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“One Small Step” Remembered 50 Years Later

This week marks the 50th anniversary of one the momentous events in the history of mankind — Apollo 11 landing two men on the moon and returning them back to earth safely. Webb Weekly wishes to recall this history-making event by bringing the recollections of several area residents and what were their impressions of it.

Lance Van Auken, director of the World of Little League Peter J. McGovern Museum, remembers it well.

“At the time, my family lived in Seminole, Fla., on the west coast. On very clear days, we could see rockets taking off from Cape Canaveral from all the way across the state. We would watch the liftoff on television, then go outside after 30 seconds or so to see the column of flame and smoke on the horizon.

“We only had one television, a black-and-white model, and the reception was not that great. Often, one of my older brothers were dispatched to the roof of the house to turn the antenna until the station we wanted to watch came in more clearly.

“I remember our family gathering in our living room for the moon landing in the late afternoon, and we watched all evening until Neil Armstrong exited the landing module. The images on our television were grainy and ghostlike, so Walter Cronkite’s description of Armstrong’s first steps on the lunar surface didn’t seem to match what I was seeing. I’d compare it to the sonogram of our first child when the doctor said we were having a boy. I took his word for it.

“I’ve always been a follower and supporter of our space program. Years after Apollo, still in Florida, I held our baby daughter in my arms as we watched Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrate over the Atlantic Ocean. I’ve since met astronauts and people who work for NASA and consider them heroes.

“I hope we return to the moon, and beyond it, as a way to bring us closer together. I believe the need to conquer is in our DNA, and conquering space is better than conquering other people.”

Marjorie Maddox Hafer is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Lock Haven University. Her recollection is in the form of a poem titled, “Sixteen Inch Black and White,” and it comes from a book of poetry she wrote called, News From Someplace Else.

Sixteen-inch Black-and-White:
square portal of space to Space,
that grainy, last frontier
now front and center,
armchair and moon
close companions.
Beyond camera and crew; beyond Houston; beyond
airwaves that ride high outside our knowledge; beyond
Mrs. Stouffer’s mashed potatoes, every mother, father,
sister, brother huddled about a set, those grounded
rabbit ears tuning us into a future beyond that edge-
of-our-seats shot filmed’ round the world; beyond all
that—we’re there, each of us, two-stepping between
craters, bouncing into wild blue possibility far beyond
1969 and our three-channel, living room imagination,
desperately dreaming of soaring beyond what we
already know of beyond.

Here are retired District Judge Jim Carn’s memories of that event.

“No pun intended, but it was a very uplifting event at the end of the tumultuous 60s with the assassinations of President Kennedy, his brother Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Additionally, the country had been torn in two by the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and the big city riots in the last half of the decade.

“President Kennedy said in a 1961 speech to Congress, ‘First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.’ Many were saddened that he never lived to see that goal attained.

“I stayed up and watched the late-night moonwalk and President Nixon’s subsequent early morning longest-distance telephone call ever that he made to the astronauts, with my parents and my now long-time friend Ed Schon who later became a PA State Trooper. Whether people were at home, at work or traveling, I think just about everyone that was able to found a TV to watch the first step on the moon by Neil Armstrong. It certainly brought the whole world together for a time, however short, and made everyone feel the immense pride that our country had achieved this now historic milestone. And we all marveled not only that the country had three new heroes — Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins — but at those at NASA who did the design and calculations the mission entailed and made it happen.

“And, of course, news coverage of the landing and walk on the moon was somewhat detracted from with the breaking story of Sen Ted Kennedy driving off the bridge on Chappaquiddick Island and leaving Mary Jo Kopechne to drown in his car less than two days before.”

For legendary Lycoming College football coach Frank Girardi it was a memory of his grandfather, an Italian immigrant that provided the most enduring memory of that historic time.

“I remember how impressed I was about the moon landing. My biggest memory of that event was trying to convince my Grandfather that it was true. He said to me in his broken English, ‘I no believe.’ I never could convince him that it really happened.”

Gary Park, director of the Lycoming County Historical Museum, was a teenage in Maryland at the time of the moon landing.

“I remember that night — to think it was fifty years ago! But I remember it well. I’ve always been a sky watcher — heading out to witness shooting stars, the constellations, and the moon. It was so exciting to think that you could peer up in the sky, view the moon, and realize that there were going to be men walking on it! I was in high school. My mother and I stayed up to watch it. My father and sister had gone to bed. It was so exciting as we gathered closer to the television set. This was a big console-type television set, the focus of our living room. At that time, Mother had this wooden spinning wheel planter, with artificial greenery in it on top of the television. As we watched, Mother took a photo as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon’s surface. Unfortunately, when the photo was developed, the only thing we could see was the television set and the spinning wheel planter, but we knew that that was the photo that recorded a day in history that would be remembered for many years to come!”

Former Webb Weekly editor and Mayor of the City of Williamsport, Mike Rafferty remembers that day this way.

“I was 19 years old, about to turn 20 in three days, when Apollo 11 landed on the moon on July 20, 1969. I was a summertime student at Williamsport Area Community College and employed part-time at Smith’s Drug Store.

“The drug store was located on West Fourth Street the location of Shamrock Six-Pack and Subs today.

“It was open Sunday evenings from 6 to 8 p.m. On that historic date I had worked until 8 p.m. and then walked over to my sweetheart’s house on Grace Street.

“Patty Roth’s parents (Betty and Charles) had a color TV. Not many in Williamsport did at the time. I was excited.

“Everybody I knew had been waiting anxiously for the arrival of Apollo 11. I’m sure we watched some television, maybe the Ed Sullivan Show or Bonanza before the live broadcast of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin exiting their lunar landing module a little before 11 p.m.

“‘That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.’

“It was amazing. It was thrilling. It was historic. It was everything I had hoped it would be — except it was in Black and White.”

If I may be permitted I would like to present my memories of that earthshaking, or should I say moon-shaking day.

I was 12 years old, and there is a pall of sorts over my memory of that time, for my grandfather had died while the astronauts were on their way to the moon. Despite this, I was still enthralled by the event. I had always been an avid follower of the space program. I remember well watching with great interest the Gemini missions in 1965 and 1966 and the Apollo flights leading up to Apollo 11.

We were in my grandparents’ living room watching the coverage of the landing before we went up to Sanders Funeral Home for my grandfather’s viewing, as the LEM landed at about 3:30 p.m. There, of course, were no live pictures of the landing, so the TV networks did visual simulations of what was supposed to be happening. I remember vividly when they touched down on the moon and how the normally unflappable Walter Cronkite, wiped his brow, smile broadly and said, “Whew, man is on the moon.”

The coverage was continuous and during my grandfather’s viewing my parents would periodically check and see what was happening on the Apollo coverage by ducking in to see a TV that was in a nearby room at the funeral home.

Finally, at about 10:30 p.m. or so, the great moment arrived, and the ghostly figure in black and white of Neil Armstrong could be seen on TV stepping on to the moon. The ghostly, imprecise picture of the event, unfortunately, gave rise to a number of idiotic conspiracy theories that NASA had staged the landing and walk on the moon on a secret Hollywood soundstage.

There is an interesting Williamsport related footnote to the Apollo 11 story. Former Williamsporter James C. Humes was a speechwriter for President Nixon, and he and fellow speechwriters, William Safire and Pat Buchannan composed the text that was on the plaque that was placed on the moon. Humes also helped with the remarks that Nixon shared with the lunar astronauts. In a non-related factoid, the head of NASA at the time of the moon landing was named Jim Webb, not related to this publication’s Jim Webb as far as I know.

The moon landing was a moment of great awe and wonderment, and it was marvelous to contemplate that such a thing with all its daunting challenges could be accomplished. It was a time of magic, and it is time that I look back on with a great sense of nostalgia and pride in what America could do when it concentrated all of its efforts. I hope that we can again have that great can-do and sense that all things are possible philosophy.

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