I remember so much about 1969. It’s one of the most vivid years remaining in my fading childhood memories. In July of that year, I was five years old, living in Chicago’s South Side, near 99th Street. It was an amazing summer. Historic.
Like so many other boys, I was transfixed by the Apollo moon landing missions. Even at that young age, I couldn’t wait to pour over my dad’s morning newspapers which were full of photos and artists renderings of everything related to NASA and the astronauts. Sometimes, my mom or dad would pick up a copy of Life Magazine for me, which was brimming with larger beautiful color and B&W photographs that I devoured.
It’s interesting to look back on that time, decades before Google, Wikipedia or even the Internet for that matter. Daily newspapers were my main source of moon landing information. I memorized every photograph and deconstructed every illustration. I literally could not get enough of it. It probably accelerated my budding reading skills as well.
I started to keep my newspaper and magazines clippings in a couple of scrapbooks, beginning with Apollo 10 in May of 1969, which was the dress rehearsal mission for the actual moon landing a few months later. My little brain soaked up every detail of each mission. The various stages of the Saturn-V rocket, the Command Module, the Lunar module. And of course the astronauts themselves.
They were all household names back then. Thomas Stafford, John Young and Eugene Cernan from Apollo 10, the crew that would execute the moon landing mission down to the last detail – except for the actual landing on the moon. Charles Shultz even allowed the Command and Lunar modules to be nicknamed after the Peanuts characters for the Apollo 10 mission, Charlie Brown and Snoopy, respectively.
Then in July, Apollo 11, another trio of astronauts would become even more famous. Michael Collins, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and of course, Neil Armstrong. The days leading up to the launch of Apollo 11 were better than Christmas for me. Every day there were new articles and photographs in the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times that my dad brought home for me after work. I remember having to be careful as I was cutting out each item for my scrapbooks. A five-year old with a pair of scissors is always an adventure. Plus, sometimes I had the challenging dilemma of any young space enthusiast, choosing which article or photo would be scotch-taped into my collection as many would be printed on the front and back of the same single newspaper page. What to do?
There was no money for two copies of each newspaper, so serious decisions had to be made. I would spend hours trying to navigate how to cut and preserve as much of the NASA information as possible.
One evening that summer that I’ll never forget, I remember getting special permission to stay up way past my bedtime, the night Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Lunar Module. Walter Cronkite, who was my TV teacher, described the event as only he could, filling my head with as much information as I could take in as he anchored the various CBS live television broadcasts as he had throughout that year.
Finally, shortly before 10pm Chicago time on July 21st, 1969, Neil Armstrong put the first human footprint on the moon. And this five-year old boy saw it happen. It was incredible. The technology was crude, but state-of-the-art for the day. Grainy, low resolution 10fps video images transmitted back from the moon, received by the Parkes Radio Telescope Dish in Australia, transmitted by microwave to a broadcast center in Sydney, up to a communication satellite over the Pacific Ocean to NASA Mission Control in Houston Texas, to the various U.S. television networks, finally reaching our little B&W television at 9909 S. Bensley in southeast Chicago.
If you want to see a great movie about Australia’s part in the historic moon landing, check out The Dish. It’s a wonderfully charming film that brings back a flood of childhood memories for me every time I watch it. It really captures the look and feeling of what we all experienced that summer in 1969, no matter where you were at the time.
As a remarkable foreshadowing of my future tech geekiness, I actually had a little battery-powered portable reel-to-reel tape recorder with a flimsy quarter-sized condenser microphone. I have no idea how I acquired a piece of equipment like that at such a young age. Perhaps one of my dad’s friends gave it to me, as my father was not one of the most technologically oriented people in my life at the time. But I distinctly remember hanging the mic over the channel knob in front of the TV speaker to make an audio recording of the moonwalk. I would eventually wear the tape out, playing it back, over and over to relive the moment.
Every boy wanted to grow up to be Neil Armstrong. I know I did.
My mom, always the champion of my boyhood dreams, and the more technology savvy of my parents, used her sewing skills and an astronaut suit pattern to make me my very own spacesuit. I wore it every day. A cardboard box, fitted with two pieces of elastic to put my arms through, became my life support moonwalk backpack as I “explored” the surface of the moon up and down Bensley Avenue and in our backyard.
Thirty years later, in July 1999, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, a 3.4 billion-year-old moon rock was put on display at the Chicago Tribune building on North Michigan Avenue. Buzz Aldrin was one of the dignitaries at the unveiling, which conveniently, was to take place one morning, a short walk from where I was working at the time. When I learned one of the original Apollo astronauts would be there, I found those old scrapbooks packed away in a box of childhood treasures, that had somehow survived many moves throughout my life, and brought them to the event.
After a brief speech, as Buzz was walking away from the news crews, I cautiously approached him with my scrapbook in hand. It had the iconic photograph of him on the moon on the cover.
“Would you sign my scrapbook, please, Mr. Aldrin?”
“I’m not signing autographs today,” he replied as he continued to walk past me.
If I’m honest, I can say I was more than a little disappointed in that moment. And a little surprised that my dog-eared collection of history, that had survived intact for 30 years, didn’t even seem to register a glimmer of nostalgia with the second human to walk on the moon. Oh well. I’m sure he had his reasons, not the least of which was living in Neil Armstrong’s shadow since then. Maybe he was over the attention. Still, that little five-year old boy in me felt let down. I couldn’t help it.
However, it was still pretty cool, exchanging a few words, even if it was not exactly what I wanted to hear, with one of my astronaut heroes and getting to see an actual moon rock, every day in fact, that I walked by the window at the front of the Tribune Tower for years to come. The five-year old me would have been thrilled to have had even that less than perfect experience. I got over any Buzz related self-pity in sort order. To be reminded of the feelings and excitement I had that summer of ’69 was probably as much as Buzz owed me personally.
Neil Armstrong passed away today at 82 years of age. Unlike Buzz, who was fairly visible in public life after the Apollo missions, Neil seemed to prefer to fade back into private life. Understandable considering the singular role he had played in human history. I can only imagine it would have been overwhelming to be known for such an achievement that could never be topped, at least in public, for the rest of his life.
A few years ago, I found a video of him on YouTube, speaking at the 2007 dedication of The Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering at Purdue University. As far as I could remember, it was one of the only times I had seen him surface publicly since the years surrounding the moon missions. And I was surprised to discover that no fewer than 22 NASA astronauts were alumni of Purdue, including some of the most famous ones in Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernen.
Oh, and there’s one more Purdue alumnus, slightly less famous, that you may know. Yep. Little Billy Sheahan grew up and graduated from Purdue himself. It’s a small world… um… I mean, solar system.
Here’s to you Neil. One giant leap for mankind, indeed.