(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.
You are a young boy growing up in 1960s Wisconsin. The Green Bay Packers have won five championships in seven years, but by the time you start watching, Vince Lombardi is no longer the coach, and the championship veterans are aging. The first year you can remember, they have a losing season. The next year they’re a little better. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the popular bumper sticker you see all over the state—the one that reads “The Pack Will Be Back!”—is more wish than prediction. Yet hope remains, because the gladiators of the Glory Years still remain: Ray Nitschke, Willie Davis, Willie Wood, Carroll Dale, Boyd Dowler, Forrest Gregg, Dave Robinson, and others.
And Bart Starr. Your wardrobe includes a yellow jersey-style shirt with his number 15 on it, which your parents bought when you barely knew who Bart Starr was. And when you start watching the games, Bart becomes your favorite Packer.
It might be because he’s the most visible player, the quarterback, the one who gets the ball on every play. The leader, the alpha dog. Or maybe it’s that name. You learn fairly early on that his given name is Bryan Bartlett Starr, and because his middle name matches your last, there’s a connection. But those two snappy syllables, “Bart Starr,” are almost too good to be true. They’re like a name you’d find in a Frank Merriwell story. “Bart Starr” will not be a mountainous defensive lineman or a speedy wide receiver. He has to be a quarterback.
In a movie, “Bart Starr” would be an upright sheriff or a brave fighter pilot. He would be the hero. In the real world of football, he was also the hero, and he becomes mine.
I will respect many athletes over the years, but only one will ever be my hero.
Bart Starr died over the weekend at age 85. It’s nearly 50 years since he last played, but younger fans in Wisconsin know him and what the 1960s Packers accomplished because the Glory Years remain a living presence here, even as the men themselves pass away. On slow afternoons, dudes of a certain age find themselves watching 60s highlights on YouTube. Every year on December 31, we think of 1967, and the impossible story of the Ice Bowl, a game in which those men—Lombardi, Nitschke, Davis, Wood, Dale, Dowler, Gregg, Robinson, Starr, and their teammates—did not merely defeat the Dallas Cowboys but nature itself, did not merely win a football game but were transfigured into gods by the doing of it.
It was Bart Starr who won that game, driving the Packers down the field, seeing the opportunity to run a particular play on the goal line, and then executing it to secure victory as time ran out. If Bart Starr had never played another game after that day, his legend would loom just as large as it does today.
What came after, on the field, was not so glorious. After Super Bowl II (the anti-climax of all anti-climaxes, two weeks after the Ice Bowl), Vince Lombardi retired and less successful seasons followed. Starr himself played through the 1971 season, but was plagued by injuries and age. In 1972, he became a coach, calling the plays from the sidelines as he had done on the field, but only for a year. After two years away from the team, he was hired as the Packers’ head coach and general manager. But the team did not have much success apart from the strike-shortened 1982 season, and he was fired after his ninth season, in 1983.
Bart Starr’s greatness as a player erases our memories of his less-than-greatness as a coach. But his greatness as a player should be eclipsed by the man he was. His record of philanthropy is impressive, but the countless stories of simple human decency that are told about him remind us that whatever good each of us might do for others, there is more we could be doing.
Bart Starr was a great human being. Possibly the best one.
We haven’t done one of these for a while, so here’s another rerun from my original blog, the Daily Aneurysm—which, I notice, has finally disappeared from the Internet because somebody squatted on the domain name. This one is from December 22, 2005, and it has been edited slightly. As is the case with all of these off-topic posts, you won’t hurt my feelings if you skip it.
With the centennial of Armistice Day coming this weekend, here’s something off-topic.
The picture was taken 100 years ago. The young man in the military uniform regards the camera with a unsmiling gaze meant to express determination. It is a look I don’t remember seeing. Years hence, he will almost always look at his grandsons with a kindly twinkle. The determination is there because Arthur E. Bartelt of Winslow, Illinois, age 20, is going off to lick the Kaiser.
We don’t know how Art came to be in that uniform. As America’s involvement in the Great War intensified, he would have been required to register for the draft in either August or September 1918. This third registration was the first to include men under the age of 21, but it’s likely he had already volunteered by then. I never thought to ask him, and my grandmother, whom he would not meet until the 1920s, wasn’t able to remember. It is likely that he had completed his stateside training and was set to go to Europe when the Armistice intervened, because below his picture in the photo frame hangs a medal that belonged to him, inscribed with the words “welcome home.” So he received his welcome even though he never left.
Grandpa Art changed the spelling of his last name from Bartelt to Bartlett sometime in the 1920s. (We don’t know the why of this either. It may have been to reflect the way people in northern Illinois pronounced the name. A better story I’ve also heard is that he changed it to spite his father, my great-grandfather, with whom he didn’t get along.) He has been gone since 1986. I have a million questions I wish I had asked him, and not just about his military service or his father. I suspect that his military records were among those destroyed in a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. Eighty percent of the Army’s records of personnel who served between 1912 and 1960 were lost.
The jacket Art wears in the picture was eventually handed down to my brother, who wore it out during his college days in the early 80s. (I still have the pants, somewhere.) Although I have pictures of Art in a suit, I always think of him in bib overalls, with a chambray work shirt underneath and the engineer-style cap he always wore on his head. The only variations came in the summer, when it was really hot. He would shuck the chambray shirt and work in bibs alone, and he sometimes broke out a safari hat with a wide brim to keep off the sun.
Art farmed every day of his life until he was in his mid-80s, and he put far younger men to shame. When we were in high school, my brother had a friend who, whenever he needed $10, would come over on a summer day and unload hay wagons for a few hours, often alongside Grandpa Art. On one especially hot afternoon, my brother’s friend came into the kitchen, grabbed a soda from the fridge, threw himself down at the table, and exclaimed, “That old man’s incredible.”
One day, two or three years after his health had made it impossible for him to work as he used to, Art decided to get the ladder, climb up the side of his house, and clean the gutters. He had a heart attack, fell off, and died at age 88. Sad, yes, but during the last half-hour of his life he felt useful and was almost certainly happy, and we should all be so fortunate as to go out that way.
Grandpa Art and Grandma Vera, so stoop-shouldered she was nearly bent double, lived on the other end of our farm, in a house that my brother and his family occupy now. They were fixtures in our lives. When we were little, we’d see one or the other, or both, almost every day. While they were incredibly kind to my brothers and me, my sense is that they were not nearly so kind to my father, their only son. I wasn’t old enough to understand what went on when it was happening. Now that I’m older, it’s a subject I haven’t pursued. I’d rather remember them the way I do.