It was summer, it was still the ’60s and all that that entailed, and I was 11, so the lunar shot was only one of several things going on for me that third week of July 1969.
There was baseball, of course. That was the year I caught a catcher’s throw in the eye while stealing third base.
There was gardening – that scourge of rural childhood.
Things had calmed down just a bit in the political realm. It had been more than a year since the last assassination – that of Robert Kennedy – and there was neither state nor federal election to roil the pot. Nevertheless, some people were still about the business of securing their and others’ civil rights, and no matter whose side one was on, the effort was tumultuous.
The Vietnam War was still intense. My friends and I, in the backs of station wagons on the way to ballgames in Cruger and Lexington, worried that we, too, would be sent to ‘Nam when we reached draft age. Some of us planned to enlist in the Navy or Air Force so we wouldn’t end up in the jungles and rice paddies. Some were leaning toward the National Guard, but that could mean going up against protesters and looters if a riot broke out as they often did on college campuses and in big cities. We could not know that the draft would end before we reached manhood.
Still, my friends and I weren’t oblivious to NASA’s doings. The Apollo program was America’s answer to John Kennedy’s challenge to send a man to the moon and bring him safely home again. It had started with great promise only to see it all go up in flames when Apollo 1’s accident killed its three astronauts and almost killed the program itself.
That Sunday afternoon of Apollo 11’s mission, my family and I watched the Eagle land at Tranquility Base and knew we were witnessing history. I then went to the other end of the technological spectrum with a quick trip to Pickens Beach with my brother, our aunt and a family friend. We swam in the Big Black River, which probably was only a few years past being the receptacle of raw sewage from Pickens and upstream towns. Returning home, we watched Neil Armstrong put his first footprint on Earth’s moon.
I was too young to fully appreciate nearly enough of what it all meant – the recovery of national pride, the realization that our Communist competitors weren’t the superhumans we’d feared they were, the satisfaction that our space program was a benefit to humankind at large.
Decades later I went to Cape Canaveral. At the visitors’ center theater they showed a movie depicting the highs and lows of the race to the moon – from the devastation of Apollo 1 to the elation of Apollo 11.
When the film was over, the doors opened, and we found ourselves dwarfed by the presence of an actual Saturn V rocket. I cannot to this day identify all the emotions that engulfed me, but as a grown and married man, I stood under that rocket and, totally unabashed, wept.
Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal