By Pat Browning
The last time I saw Buzz Aldrin he was walking on the moon. No kidding. And there he was again Monday night, stiff-arming his way through the cha-cha on “Dancing With The Stars.” Walked on the moon, danced through the stars. What will he think of next?
Before he took to the dance floor, Aldrin was cheered on by a videotape from fellow astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Expedition 23 flight engineer T.J. Creamer did a weightless back flip and said, "Buzz, we know you're an original moonwalker but can you still do this move?"
I watched Aldrin’s moonwalk on TV in that long ago summer of 1969. On July 20 I was in Copenhagen with a tour group. The hotel management put a TV screen up on a wall for our group and we watched the telecast in French, from Belgium. Our Belgian bus driver translated, but there was no need. That was truly a time when a picture was worth a thousand words. An estimated 600 million people watched Aldrin do a kind of “kangaroo hop” on the moon.
On the moon. Imagine that! Youth, vigor, the right stuff. Suddenly Americans were the world’s darlings. When we went on to Oslo, little tow-headed, blue-eyed boys on bicycles followed our bus into town, holding out pen and paper for our autographs as we climbed down the bus steps.
Back in the U.S. another big news story was unfolding. When our tour group reached Paris, the astronauts were buried in newspaper back pages and front pages blared a Kennedy headline. On July 18, Ted Kennedy had driven his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island and a young woman was dead.
She was Mary Jo Kopechne, and Ted was driving her home after a reunion of the “boilerplate girls” who had worked on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign the year before. The full story may never be known. Ted apparently panicked and swam away, leaving Mary Jo either to suffocate or drown.
It seemed that tragedy would dog the four handsome Kennedy brothers forever.
Missing from the Life photo is the eldest brother, Joe Jr., a Navy bomber pilot who was killed during World War II. After flying 25 missions he signed up for an experimental program and died when his plane, loaded with explosives for an attack on a German V-2 rocket site, exploded shortly after takeoff.
John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963. Two days later, with TV cameras rolling, his accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was shot by nightclub owner Jack Ruby.
Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 in Los Angeles after winning California’s Democratic presidential primary. His assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, is doing life in a Central California prison.
This appalling history may have weighed on the Court when Ted Kennedy entered a plea of guilty to a charge of leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury. With the prosecution’s agreement, the judge sentenced Kennedy to two months' incarceration, the statutory minimum for the offense, which he suspended. He spoke of Kennedy's "unblemished record" and said that he "has already been, and will continue to be punished far beyond anything this court can impose.”
Ted Kennedy acknowledged that shortly before his death. "That night on Chappaquiddick Island ended in a horrible tragedy that haunts me every day of my life," Kennedy wrote in "True Compass," his much anticipated memoir, published by Twelve." (quote from NYDaily News)
Haunted by scandal and an unraveled marriage, he settled down to work as a U.S. Senator and became known as “the lion of the Senate.” His great cause was health care reform but he didn’t live to see it.
Forty-one years after his moonwalk, Buzz Aldrin is on TV again, and 28 million people watch him do the cha-cha. Tuesday’s online Washington Post runs a photo of Ted Kennedy’s grave at Arlington, with a handwritten note from his son Patrick about passage of the health care bill.
It is the stuff of novels. It is a great What-If for a mystery writer. But not now. Too soon. Memory is too fresh. Give it another 40 years. By then it really will be ancient history.
1)Buzz Aldrin and Ashly Costa, Dancing With The Stars, from msnbc.com.
2)Aldrin salutes the flag on the moon, Apollo 11 Image Gallery at http://history.nasa.gov/
All photographs on this website are courtesy of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, specifically the NASA History Office and the NASA JSC Media Services Center.
3)The Dike Bridge, Chappaquiddick Island; 2008 photo with added guardrails, from Wikipedia.
4)Ted Kennedy’s 1967 Oldsmobile Delmont 88 being pulled from the tidal channel on Chappaquiddick Island, July 19, 1969; photo from New York Daily News, September 3, 2009.
5)Cover photo from The Kennedys: End of a Dynasty, Life Books, by the editors of Life magazine, October 2009.