Thursday, July 16, 2009

7-16-09 Memories of Apollo 11, Strong Men and Little Plastic Monkeys

Tomorrow begins a week-long celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. It'll be a time where someone (who's old enough of course) will likely ask you (if you're old enough of course) where you were when you watched Neil Armstrong set foot on the surface of Earth's moon.

I was young – merely 4 ½ years old – but I can tell you exactly what I remember.

Oddly, I remember a lot of scents actually; the bar reeked of scotch, whiskey, bourbon, Chanel No. 5, Aqua Net hair spray and decades of cigarette and cigar smoke. I recall wooden paneling, black vinyl stools and a few small, curved booths. A tiny black and white television was hung precariously from the corner of the bar and I distinctly remember a lit aquarium with several colorful fish in it.

I was sitting next to my mother who was nursing a Manhattan. She was wearing her favorite avocado-green outfit – a tight fitting skirt and matching ¾ sleeve mini-jacket. My father was standing next to her, allowing me to have a barstool all to myself. He was wearing what every other man seemed to wear in the late 1960s – a black suit with a pencil-thin black tie. There were a lot of men in the place and those who weren't wearing the "black suit," were all in military attire. I remember sitting next to a tall gentleman on the stool next to me and he and my mother both worked to assure I didn't fall off the stool. I remember playing with the little plastic drink animals and the bars of ribbons the man had on his jacket. They were so pretty and because I kept reaching for them over his pocket, he willingly removed them from his coat. I decorated myself with them and used them as "jumps" for the little plastic animals that the bartender had crowded into my Shirley Temple – never realizing they were his military decorations.

You see – we were at the Officer's Club at the local Military Base.

The bartender, the officer sitting next to me and my parents sweetly kept me entertained even though their eyes were really glued to the television.

At that time my father had already been retired from the Air Force for years – hence the reason for his civvies – but when it came time for the moon landing he wanted to be with others who, like him, understood what Collins, Aldrin and Armstrong were doing. He himself had been accepted into the Mercury program as a flight surgeon long beforehand, but he didn't pass the final physical and not only did he lose out on a career in space medicine, he was forced to retire from the USAF altogether.

It broke his heart, but he took another path and he practiced medicine for the civilian population until he retired in 1997; but he still loves everything and anything to do with the aerospace industry and I can safely say he's the reason why I love it so much.

And it all goes back to that smoke-filled bar.

It was the first time I ever remember seeing him (or any man for that matter) cry.

Just before Armstrong set his foot down on the powdery surface of Luna, the man sitting next to me, stood – lifted me up and sat me back down on his lap and whispered in my ear, "Pay attention Terry – this is history."

So of course I set down my little plastic monkey and watched the TV with the rest of the silent crowd – but when I heard my dad actually sniffle and then saw him wipe his eyes? I thought something was horribly wrong.

Maybe for him there was more to it than seeing humans break free of the planet and touch truly foreign soil – maybe for him there was a touch of regret in his eyes. I don't know, I was too young to have understood it, but even if he did regret not becoming a part of the program, he's the kind of man who would never reveal such things to me or to the rest of the family - it would have been a sign of weakness in his eyes.

I remember my mother had tears in her eyes too and the man who was holding me tightened his hug. All I saw was a bunch of blurry images on the TV screen. But just as my concern began to grow, the place erupted in cheers and applause, hollering and laughter…it was so loud! Mom turned and kissed me; took me onto her lap and the man who had been holding me hugged her tightly. Dad shook his hand and the two men laughed as my dad pulled out his box of Eric cigars and they lit up in celebration.

That's what I remember.

I remember it because I was told to remember it; that it was important – that it was history.

But I only realized how important it was by seeing how it affected my father. If something was important enough to make him cry…I knew it must have been pretty big.

I have never lost my love of the space program. I took pride in seeing the "Welcome to Downey – Home of Apollo" signs in my hometown. Sally Ride was and still is a personal hero, as is Gene Kranz. I try never to miss a shuttle launch. My husband and I frequently look for Iridium flares or watch as the ISS passes gracefully over our home.

The words "aim high" mean just as much to me as the words "go boldly" and they always will.

I never knew who the nice man was that told me to pay attention. He was certainly a decorated individual and had a comfortable lap and infinite patience with a 4 year old child. Alas, my father's cognitive skills have weakened and he no longer remembers much about that day so he is no longer able to recall who the man may have been. I regret not asking him sooner. My mother doesn't recall either, she only knew him as a friend of my father's from the Air Force. He was older than my father and I doubt that he's alive now, but I remember his kindness. To whoever and wherever he is – I'd like to thank him for helping me remember the day that man set foot on the Moon. Because of him, my memories of that day are filled with the happy thoughts of laughter, little plastic monkeys, mermaids and giraffes; military ribbons and realizing just how human my father really is.

Happy 40th Anniversary to all who worked on the Apollo 11 mission!

Aim high!

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