A Tlingit On the Moon

By Frank Hopper

Like almost everyone else in the world that day, on Sunday, July 20, 1969, I watched on TV as Neil Armstrong prepared to step onto the lunar surface. I could see my face reflected in the screen of our old Silvertone black and white TV from Sears. I had turned it on even before the front door had closed behind us after rushing home from church. I was eleven, less than a month before my twelfth birthday, and still dreamed of being an astronaut.

My mom and dad disappeared behind me. Their movement was also reflected in the darkness of the TV screen as it slowly buzzed and crackled to life. As the screen got brighter their reflections faded and I locked into the drama of man’s first visit to another world.

I could feel my father’s presence behind me even after his reflection was washed away by the brightness of the broadcast. Short and skinny, with thick, heavy hands that always poked out from the ends of his long-sleeve shirts, my dad always acted like someone late to a sold-out movie. Pardon me, his movements said, so sorry to disturb you.

I heard the creak of his armchair as he sat down. My mom told me not to sit so close to the TV. She disappeared into the kitchen and began making lunch. I ignored her at first. Her maternal power was dimmed somewhat in the glow of military power being broadcast around the globe. But then I scooted back, closer to my father, so close I could hear his breath, or imagined I could anyway, just as I could hear it at church when he occasionally put his arm around my shoulder during the sermon.

Jules Bergman, a science correspondent for ABC news, wondered what Armstrong’s first words were going to be when he finally set foot on moon dust. The grainy black and white video showed only the ladder coming down one leg of the Lunar Excursion Module. Armstrong and copilot Buzz Aldrin prepared inside for the first moonwalk. So the image was motionless like cheap security camera footage of an empty parking lot.

But I didn’t care. I had been waiting for this moment for years. I had models of spacecraft in my room and pictures on my walls. I would watch every rocket launch and listen to the crackle of voices from the astronauts and mission control. I knew every detail of every mission. That was my job. I was the smart one, the bright, precocious baby of the family.

I was proud that I looked more white than my two older brothers. Although I was half-Tlingit just like them, I was the great white hope of our family, the good son who never got in trouble. My brothers both had pretty bumpy rides through adolescence and gave my dad a lot of grief growing up. Both had dropped out of high school, married young, and moved out. But I was the well-behaved son who stayed home with my full-blooded Tlingit mom while my Caucasian father worked evenings as a janitor downtown.

Sometimes I heard him coming home from work, the key in the lock, the front door catching on the jamb when he pushed it closed. He would sit in the kitchen eating leftovers and reading the newspaper, always silent, no TV or radio. Pardon me, so sorry to disturb you. He was nearly sixty then.

I was ashamed of him because he was so old and because he was so small and because he had false teeth. But mainly I was ashamed because he was so quiet. He never spoke up about anything to anyone. He never seemed to play or have fun. He never had any friends that I knew of. He just worked.

The wisdom that showed through his eyes was tragic. He was smart, though uneducated, and knew through hard experience to keep it a secret. Intelligence without power is a threatening thing. In Juneau, where I and my brothers were born, people threatened by my dad’s clarity of perception often made racist comments to him about his Tlingit wife, just to bring him down to their level.

Slowly the prejudice wore away at him until he finally gave up and took the family to Seattle. There the racial tensions would not be so high, he thought, and it would be easier for his kids to get ahead in life. So my desire to be an astronaut was my way of making his dreams come true. I would get ahead in life. I would be more white. I would assimilate.

Armstrong finally made his way down the ladder. He stopped at the bottom and brushed the lunar surface with his boot, commenting about how powdery it looked. Then he bounced off the LEM and onto the moon.

“That’s one small step for man…” he said, “One… dyan vreep… for mankind.”

That’s how it sounded to me through all the static on his radio. I spun around to look at my dad. My smile was ear-to-ear. But my dad was gone, his chair empty. My mom came out from the kitchen to watch. She smiled and dried her hands on a dish towel. I asked her where dad was.

“I think he’s in the carport,” she said.

I knew what that meant. Dad was out in the carport smoking a cigarette. It was the family secret everyone knew about. My dad smoked, even though it was against church rules. He had smoked since he was a boy in Idaho, through the depression and Second World War. Now in Seattle the new church he made us join forbade cigarettes. After several attempts to quit, he finally just gave up and smoked in secret. But everyone knew. And no one really cared that he smoked, except him and me.

If he ever got a call while smoking in the carport I would shout, “Dad! Phone!” before turning the corner to give him a chance to stomp it out. I imagined if I caught him smoking he would die of shame. No! Don’t look at me! Don’t look!

But this time I remained silent as I turned the corner into the carport. My dad stood at the far end looking into the valley behind our house, puffing away at a Sir Walter Raleigh cigarette. His back was to me. I kept walking, worried he would hear my pounding heart. He stared intently at the sky. I crept closer, staying to one side just out of his reach in case I startled him. He had no idea I was there. He held the cigarette to his lips with two fingers, squinting at something in the distance. I moved silently next to him. I held my breath.

Then he calmly turned and smiled at me. He didn’t drop the cigarette. He didn’t cry out in shame. He put his arm around my shoulder and pointed to the moon with his cigarette.

“Look at that,” he said, “There’s men up there.”

I looked at the crescent moon, a silent jewel close enough to touch, yet a quarter-million miles away. My dad looked as if he were there himself, as if holding onto me was the only thing keeping him from flying up and joining those brave explorers. He finished his cigarette. It took two more drags before he was done with it. The whole time he squeezed my shoulder and smiled. I never said a word.

Later that day President Nixon would talk to the astronauts on the moon by phone from the Oval Office. My dad was unimpressed. Nixon would soon invade Cambodia and begin spying on his enemies. The politics and precious resources that made the moonshot possible meant nothing to my dad. Exploration by a government on this scale always means violence. If Armstrong had discovered moon men up there Nixon would have figured out a way to take their land and marginalize them.

But my dad admired the men who put their asses on the line and actually went. He admired them for going to the moon, just as he had gone to Alaska during World War II. He admired their dedication to the adventure of life.

Later I would grow to hate him. He took Juneau away from me when I was just a toddler and made me take care of my shy, Indian mother while he worked night after night. He needed me to keep her happy, needed me to remain her baby, so she could have someone little to take care of and not be lonely. As I grew up I began hating him for not pulling me out of the maternal matrix and letting me rebel as my brothers had.

Assimilation, like exploration and colonization, is a violent process that slowly destroys our connections to the things that make us unique. My family believed in the myth taught to us by Western civilization that to fully reap the benefits of modern society we must abandon forever the wisdom of ancient cultures. What we didn’t know was that this myth was just a trick played on us by power-hungry governments who would even enslave the moon if they could.

My dad knew this on that clear July day back in 1969. But by then it was too late. The damage had already been done.

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About Vince

I am a Tlingit, born and raised in Tlingit Country, and a proud member of the Tlingit Nation.
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