Monday, July 15, 2019

1969 moon landing memories linger on the beach and in The House of the One-Eyed Seahorse

I like to think that I was a witness to history during Moon Landing Week in July 1969.

I witnessed the launch from the beach the morning of July 16. The Hartford Avenue beach approach in Daytona is located 62 miles northwest of Cape Canaveral. The Saturn 5, NASA's largest-ever launch vehicle, lit up an already bright morning and its sound waves seemed to ruffle the smooth Atlantic. The rocket arced into the sky and out to sea. It was visible only a few minutes. When it was gone, we went back in the water. Or maybe I was in the water already. I forget, as I saw so many launches during my 14 years in Florida. They merge into one big launch that shows the U.S. commitment to space exploration in the 1960s and into the 1970s. JFK showed the way with his 1961 speech. Congress shoveled money at the program as it took seriously Kennedy's vow of a man on the moon in 1969. An American man on the moon. Take that, Russkis!

It was all about the Cold War. The USSR ambushed us with Sputnik, Laika the Space Dog, and Yuri Gargarin. We fought back with Mercury and Alan Shepard and Gemini and finally Apollo. We won the Space Race with the moon landing. It was important to win something in the mid-60s, since we were losing in Vietnam and young people were lost to their elders and some of our biggest heroes were gunned down by assassins in 1968.

My father was a rocket man. He didn't fly them or test them. But he was a contract specialist with General Electric and later NASA. He worked out deals with suppliers of nuts and bolts and many of the gadgets that went to the moon. He could look at a launch with pride and announce that the big hunk of metal ferrying Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin to the moon was partly his doing. He and thousands of other Americans had worked together to get the U.S. first on the moon.

But all was not well in Rocketland. Workforce cutbacks had started two years earlier. One day, GE honchos told Dad that his services were no longer needed in Florida. He accepted a transfer to Cincinnati where GE was building all kinds of new and wonderful things. He said he would go on alone and the family would join him when school got out in June. Dad didn't like Cincinnati and we couldn't sell our house in Daytona as hundreds were leaving and  it was a buyer's market. This well-educated workforce that had come from New York and Ohio and New England in the fifties and sixties were no longer needed. It hurt Daytona. It was not exactly the Silicon Valley of the 60s. Most jobs were in the service industries that fed the tourist industry. I worked some of those jobs. Busboy, bagboy, laundry pick-up guy for beach motels, worker on a beach float stand. My brother was a gremmie selling suntan lotion by a hotel pool. One of my sisters was a nursing assistant taking care of old people who flocked to Florida's Promised Land. The engineers who made the rockets (and their families) would be missed by local businesses and schools.

But Dad grew tired of city life and found a job with NASA back on Daytona. I was happy because I had just made my high school's basketball squad after a year's worth of practice and visualized a bright future as a power forward.

On the afternoon of July 20 when Apollo 11's Eagle landed near the Sea of Tranquility, I was parked by the Atlantic Ocean with my girlfriend K. The radio news followed the ship's descent which we only partially listened to. When "The Eagle has landed" was announced, we paused our kissing and fondling for several minutes to let history wash over us. It rained heavily and the beach seemed deserted, odd for a July afternoon. Minuscule waves broke on the sandbar 50 yards in front of us. No surfing today. Once the announcers returned to just talking about the landing of the Eagle, we returned to our previous engagement.

I know the exact spot where this happened. When I'm in town, I walk by it and remember that historic afternoon. I see my rusty red Renault Dauphine with the light blue door that replaced the original, sheared off in a hasty back-up from my garage. Two people are inside, at least I think it's two people, as the windows are fogged. The spirit of that day drifts over that spot as does the memories of an eighteen-year-old me. This presence remains at the beach even when I'm back home in Wyoming. It may still be here when 68-year-old me and then (God willing) the 78-or 88-year-old me toddles down the beach, cane poking holes in the soft sand. When I'm gone, will the ethereal presence remain of the radio broadcast and the automobile and the young man and young woman, their thumping hearts and hopes and dreams? I like to think that beachgoers in 2069, parked in the same spot in their futuremobile, will pause their canoodling to listen to the voices of astronauts landing on Mars or orbiting Saturn. Maybe in the background they will hear a faded voice: "The Eagle has landed." 

That night, in The House of the One-Eyed Seahorse, I joined my family to watch Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon. The video feed was grainy but I could make out Armstrong and then Buzz Aldrin cavorting on the lunar surface. We watched on a TV that struggled to pull in signals via antennae supplemented by a coat hanger and a broken channel changer replaced by vice grips. Nine kids are tough on TVs, even ancient ones that received but three channels. We no longer live there, haven't in a long time. My brothers and sisters and I carry around those memories. Fifty years ago, we were plotting our escape. Now, in quiet times, those memories swirl in our aging heads. They also exist somewhere in the house that almost burnt down in August of '69. We could have lost everyone but for the quick actions of my sister Molly. I was on a date and running late so I salvaged one of the cars, the other one burned to a cinder in the garage where the fire started. My memories would be vastly different as a lone survivor.

This all will be on my mind as I watch film of the July 16 launch and the July 20 walk on the moon and the July 24 splashdown.


RobertP said...

I watched the moon landing at my house in Kansas City. We had moved there in January of 1969 after living all my life in Chicago. Less than 3 years later I was living in Orlando with my brother Bruce and we drove over to Cocoa to watch the final moon launch and the only night launch. We parked on the highway like everyone else, got out of the car and watched the launch. It was awesome and very glad I got to see it.

It is unbelievable that it is now 50 years later and we have not been back.

Mike, don't think you ever told me about the house fire. I am retiring finally, last day is August 1, and then will have some time to hear about that.


Michael Shay said...

Congrats on your August 1 retirement, Bob. Are you making your annual fall pilgrimage to the Black Hills? That was a fun reunion we had up there.

You were in Orlando during the beginning of the Disney boom. People in Daytona didn't consider Orlando the local big city back in the sixties. We went to Jacksonville for a taste of city life. Seems funny now, when Orlando is The Metropolis That Swallowed Central Florida.