Littrow crater.

Adult visitors had to watch what they said around our house. The slightest passing comment about how marvelous it was that we were going to the moon was my invitation to roll out my 1:96 scale Revell Apollo/Saturn plastic model kit, with all the parts snap-fitted together, so that I could demonstrate staging, Lunar Module acquisition and trans-lunar insertion burns. In today’s parlance, I geeked out on NASA. (I can remember a nun in our Catholic school, who had to be 137 if she was a day, ask me, “So, you like Nassau?” I answered “yes” to be compliant, and I realized what she said much later.)

The summer vacation in the Adirondacks brought three generations of Wolffs together in the rec room of a little resort, in front of an old black-and-white console set as Walter Cronkite (whom my father disliked) led the world in watching Neil Armstrong descend that ladder.

My grandfather had my father when he was 35, and my father had me when he was 33, so those generations represented the twentieth century well. My grandfather fought in World War 1, and could have read about the Wright Brothers’ flight in the newspaper.

He hadn’t said much about the space mission; I suppose I was doing the lion’s share of the talking. At the end of the vacation, though, at night, he took me by the hand and led me out onto our front yard. The waxing moon was just over half. He pointed to it and said to me, “You see that? There were guys walking around up there!”

I knew that he knew he wasn’t breaking the news to me. He was just trying to express the awe that he felt and could see I was missing out on. To his view, our family’s history was a long, majestic relay race. And it was time for him to pass me the baton. I didn’t feel like that at the time, but I do now, and more strongly as I get older.

Today’s “digital natives” have the technology available in their formative years, when they’re not aware of any limitations or ceilings. This is perceived among today’s baby-boomers as an insurmountable head-start for them.

Yet for all their agility, they lack perspective. Their sense of history is the occasional social studies report, fueled by Wikipedia. They didn’t see it pass by their window.

They have the geeky adeptness. But my generation and older, they have the baton. And it’s not doing us any good where it is. Time we passed it on.

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