Moon Landings, at Paleface and in Space - July, 1969
Though I have been dedicated to promoting my new book, Wanders Far-An Unlikely Hero's Journey, I thought I'd take a moment and dig out an excerpt from my first book, In the Shadow of a Giant, as my own way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing in 1969. I'll bet most people who were old enough to remember, never forgot where they were on that day. Here's that excerpt:
We had one television, and it was on all day. It had been on almost continuously since we watched a rocket blast three astronauts off into space on Wednesday morning. Mom was fascinated by space, and couldn’t stand to be away from the television for fear she might miss an update. There were only three channels on television then, and none of them played news all day.
It seemed like every fifteen minutes, she would scoot me away from what I was doing to watch with her. A rapid-fire succession of “ooh-ooh-ooh” was the signal. “We’re witnessing history unfolding, right before our eyes,” Mom said. “Hubba, hubba, hubba! Something’s about to happen!” When Mom became excited about something, it was hard not to get sucked into it yourself.
My younger sister Barbara, and younger brother Jeffrey were toddlers at the time. We spent the whole day camped out with Mom in the bedroom. Mom sat on the bed with her legs crossed Indian style. The floor was littered with toys, and there were toys all around Mom on the bed. The television was unusually loud, to drown out the not so quiet sound of three kids playing, which could be hard to accomplish. Every once in a while, Mom would jump off the bed, race to the television, and turn the dial on the set to make it even louder, or to see if maybe there was better coverage happening on one of the other two channels.
Just before two in the afternoon, it was announced that the landing craft had separated from the command module. The landing craft began circling the moon. Mom tried to explain that the landing craft was going to go around the moon once or twice then it was going to try to land on the moon. And Mom tried to explain that they wouldn’t be able to show us the landing craft on television when it was on the other side of the moon.
“Mommy, what happens on the dark side of the moon?” I asked.
Mom gave a fantastic, imaginative answer with lots of details that modern science had yet to prove or disprove. I could tell by the voice she used that she was making stuff up. Mom had just read Chariots of the Gods, the book Rosemary Robinson had left behind at Paleface. Mom’s imagination took the author’s theories much farther and incorporated fantastic, vivid details.
At about 3:40 in the afternoon, Mom turned the volume down on the television and rocked the babies to sleep. While they were falling asleep, I asked lots of questions. With a seven-year-old brother, babies had to learn to fall asleep while people talked.
Mom answered in soothing, sleep-inducing tones. By about ten minutes to four, the landing craft had completed its orbit of the moon, emerging from the dark side, and was preparing to land on the surface.
With one sleeping toddler on each side and me on her lap, Mom answered questions about all the confusing spaceship names. “Saturn Five is the name of the rocket; Columbia is the name of the space ship. Eagle is the name of the tiny ship that is about to land on the moon. Apollo is the name of the mission. Apollo 11 to be more specific because other astronauts have made ten space missions before this one.”
That should have cleared it up, but I wanted to call it just one thing. Forget Apollo, Saturn, and Columbia. I just called it the Eagle.
“Mommy, if you could go to the moon, would you?” I asked.
“Yes, of course!” she exclaimed. “What an adventure that would be!”
“Mommy, do they have lady astronauts?”
She sighed dreamily. “No, not yet, but I bet someday there will be.”
“Mommy, wouldn’t you be scared to go out into space?”
“Maybe a little, but probably more excited than scared.”
“I think space is scary,” I told her. “Did you know that someday the sun will burn out and we’ll all die!”
“Where did you hear that?”
“At school. And in this book.” I picked up a book that had a picture of all the planets on the cover. The one that Mom had been trying to get me to read.
“Don’t spend your time worrying about that, that’s millions of years in the future. By then we will discover a way to blast ourselves off into space and build new homes on other planets.” Mom was very reassuring and very persuasive.
I still had my doubts.
“Space is so full of black nothingness. What if all that nothingness sucked you in and swallowed you up?” Though I hated to admit it, I was quite afraid of the dark.
And vampires! A few months earlier I was taken to see a vampire movie although I was only seven. Just the thought that a person, who was really a vampire, and could turn from a bat back into a person, and bite you on the neck, and make you into a vampire, was a horrifying thought.
For weeks, every night at dark, I carried on and on at bed time. It wasn’t until Mom made me a cross out of aluminum foil and gave me a whole fistful of garlic cloves that our family had peace and quiet at bed time.
“Mommy, since vampires only like the dark, do you think the dark side of the moon is full of vampire bats?” I asked, afraid of the answer.
“No, I’m sure vampires and bats are not allowed on the moon!” Mom answered emphatically and convincingly. She sold that conclusion, putting a stake through the heart of thoughts about vampires.
Fortunately, it was the middle of the afternoon in the summer, and vampires only come out at night, so I went back to worrying about the nothingness of space.
“What if the Eagle crashes and the astronauts die, Mommy? What then?”
Mom said, “Well, we’ve never done this before. I guess that could happen. Maybe thousands of the world’s smartest scientists have been working on this project since President Kennedy told them we need to go to the moon. I’ll bet they have thought of everything, and will know just what to do in order to boldly go where no man has gone before.” That last part Mom had copied from the television show Star Trek, of course.
“How far is it to the moon, Mommy?”
“I think they said it was two hundred and nineteen thousand miles.”
“How many miles is it to Paleface, Mommy?”
“I think it is about 325 miles to Paleface.” She thought for a moment, and then began muttering math. “Seven times three equals twenty-one, so 700 trips times 300 miles would be 210,000 miles, which is almost 219,000 miles, more or less.” After calculating an approximation, Mom said, resolutely, “So going to the moon would be like going to Paleface almost 700 times! Keep in mind that rocket ships go much faster than Chubby does.”
Chubby was the name of our car. It was an old Checker taxi cab that had been retired from service as a taxi and wound up becoming our family car. Instead of yellow and black it had been painted solid black all over. In the back seat, there were two fold up chairs, with small round seats. Kids could ride on those chairs, and rock back and forth on them. Just like those metal animals on giant springs at the playground which you could rock back and forth. Behind the back seat was a shelf that was big enough for a seven-year-old boy to climb up onto. On a long trip to Paleface I would often lie on that shelf by the back window and fall asleep. I couldn’t remember ever wearing seat belts as a kid, and often the driver would entertain us all by swerving or punching the breaks, sending us three kids flying around like future generations of kids in a bouncy house.
“When are we going to Paleface, Mommy? I want to see Nana and Grampa and Aunt Patti and ride the horses. It is summer now. We should be at Paleface!”
Mom gently hushed my questions and whispered in my ear, asking me to turn up the television a little louder, but not so loud that the babies would wake up. In those days, before every television came with a remote control, children were very useful channel changers.
It was about quarter after four in the afternoon. They were getting closer to landing on the moon. We had been watching the countdown clock and a simulation of a spaceship and the moon. Walter Cronkite and the famous astronaut Wally Schirra were preparing us to witness the historic event.
We didn’t say a word as the clock counted off the final ten minutes. You could hear beeping sounds and voice transmissions from the astronauts and ground control. CBS alternated between footage of the moon, and what they called a simulated model. The seconds clicked by in what seemed like slow motion.
As it was being confirmed that the module had landed, the camera showed Wally Schirra appearing to wipe a tear from his eye. Walter Cronkite removed his glasses, saying “geez” and “oh boy” and pinching his nose with his thumb and index finger. Mr. Cronkite was clearly overwhelmed by the enormity and the importance of what he was witnessing. This never happened. Mr. Cronkite was generally calm, cool, and collected in any given situation.
Walter said to Wally, “Wally, say something… I’m speechless.”
Wally said, “I’m just trying to hold on to my breath.”
I looked at Mom, and tears were streaming down her face. She had her hands clasped together over her heart and her chin rested lightly on top of her knuckles. She smiled at me and pulled me close on her lap. She was crying and laughing at the same time. Overjoyed! It made me feel good to see Mommy so happy.
Mr. Cronkite went on to say, “You know we’ve been wondering what this guy Armstrong or Aldrin would say… just to hear them do it, we’re left absolutely dry mouthed and speechless.” Moments later, Walter added, “And there they sit on the moon.”
The astronauts and ground control could be heard: “Roger we have it… he has landed, tranquility base, Eagle is in Tranquility, over… we have unofficial time for that touch down of 102 hours 45 minutes 42 seconds and we will update that….”
Walter Cronkite added, “Time which will be in the history books forever.”
That was corrected moments later by another voice, marking the official time as being a couple minutes later. In any case, it was about quarter after four in the afternoon as we were watching. The Eagle had landed in the waterless “Sea of Tranquility.”
Meanwhile, at Paleface the fifth annual Kiwanis sponsored horse show was in full gear. Rain or shine, with or without a moon landing! The members of the Kiwanis Club depended on the annual fundraiser to provide for all the needy causes they supported each year—causes like buying a plane ticket to send young Mr. Wright to the Junior National Skiing Championship in Alyeska, Alaska! Causes like planting trees in Boston.
Thanks to radio station WKDR, Plattsburgh, the participants, spectators, and sponsors of the biggest horse show ever staged at Paleface were able to hear live continuous coverage of the lunar landing. Between updates from space, an announcer on a podium called the day’s program in the ring.
The competition was extremely fierce. More riders than ever participated in the eighteen events. The judges were challenged to name the best horsemen and horses on that particular day.
Several riders during the pole bending competition and the barrel race found themselves removed from their saddles, making their own moon landings in the dusty ring.
At the end of the afternoon, the ribbon and trophy ceremony had to wait.
Imagine standing outside on a platform or around a large fenced off ring on a big field on a warm summer afternoon with hundreds of other people, watching dozens of cowboys, cowgirls, and horses and silently listening to a radio broadcast coming out of giant speakers mounted on wooden poles. The greatest applause of the afternoon came at the conclusion of the broadcast from the ABC network. “The most historic moment in space exploration is a success!”
Doc Fitz-Gerald announced over the loudspeaker, “Ladies and gentlemen, cowboys and cowgirls, we have landed a man on the moon. How about that! Many years from now, when someone says to you, do you remember where you were on the day you learned that man had landed on the moon, you can think about this horse show on this beautiful summer afternoon, the view of Whiteface Mountain in the distance and the excitement of our annual horse show! And our champions can remember that they also achieved greatness on this day.” The champions were presented their trophies, Doc thanked everyone for coming and the audience dispersed.
Back at our house I returned to my toys. The previous summer I had been given a burlap bag full of plastic western toys, with fencing, a covered wagon, horses and gear. Combined with my Lincoln Logs and Erector set, I could create my own dude ranch and horse shows.
My brother and sister woke from their naps. With an ear out for the television, household life returned to normal for a while. The babies had a bath, we all had dinner, and everyone played on the floor for a couple hours before bed at around eight.
After I had been asleep for a couple hours, I was jostled awake. “Why is mommy waking me up in the middle of the night?” I thought. It wasn’t very often adults woke children in the middle of the night on purpose.
“David! Wake up! It’s about to happen. The astronauts are going to walk on the moon!” It took a little bit of effort, but Mom managed to wake me up enough to stay awake for a while at least. Mom had a drink and a snack and some toys handy to keep me busy while we waited. Mom was animated and excited.
The sight of the earth from outer space was amazing. The picture looked shadowy and the astronauts looked like ghosts. I understood that most of television was stories, or entertainment, but I understood that night’s television program was real, live, and happening at that very moment, somewhere out in space. 109 hours and 24 minutes after the flight began.
I watched Neil Armstrong come down the ladder, and heard Mr. Cronkite say, “There he is, foot coming down the steps.” It was really hard to make out that an astronaut was walking down a big step ladder.
I heard Neil Armstrong say, “I’m at the foot of the ladder” and say the most famous space words of all: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Strangely, Walter Cronkite and Wally Schirra couldn’t hear the second part of the phrase. Someone had to tell them in the television studio what Neil Armstrong had said.
Neil Armstrong talked about the moon dirt on his moon boots. Mom read the words from the screen out loud. “Live voice of astronaut Armstrong from surface of moon.” At this point, they were no longer showing us a simulated model.
A little bit after that, the television image reversed so that the black spaces were white and the white spaces black. Walter Cronkite talked about the negative polarity, and hoped that NASA would figure out how to return the transmission to normal. It was a little spooky to watch. Fortunately, it didn’t take long to return to normal.
I don’t think I stayed awake too long. Mom watched, riveted, hanging on to every word uttered by the astronauts or the anchormen. Before long, as Neil Armstrong was gathering moon rocks, I fell back to sleep. Mom woke me up again when Buzz Aldrin came down the steps. And Mr. Cronkite said, “Now we have two Americans on the moon.”
Buzz said, “Beautiful view.”
Neil said, “Isn’t that something.”
Buzz said, “Magnificent desolation.”
Walter Cronkite added, “Like walking on a trampoline.”
“Why do you keep waking me up, Mommy?” I asked.
“Someday you’ll be happy I woke you up. This could be the most important day in the history of the world and I bet you’ll never forget it!” Mom smiled warmly, which made me feel like this was a special moment, just between the two of us. I tried as hard as I could to stay awake.
Mom woke me up again to see the astronauts place the American Flag on the moon, and again when the astronauts got a phone call from President Nixon. I had fallen asleep for good when Walter Cronkite summed up the night with the following words:
“The first tourists on the moon. From their description, it sounds like some place we might want to go after all. Aldrin called it magnificent desolation. Armstrong, stark beauty all its own. Well for thousands of years now, it’s been man’s dream to walk on the moon. Right now, after seeing it happen, knowing that it happened, it still seemed like a dream and it is, it’s a dream come true.”
Half a minute past midnight, CBS’ broadcast from the moon had ended.
Somewhere on the moon the astronauts placed a plaque, to inform future generations: “Here men from planet Earth first set foot on the moon. July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”