I was pretty young at the time, in elementary school. And I remember we had these weekly vocabulary tests…ugh, not my favorite thing. The teacher would give us a new list of words each week, and we had to learn the spelling of each word as well as the definition. The most uncomfortable thing about the tests, by far, was that we couldn’t resort to just regurgitating the definition of each word and be done with it. (No way, life had to be harder than that… even in elementary school!) As it was, we had to have thought about each word A LOT, enough to know its essence, enough to use it in conversation in front of the class. We had to have a deep, gut feeling for each word: in short, we had to really know.
So this one night I was at home, cramming for the test the next day. And I kept getting bogged down with the word “integrity.” I could spell it. And I could blankly rattle off the definition by memory. But every time I relived my teacher’s helpful advice, to “think of the ‘soul’ of it, think of what it really means,” the word just made me feel like a stupid idiot, a very young stupid idiot. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it, or get inside of it.
So I went into the living room where my dear (professor-scientist) dad was sitting in his big red chair, intently watching the CBS Evening News on TV.
“Dad, what’s ‘integrity’ mean?”
He said, “Aren’t you supposed to know that one already?”, or something to that effect.
“Yeah,” I responded, “but I still don’t get it.”
This was met with silence, except for the sound of the news in the background….
So then I said, “Okay, well can you give me an example of it?”
My question was again met with silence… all except for the very-familiar voice of the news anchorman in the background.
I was desperate: “DAD, I don’t know what ‘integrity’ is!! The test is tomorrow and I still don’t know, I still don’t get it! So what do I think about? Dad, what I should think of???”
I’ll never forget what happened next. He paused (still staring at the TV), and a flood of warmth suddenly washed over his face… and then he slowly, very thoughtfully said, “Think of……………. Walter.. Cronkite.”
Bam! What an answer! I didn’t expect that at all.
I felt myself relax, and smile. Walter Cronkite… whose friendly face graced our dinner table regularly like another member of the family, beaming at us through our little black-and-white TV set. Walter Cronkite… with his reassuring voice, leading my family and my friends’ families and it seemed like the whole world through such troubled times with his voice of honesty, clarity, and truth. Walter Cronkite!
And to think that, at that very moment, I had NO IDEA of what was to come–of how Walter Cronkite would carry our nation through the entire Apollo space program all the way to the era of the space shuttle… and of how his passion about space exploration would thrill the world, igniting everyone’s hearts with his “Go baby, go!” as Apollo 11 lifted off! And I could not possibly foresee that, in July 1969, I would sit with my family, hovering around the little black-and-white TV set, all of us holding our breaths… and that we would watch spellbound as Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong slowly descended the ladder of the lunar module… and that we would listen, speechless, choking back tears of amazement and pride, as Walter Cronkite’s sturdy and patient voice would take us–all of humanity–down that ladder along with Armstrong, down that ladder to the surface of the moon! MANKIND’S FIRST STEPS ON THE MOON, one of the most poignant moments and important achievements in all of history, narrated by the most magnificent, eloquent and yet honest tour guide–my gosh, I had no idea that the best of Walter Cronkite was yet to come.
What I did know, though, standing before my dad on that infamous night before my vocabulary test, was that my dad nailed it. He nailed ‘integrity’ with his answer. And, the next day, I nailed ‘integrity’ on the test! I got it! I used it, in conversation in front of the class! And, I really knew it. In fact, it was a surprise to me that I’d probably known the word all along–it had been right in front of me. I just hadn’t recognized it, the sound of it, the voice of it, nightly, on the CBS Evening News!
To Mr. Cronkite,
as the world honors you and mourns the recent passing of your life,
I salute you.
I thank you for your steadiness, your ethics and untiring service to humanity,
and especially for your exuberance in the exploration of space.
To me, personally, you were always the fourth astronaut
to go to the moon,
the fourth crew member of Apollo 11.
Thank you for taking me
and the rest of humanity
for the greatest ride of all.