1969 was a big year for many reasons and no less for the incredible achievement that was the moon landing. But the sixteenth year of a boy’s life is very big no matter what else is going on in the world and my sixteenth year was no different.
I have a vague memory of trooping down to the school library with a thousand other uniforms and straining to see the TV set through the crowd. Certain details stand out; the strange emotional behaviour of the usually restrained and serious teachers as they watched the moon images, the overwhelming odour generated by a large number of high school boys in relatively close vicinity to each other, noticing that there was the specific event itself and the fact that we were actually watching it. It was all over pretty quickly and we trooped back up the stairs to classrooms. No discussion followed.
The high school I attended was one of those huge denominational boys schools run by priests. Corporal punishment in the classrooms (a great way to learn maths) and the law of the jungle in the quadrangle. A pedagogy that reinforced total control of the individual through a stifling structure and a one dimensional curriculum that had its roots in a traditional Catholic education but was struggling with an emerging modern culture. I was constantly told my school was progressive and I constantly questioned my understanding of the meaning of that word.
Occasionally there were times when the outside world was allowed in. My English teacher came into the classroom one day with a huge box of books and began handing them around. A copy of The Fellowship of the Ring became my classroom oasis and an introduction to the possibilities of imagination. An open minded Art teacher created another oasis for a few hours a week but the academic hierarchy put paid to any glimpse of a real choice in that direction.
Canberra was a small town at that time: a small conservative country town. A friend and I had occasion to be at the local Chemist and purchase a packet of condoms as we needed to have a close look at one. They were cheap and openly displayed in boxes of 5. The shop assistant sold us the condoms and by the time we walked in the door at home (a 15 minute dawdle and enough time to assess the quality of our purchase) my Mother knew exactly where we had been. When quizzed I omitted to admit another reason we were interested in the condoms. A fellow student had been approaching the condom display in the chemist and pushing pins straight through the entire packets of 5. We wished to check his handy work.
In 1969 the Pope was seeing the backlash of his decree that “birth control is intrinsically wrong”. Catholic faith and loyalty was being tested. Three priests teaching at my school wrote a letter to the Canberra Times Editor publicly disagreeing with the Pope. They were all suspended from teaching immediately and I only ever saw them briefly after that.
Moon landing? Amazing, sure, but what about the universe of experience and knowledge that was coming to my attention from within? A 16 year old boy’s level of attentiveness is inversely proportional to his distance from another person of his sexual orientation. In 1969 I found myself alone with a blond girl roughly my age. She walked slowly up to me, brushed her blonde fringe away from her big hazel eyes, put one finger to her lips and went shhhhhhhhhhhh. At that point my whole existence shattered into a million pieces.
Moon landing? What moon landing? I think at sixteen my world was eclipsed by events defined by my cultural location and the relationships I experienced, perhaps parochial but no less formidable.