From the Pen of a Poet

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Apollo 11 takes off, 50 years ago this morning.)

The earliest space mission I remember is the joint Gemini 6 and 7 flight in December 1965, which was followed by Gemini 8 in March of 1966; the latter was just after I turned six. Our family watched the launches and the splashdowns on TV whenever we could, and TVs were sometimes rolled into our classrooms to watch them in school. By the time Apollo 7 flew in October 1968, I knew that each of the succeeding missions was intended to push us closer to the moon. I remember seeing the Apollo 8 TV broadcast from moon orbit on Christmas Eve 1968, and I thrilled along with Apollo 9 and 10 in the spring of 1969. Apollo 11 launched on the morning of Wednesday, July 16, 1969. It was the middle of summer vacation, but I was not a late-riser, so I was up and tuned into Walter Cronkite long before the 8:32AM liftoff, 50 years ago this morning.

During the intervening three days, life went on for nine-year-old me. I probably had a Midget League baseball game or piano lessons to go to, and we would have have had the little swimming pool filled up in the dooryard. In mid-July, Dad would have been making hay, one of the few farm jobs Mother helped with, and so we may have been packed off to Grandma Vera’s or to friends in town for an afternoon or two so that work could be done.

On the day of the landing, Sunday, July 20, we went to a family gathering at a farm belonging to one of my mother’s cousins near Evansville, Wisconsin. It was a large gathering—not just my cousins but a bunch of second cousins too, maybe 50 people in all, for what must have been a spectacular potluck picnic. The weather was hot and sunny, and I remember us outside most of the afternoon. At some point, I came inside for a moment and saw the adults in the living room watching TV coverage of the landing, although I didn’t watch for long myself. On that day, playing outside took priority over everything else.

Because Dad had cows to milk, we would have left for home not long after the landing itself, which took place at 3:18 in our time zone. We watched TV from the moment we got home, waiting for Neil Armstrong to get out. Dad came in from the barn and Armstrong still hadn’t gotten out. Regular bedtime came and Armstrong still hadn’t gotten out. My youngest brother, who was not yet three, had gone to bed long before, but Mother and Dad decided to wake him up to watch with us, even though they knew that he probably wouldn’t remember what he was seeing.

Finally, at about 9:30, the astronauts opened the hatch. We watched the blurry picture and listened to the communications between the Earth and the moon for 10 minutes until Armstrong finally came out. It took him five minutes to reach the surface and deliver his famous line about one small step and a giant leap. We saw Buzz Aldrin come out, and we watched them plant the American flag. I believe we also heard President Nixon’s call to them. What I don’t remember is seeing them get back aboard the Lunar Module. It was midnight when they closed the hatch, and little boys, even those who were space-crazed, had surrendered to sleep by then.

If you visited my parents’ house today, I could show you the exact spot on the floor of the living room where I sat and watched it all happen.

During the 1960s race to the moon, NASA PR did a fair amount of mythmaking. Looking back 50 years, from the ruined world of 2019, the Apollo program really is almost mythological: the magnitude of the challenge, the commitment of the political leaders, the brains of the scientists, the ingenuity of the engineers, and the bravery of the astronauts. Such heroic exploits could happen only in Greek hero-tales or Viking sagas. They could come only from the pen of a poet.

If you remember Apollo 11, where were you, and how did you see it?

If you’d like to follow Apollo 11 this week as it happened 50 years ago, you have options. Apollo 11 in Real Time is a remarkable simulation; the Apollo 50th Twitter feed will keep your timeline stocked every hour of the day. If you would like to relive the flight in 90 minutes, CNN’s documentary Apollo 11, which played in theaters earlier this year, is riveting. The six-hour PBS documentary about the U.S. space program from the Mercury Seven to Apollo 11, Chasing the Moon, is worthwhile also. 

7 responses

  1. Great piece.
    Perhaps lost in the shuffle that day: The Cubs sweep a doubleheader from Philadelphia (complete games from Jenkins and Selma) and close the day in first place, up 4 1/2 games over New York.

  2. It was a humid hot night in Southern Illinois. We gathered around the black & white TV and watched them walk on the moon. You didn’t hear any cars driving outside. The phone didn’t ring. Nobody said a word. It was one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen.

  3. I started following the launches with the Gemini program. The summer of 69 was between my 8th and 9th grades. Probably making hay on the family farm that day. We had our first Color TV by that time and the family watched Neil & Buzz some 250,000 miles away. I’m still amazed today when considering their very basic technology and engineering that proved more than adequate in their journey.

  4. During the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, I kept a scrapbook in which I cut out pictures of the mission from newspapers and pictures of Armstrong and Aldrin walking on the moon. I don’t whatever happened to thst scrapbook, but the 10 year old “me” at that time was totally fascinated with the Apollo missions and somewhat oblivious to the Vietnam War, the riots on college campuses, the beginning of the Nixon Administration, Charles Manson, and the 1969 Cubs. It SEEMED to be a better world back then, compared to the world we have today.

  5. An itenerant musician that summer, I was on the road somewhere after a Sunday late-afternoon gig. I remember the group decision to pull over and find a place with a TV so we could watch. It was a friendly rural tavern; we joined the hard-core Sunday night gang there watching history being made.

  6. I watched the coverage on the TV in the basement, but don’t really recall that much about it, aside from the primitive-looking black and white video.

    Strangely enough, I do remember that I’d already sampled the new ice cream flavor that would be unveiled the very next day at the Baskin-Robbins store where I worked: Lunar Cheesecake. Had the mission not been successful, It would have been called Marshmallow Cheesecake, although that would have no doubt resulted in many customers asking, “Why is it green?”

  7. We watched in the living room, Mom and Dad and my sister and I, marveling in silence. I’d followed the space program since the beginning, though I got more interested in it when the Gemini program started. I recall that, during that summer, Gulf stations were giving away heavy paper punch-out-and-insert-tab-into-slot models of the lunar module. I ended up with three of them on a shelf above my bedroom windows. I imagine they sat there until Mom and Dad packed up the stuff I left behind, which I think happened in the early 1980s. And in the mid-1970s, I recall my grandfather and I looking at the sky on one of his birthdays, and he told me, “I drove away from my wedding in a horse and buggy, and I saw men walk on the moon.”

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