underneath another satellite sky


    I was in ninth grade when they came to town.

    The town was Nairobi, Kenya and they were Up With People. Members of the American community provided host homes for the group and so a couple of them stayed at our house, and in the homes of my friends from Nairobi International School. It was the fall of 1969; most of us were ninth graders, had guitars, and were completely consumed with playing music together. We were completely taken with this traveling band trying so hard to tell the world we were all connected:

    if more people were for people
    like people everywhere
    there’d be a lot less people to worry about
    and a lot more people who care

    I still remember the songs. One of them came back this week as we celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the first moon landing. (Of course, in a wonderful bit of technological irony, I couldn’t get web access in my hotel room last night to write.) Up With People had a song called “John Jacob Sebastian Smith” that was about a little baby born the day Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon.

    John Jacob Sebastian Smith took his first breath today
    in a little river town in the middle of I-o-way
    the day the train came down the track
    the corn stood shoulder high
    and it was just as the whistle blew
    that papa first heard him cry . . .

    The story line was the dad telling his new son he would see a world his father had hardly dreamed of, as he sang in the chorus:

    John David it’s all yours
    it’s a new world you’ve found
    you can make it what you will
    nothing can hold you down

    The astronauts appear in the last verse, both as a way of dreaming of the stars and coming to terms with our humanity at the same time:

    John David as you took your first breath today
    others took the breath of life to a planet far away
    someday maybe you’ll do even more
    remember son it’s all about people
    people like the folks next door

    Nothing happens in a vacuum, even in space. While Armstrong was planting a flag that couldn’t fly on the moon, the big blue ball below him was in turmoil: the Vietnam war waged on; Woodstock was not so far away; LBJ’s Great Society had given way to Nixon, and the Civil Rights movement continued in the aftermath of the deaths of both King and Malcolm X, among others. Even the dream of reaching the moon was fueled by the competition of the Cold War: we wanted to beat the Russians to show them who was Number One. I read in the Birmingham News yesterday that the amount NASA spent getting to the moon was equivalent to more money than we spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan last year. Long before Christopher Cross sang about it, we were caught between the moon and New York City.

    I know it’s crazy, but it’s true.

    Another teenager a little older than I who stared into the sky an ocean away from Nairobi, was Mark Heard. A little over twenty years after the moon landing and, unfortunately, in the same summer that he died, Mark released a song, “Satellite Sky,” that still speaks to both the possibility and ambiguity of what it means to be alive in these days.

    why do I lie awake at night and think back just as far as I can
    to the sound of my father’s laugh outdoors
    to the thought of Sputnik in free flight

    before I could fashion my poverty
    before I distrusted the night
    I must’ve known something
    I must’ve known something
    those were the times I live for tonight

    why, why, why, I say why, mama, why?
    why can’t I sleep in peace tonight underneath the satellite sky

    it can’t be easy for my children
    I’m hollow before my time
    it looks like a desert here to me
    where is the promise of youth for my child

    where are the faraway kingdoms of dreams
    we’ve been to the moon and there’s trouble at home
    they vanished in the mist with Saint Nicholas
    they lie scattered to the ghettos and the war zones

    why, why, why, I say why, mama, why?
    why can’t I sleep in peace tonight underneath the satellite sky

    I want to stand out in the middle of the street and listen to the stars
    I want to hear their sweet voices
    I want to feel a big bang rattle my bones
    I want to laugh for my children
    I want the spark to ignite
    before they find out what it means to be born into these times

    why, why, why, I say why, mama, why?
    why can’t I sleep in peace tonight underneath the satellite sky

    In these days when we can “Google” our way to most anywhere in the world (except, of course, in my hotel room last night) and see YouTube videos from all across the planet, we are also the ones who see fewer stars from our porches and windows than any generation to have inhabited the planet. Since Armstrong’s steps, we have run rovers across Mars and we have yet to provide clean drinking water for over a quarter of the people on our planet. I’m not making an either/or case here by any means. My question is the same as those who have come before me: how do we look up at the stars and look out for one another at the same time?

    The early astronomers studied the night skies, finding gods and bears and hunters, in order to find their way across lands and seas. The stars told them where they were and where they might be going. The psalmist pulled theological questions from the twinkling darkness:

    I look up at your macro-skies, dark and enormous,
    your handmade sky-jewelry,
    Moon and stars mounted in their settings.
    Then I look at my micro-self and wonder,
    Why do you bother with us?
    Why take a second look our way?
    (The Message)

    Forty years after Apollo 11, we have pictures of galaxies far, far, away; we know our own smells like raspberries; we have driven on Mars and have plans to go farther; my MacBook is a stronger computer than anything the Apollo astronauts understood; the Red Sox have won the World Series twice; there are twice as many people on the planet today than in the summer of ’69 (and Bryan Adams is still touring); we are in another unexplainable war; we have an African-American president; and our planet is plagued with poverty and need that cripples us all.

    Chet Raymo
    wondered on paper years ago how there could be darkness at all when there were so many stars in the sky. He answered his own question by saying it was because not all of the light has gotten here yet. It’s coming. But not yet. The stars give credence to our UCC credo that God has light “that has yet to break forth.” I believe, with all my heart, we can still sleep in peace underneath a satellite sky, not so much because we walked on the moon, but because that’s what the stars say.


    P. S. — Here are my first Heard-inspired musings about satellite skies. And here’s Mark Heard.


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