It will be 50 years ago this Saturday, the day Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon. Yet even now, it feels like yesterday.

I was six days away from my 15th birthday. All through that tumultuous summer of 1969, I’d worked as a dishwasher at the Wellesley Country Club in Massachusetts, staring down mountains of dirty dinner plates and coffee cups and enough silverware to stretch from here to, well, the moon.

I’d hoped to get out early enough to race home on my bike, plop myself in front of the living room TV and watch history unfold.

But like I said, I was a dishwasher – the lowliest of the low in the hierarchy of a busy commercial kitchen. When the Apollo 11 lunar excursion module, or LEM, landed on the Sea of Tranquility late on that afternoon of Sunday, July 20, I could barely peek out the door into the dining room to see the crowd gathered around a single television mounted high in a corner.

“Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,” Commander Neil Armstrong reported after several tense minutes. With that, the whole place burst into applause. And with the dishes fast piling up behind me, I went back to work.

It wasn’t the first time we’d seen something dramatic happen on live television. The murder of Lee Harvey Oswald following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the fatal shooting of Bobby Kennedy following the California primary in 1968, the riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination earlier the same spring – all were seared on the national consciousness not just for their sheer tragedy, but for their shocking immediacy. Much as we may have wanted to look away, we simply couldn’t.

But this was different. This was a moment of triumph, set against a backdrop of danger, that drew all of humankind together in a way we’d never seen before or, alas, have since.

As Walter Cronkite observed early in the mission, “It seems that the whole world has stopped as man has set out on the adventure to escape from his own planet and to set foot on a distant one.”

Still, for a 14-year-old kid in dishwater-stained kitchen whites, it all seemed so unfair. I wanted so badly to absorb every dramatic minute of the landing – the back-and-forth radio chatter between the Eagle and Mission Control in Houston, the otherworldly calm in their voices, the nagging awareness that at any moment, things could go horribly wrong.

But the dishes kept coming.

I slogged my way through the evening, juggling hot racks of water glasses, raising and lowering the heavy steel doors of the Hobart dishwasher and funneling the slop from the dinner plates into the industrial-size garbage disposal.

The cook and the salad guy eventually left, then the waitresses and the busboys. By 10 p.m., as usual, I was the only one remaining in the cavernous kitchen, maybe even the entire country club.

“Screw it,” I finally muttered to myself as I dried off my hands, grabbed a clean glass, and filled it with ice and a Coke. Pushing the door open, I walked into the dining room – normally no man’s land for anyone in whites – and turned on the TV.

Talk about timing. Armstrong had just opened the hatch and, a minute or two later, the first live picture of the moon’s surface flashed on the screen. Then Armstrong himself came into the frame, carefully descending the ladder until he was just above the ground.

“I’m at the foot of the ladder,” he reported. “The LEM footprints are only … ah … depressed in the surface about … ah … one or two inches, although the surface appears to be very, very fine-grained as you get close to it. It’s almost like a powder down there.”

I was transfixed. Not to mention impatient.

“What are you waiting for?” I thought. “Enough about the powder – go for it!”

And then he did.

“That’s one small step for man,” Armstrong said, his words etched into posterity the moment he spoke them. “One giant leap for mankind.”

I suddenly felt so alone. As Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin took their first walk around the LEM, I wanted to celebrate, to share this amazing moment with someone, anyone.

But it was just me and, waiting behind that door, the rest of those dishes. As I finally got up to finish my work, I thought about Michael Collins, the third Apollo 11 astronaut, who circled the moon alone in the command module while his fellow explorers basked in the world’s attention below.

Years later, Collins would tell The Guardian of his biggest fear during those lonely orbits – that Armstrong and Aldrin wouldn’t make it back to the command module alive and he would return to Earth a “marked man.”

Riding my bike home that night, my headlight powered by the whirring little generator pressed against my back wheel, I looked up whenever the moon appeared momentarily in the mostly cloudy sky.

Then, as I rolled into the driveway and began to open the garage door, the moon came out again – this time long enough for me to take a deep breath and really look.

“They’re up there, right this minute, walking around,” I said to myself. “How is that possible?”

Five decades later, the moon seems so much closer than it did back then. Our ingenuity has taken us, albeit remotely, to Mars and far beyond. We now peer through mind-bending telescopes not just into our own galaxy, but into others light-years away.

There’s even talk of sending Americans back to the moon by 2024.

If and when that happens, I doubt it will be the same. The TV signal will be better, to be sure, but how many of us will be too busy taking selfies to actually watch it?

This I do know: When I step outside this Saturday evening and stare once again up at that mass of rock and dust that has captured our imaginations for millennia, I won’t be focused on what lies ahead.

I’ll think of that solitary night a half century ago and how, dirty dishes be damned, I got to witness a miracle.


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