In those days Cannery Row was little more than a string of mostly abandoned buildings with twisted corrugated walls slowly rusting in the fog and the salty sea air.
Several beat up old railroads cars sat akimbo on the sidings above the dusty, deserted street, and one could easily imagine Doc and all those other colorful characters from the Steinbeck novels lounging suspiciously on the relics or searching for specimens amid the chaos of the pounding surf, the sting of the high-flying spray and the crisp, ear-numbing hiss as the cold, blue-green water rose and fell with each passing wave.
Little coffee houses like Tilly Gorts (still in business today, by the way) wouldn’t pay entertainers, but they’d let a traveling musician like me play for an hour or so and pass the hat. Usually, they’d offer a free meal, too.
Even if we didn’t have any paying gigs, with a little busking on the street during the day and a pass-the-hat dinner stop in the evening, we guitar slingers could travel almost unnoticed up and down the West Coast at will. (Gas only cost about 35 cents a gallon in those days.)
I remember my girlfriend and I had made the trip with guitar buddy Jim Holdt and his girlfriend in his yellow Volkswagen microbus.
Of course, we knew of the historic moon landing on the Sea of Tranquility earlier that day, and we fought to keep the radio tuned in as we made our way up Pacheco Pass, a twisted, winding stretch of two-lane asphalt dubbed “Blood Alley” in those days because of all the head-on collisions. We didn’t want to miss the historic moment when an American would actually walk on the moon. Wow.
As the big red sun sank slowly behind us in the west and most of a bright white moon rose above the coast range in the east, we finally heard the late Neil Armstrong utter those famous words, “That's one small step for(a) man, one giant leap for mankind,” through the static of an AM radio station from San Jose.
What a moment! The moonwalk offered a great possibility of hope, a promise our country sadly never realized. Maybe the evil, Godless Russians had beaten us into space, but we got to the moon first. Anything was possible if we, as a country and a people, just had the national will to make the commitment. There were no boundaries, and we could achieve absolutely everything we wanted. America could lead the whole world into a golden age of cooperation, peace, prosperity and brotherhood.
But the euphoria didn’t last too long. Instead the divisions among our people quickly took root again, and over the years they have grown and stubbornly festered into the itchy scabs we still scratch today.
Maybe as we reflect upon the life, times and passing of our first moonwalker, Neil Armstrong, and our great accomplishment of putting him there, we can rediscover and reconnect with our national will and our path to greatness.
Maybe I’m a dreamer, but the lesson seems so very simple, it’s almost too silly to put into words. We can be exactly the country and the people we choose to be. We can achieve and accomplish all the goodness and greatness we desire — if only we decide to make it so.
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