Fifty years ago today, man walked on the moon — and here on earth an angry teen stalked out of his Hamburg home.
Jeremiah Horrigan could not separate the glory of American astronauts in space from the agony of American troops in Vietnam. Most of the rest of the world was in thrall to the lunar landing, and that very much included Jeremiah’s father, who was vice president of public relations for the Buffalo Bills.
Jack Horrigan reveled in the historic nature of Apollo 11 and could not understand why his eldest child conflated moon rockets with war rockets. They had a terrible argument the night of the moon walk — and Jeremiah stomped away from the family’s lakefront home.
He was 19 then. Today, on the cusp of 70, he sees the world through a different lens. He remains an outspoken opponent of U.S. wars abroad but now fully appreciates the human bravery and technical skill of that first lunar landing.
And he especially appreciates the unwavering love and support offered by his father when Jeremiah was arrested in 1971 for breaking into the Old Post Office building in a failed attempt to destroy military draft records.
By that time his father had been diagnosed with an advanced stage of leukemia. He’d be gone by 1973, at the age of 47.
Jeremiah and other members of the so-called Buffalo Five would be found guilty in 1972, after a headline-making trial. They were sentenced to a year in prison, and Jeremiah realized in that moment that he would be behind bars when his father died.
But, in the next moment, U.S. District Court Judge John T. Curtin suspended the sentences of the Buffalo Five. Jeremiah says the judge’s compassion allowed his life to happen. Today he and his wife live in New Paltz, N.Y., as parents of two and grandparents of four. He’s a retired reporter who worked at a skein of small-town New York newspapers, including the Niagara Gazette.
Jeremiah is also the author of an unpublished memoir called Fortunate Son: A Dying Father, An Angry Son and the War on the Home Front. One chapter tells the story of the night 50 years ago when he and his father traded barbs.
The odd thing is that Jeremiah, as a boy, was a big fan of the space race. He would tell people he wanted to grow up to be the first priest to say Mass on the moon. His father often told that story with a mix of pride and humor.
“Dad knew I loved the Space Age,” Jeremiah writes in his memoir. “In 1961, when I was 11, he gave me a color photo, personally inscribed to me, of astronaut Alan Shepard, shortly after Shepard became the first American in space.”
Jeremiah says he squandered so much of the memorabilia his father bequeathed to him in those years — including autographed baseballs lost to storm drains — but the Shepard photo he has to this day.
By the night of the moon walk, though, he was an antiwar activist in waiting, home for the summer from his freshman year at Fordham University.
“I was itching for a fight and found one in the living room, where Dad was transfixed before the TV,” Jeremiah writes, “even as CBS newscaster Walter Cronkite mellifluously philosophized about the historic achievement the world was witnessing. I couldn’t let the day go by without registering my contempt.”
Father and son exchanged angry words, then fought back bitter tears.
“Hurt but full of righteous anger,” Jeremiah writes, “I marched out of the large, comfortable home on Lake Erie that Dad had worked all of his life to provide for me and my eight brothers and sisters.”
Jeremiah equated technology in space with napalm in Vietnam. His father saw the moon landing as a peaceful, world-historical event worthy of the world’s admiration.
“Dad was almost as innocent of political cynicism as I was of political sophistication,” Jeremiah writes. “For him, the moon walk was about greatness achieved. (Neil) Armstrong’s beeping, static-filled broadcasts were proof that the country he had fought for during another, vastly different war could still achieve its goals.”
The rupture in their relationship began its repair over that summer. By the next month, Jeremiah attended the music festival at Woodstock while his father greeted a rookie running back to Bills’ training camp, a fellow by the name of O.J. Simpson.
At year’s end, Jeremiah was at Main Place Mall when he was approached by the morning newspaper for a daily feature called Enquiring Reporter. The story ran in the Courier-Express on New Year’s Day, 1970. Six local citizens answered this question: What was the greatest event of the 1960s?
Four picked the moon landing. One selected the Nixon administration. Jeremiah opted for Woodstock. He called it “a cosmic event.”
Today he would like to amend his answer. The greatest event of the 1960s, he now believes, was that actual cosmic event that he understands as one small step for man, one giant schlep for mankind.
In the late 1960s, the distance in understanding between parents and their rebellious offspring was often called the generation gap. On the night of the moon walk, by Jeremiah’s estimation, the generation gap in the living room of his Hamburg home was 240,000 miles — lakeshore to lunar surface.
Two years later, by the time of Jeremiah’s arrest, the gap was gone — vaporized to moon dust. There was only familial love in the air when father paid son’s bail.
“He told me, ‘You’re my son and I love you,’ ” Jeremiah says. “For months after he told the same thing to anyone who asked about me, and everyone did. Reporters, friends, family, everyone. It meant the world to me.”
And the moon.
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