Today is April 12th, a date that marks a couple of watershed events in world history, events which happened to occur exactly one hundred apart. On April 12th, 1861, forces of the newly formed Confederate States of America began a 36-hour bombardment of the Union garrison at Ft. Sumter, South Carolina, effectively beginning the American Civil War. Exactly one hundred years after that (fifty years ago today) the Soviet Union sent the first man into space.
The American Civil War ended the tragic institution of slavery, but it also opened wounds in families, communities, and the country that lasted for decades. Indeed, there are forces at work in some states today fantasizing about the possibility of secession, and there are those who still regard the Confederacy with pride and even admiration. But with the conclusion of the Civil War, the most contentious issue in American history up until that time was resolved - at a cost of over half a million lives.
One hundred years later the Soviet Union shocked Americans by successfully sending a man into space and bringing him home safely. The "space race" was on and America found itself sitting in the dust. That young cosmonaut, Yuri Gargarin, was only twenty-seven-years-old when he flew into the unknown and made history.
(Gargarin was killed a few years later when a jet he was piloting crashed. He is buried with the Soviet Union's heroes in the Kremlin Wall, and twelve years ago I had the opportunity to stand at the spot in front of that famous wall where his ashes are interred.)
The amount of change that happened from the time of ragged soldiers fighting and dying on American soil until man ventured forth into space seems almost surreal. And the fifty years since Gargarin's flight into space have been no less amazing.
At the time of Gargarin's flight, Kennedy and Krushchev had to communicate by diplomatic couriers or use the once-famous "Red Telephone." Now almost anyone in America can communicate instantly with almost anyone in Russia through the Internet. Now, instead of just two countries having the power to lob nuclear missiles indiscriminately, several nations have that ability. Racism was practiced more openly and tolerated in America in 1961. Today racism is still with us, but it is much more apt to be called out and treated with scorn - and a black man leads our nation. Several men, all Americans, have walked on the moon in the past half-century, and America and the Russia have actually cooperated on some manned space flights. And fifty years after Gargarin's famous flight, the Soviet Union has long disappeared from the geo-political map of the world.
What will the world be like in fifty more years? My grandchildren will see and experience things that I cannot even imagine - and I am hopeful that they will enjoy a lifetime of wonderment - just as I have!