Postscript to history
All the attention to the 40th anniversary in 2009 of the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969, reminded me of my own peculiar little footnote to this historic event.
At the time, I was a Peace Corps volunteer living in the north-central Indian village of Rajnagar (rough translation: Kingston) where I was working, together with my colleague Jagdish Prasad Mishra, a "village level worker" (i.e., an agricultural extension agent), to help the local farmers increase their wheat yields – a tiny, tiny part of the “green revolution” that eventually transformed India from a grain-importing nation to a grain exporter.
At home in the evenings, I followed the launch and the trip to the moon, listening to Voice of America broadcasts on my battery-powered shortwave radio (I had no electric power, or, for that matter, running water). The landing took place in the middle of the night – 1:47 a.m. on July 21 in India (corresponding to 4:17 p.m. Eastern time in the U.S.) – and I remember getting out of bed a little beforehand, so I could tune in and hear if all went well.
The next morning, when the astronauts actually began walking on the lunar surface, I had an appointment with one of the farmers I was working with, so I met him in his field and for several hours helped him dig and then hand-carry the dirt, in baskets, to gradually lengthen an elevated irrigation channel. I had mixed emotions – happy to be helping someone who was serious about the program, yet sorry to be missing an incredible moment in history. It was just as well, of course, since shortwave reception during daylight hours was always difficult (the moon walk, which took place in prime viewing time back home, began around 7 or 7:30 a.m. in India), and anyhow I was able to catch a bit of the lunar activity later that day and evening.
The footnote I mentioned at the outset took place perhaps a week or so later, after the astronauts had returned safely to earth. I had taken the bus into Chhatarpur, the “district town” (equivalent to a county seat in the U.S.), about 30 miles away, where I often went to shop, stop in at the hospital (manned by American medical missionaries), meet my Peace Corps friend and colleague Tom Farrell (whose village was 30 miles away in another direction), and/or take care of some business or other at the district office of the Madhya Pradesh (state) Department of Agriculture, the government agency at whose invitation I was serving.
As I walked down Chhatarpur’s main shopping street that morning, a merchant beckoned me to his stall. I didn’t know him personally, but since I’d been in the district almost a year at that point and had often walked down that street, he certainly would have known that this Hindi-speaking foreigner was an American. As I walked up to him, he smiled and congratulated me, as a "representative of America," on the success of “Apollo Gyara” – Hindi for Apollo Eleven. And then he said, “It really is wonderful you were able to send men to the moon, of course, but it really is too bad you had to spend $24 billion to do it. Back in Vedic times (i.e., thousands of years ago, when the events recounted in the Hindu scriptures are said to have taken place), our sadhus (holy men) used to travel to the moon all the time. It didn’t cost them any money at all, and it didn’t take them four days to get there either.” He told me all this with great seriousness. I thanked him – and I’ve never forgotten the wonderful “postscript” to history he gave me.