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The Summer of Apollo 11

The fast approaching 50th anniversary of the successful launch, landing upon the Moon, and recovery of Apollo 11 this week seems an auspicious and fitting occasion to remember my father and some of our times. My father is 87 years old. His name is Skip, and odds are will turn 88 on the 27th of this month. But his health is failing, and he is in hospice care. His mind is still sharp as ever (retired law professor) and he has displayed a remarkable physical tenacity and resilience in his winter years.

My father is dying and I wanted to tell him some of the things that I have learned from him. Since that won't be possible directly, I am writing him – a common and comfortable mode for both of us – an open letter. To my confessors, you, readers of the AVA.

July 1969. 50 years ago this month.

Here is a little context for our younger (and older) readers:

I was 11 years old in 1969, a white American boy growing up in the nice suburbs of LA. Most of me was what they called back then an “all-american boy”, but there was a small but noteworthy streak of juvenile delinquency, which I engaged and indulged to bacchanalian excess with my older brother and our friends. Kyping smokes out of cars, (this was back when people left packs of cigarettes in unopened cars), smoking the occasional joint, (Mexican “dirt-weed”), blowing mailboxes with M-80's—these were a few of our favorite things.

But I also played ball, and was a Cub Scout. I was proud of being a Scout. With my cool uniform, stripes and patches, I was on my way to being just like my Dad. I was a good athlete, and I was bright, though as was sometimes pointed out by authority figures, my application of effort was, ahem, uneven. 

I had a younger sister by 3 years and my brother by 3 years older. We had two parents in our house - Patty and Skip. We lived near Topanga Canyon in Los Angeles. A very nice place. Beaches, golden state, hippies and flower children, orange trees and ocean – all of that.

But it was also a place and time with a definite edge. It seems like it was that year, '69, when Charlie Manson got clipped and brought downtown into the old jail, in the Hall of Justice. Before they caught him though, before his capture, he had terrorized what TV news people called “the Southland”. One of their victims was a guitarist who hung out in the Canyon. My brother had known him casually. His name was Gary Hinman, and somehow he got on the wrong side of Manson. So in the land of surfer girls and VW beetles, Charles Manson and his deranged family were operating in the hills all around us. I remember being scared of them.

If not scared, I was certainly intimidated by most of my friends dads. Almost all of them worked at Rocketdyne, a North American Aviation subsidiary that was a prime contractor in the Apollo missions. All of these men looked the same to me. They had very short hair. They all wore short sleeve white shirts with ties. And pocket-protectors. Many wore horn-rimmed glasses. I believe most of those dudes worked on propulsion systems. They used to test fire the big Atlas and Saturn rocket engines on massive concrete pads in the hills just northwest of Chatsworth, almost clear to Simi Valley. Sometimes, at twilight or just after dusk, we would see the glow against the dark Santa Clarita Mountains.

In other parts of Los Angeles, like Downey, other people’s dads were working on the Lunar Modules that the Astronauts would use to descend to the moon, and then blast back off again. If everything worked.

My dad did not work at Rocketdyne, nor did he wear short sleeve white shirts. I was very proud that my Dad worked at UCLA. He was Dean of Foriegn Students. And he had a beautiful and classic sense of style: Harris Tweed coats from Vaughn at Sather Gate, button down oxford shirts with repp ties. And wing tips.

I don’t recall that many, if any, of my friends moms worked outside their homes. We lived in Woodland Hills, a well-off area of generally prosperous LA. My Mom didn't work either, at least not for wages. But that was about to change. Because in 1966, my Mom had begun law school at the San Fernando College of Law, one of eight women in a class of about 160. 

She graduated Magna Cum Laude with a JD in 1969. And she went on to a distinguished career as a LA County Public Defender, later elected by her colleagues as President of The California Public Defenders Association. But that was yet to come. In the spring and early summer of 1969, instead of attending my park-league baseball games and my sisters ballet recitals, my mother was preparing to take the toughest bar exam in the nation.

Thus it came to pass that that year, and that year only, my father was going to take his three kids with him that July to the first few days of “Guard camp” up the coast near San Luis Obisbo. This was an annual rite of summer in our house: Two-weeks of active duty training camp every year that he was required to put in the Air Force reserve. My dad was a Major at the time. This time we would go with dad so mom could study for the Bar exam.

This was during the height of the Vietnam war. It is not possible to understand the moon mission without the context of that other American “mission” of the 1960’s. My brother and I knew some older dudes that had been or were going. I was scared of going. I was 11 but positive that it would still be churning along when I came of age. Those same places where my friends' dads worked on Apollo propulsion and guidance systems were also the Nation’s largest defense contractors. And they still are, 50 years on.

The war split our country apart and it split my family too. My father loved the military. My mom hated it. My father's service in the cause of the State was a constant and underlying source of tension in our home. And nothing highlighted his military service more than Guard Camp every year. 

Richard Nixon had been sworn in just a few months earlier. Nixon had defeated Hubert Humphrey - barely - in the general election in November of '68. Humphrey’s chances had gone up in smoke in the Chicago Riots attending his nomination at the Democatic Convention. In spite of the damage inflicted, he very nearly beat Nixon. In fact Hubert was closing on Dick fast in the last two weeks. They said if the election had been a week later, even a few days...Well that was just picking at bones. Nixon was president now. 

It is an irony of history that Nixon presided ceremoniously over the most visible achievement of his arch-nemesis and doppelganger, John Kennedy. The call JFK made in 1961 for a manned moon landing “before the decade was out”.

I was a little space junkie, reading and watching everything I could about the space missions. I had memorized the sequencing of major mission events that were planned. I remember my parents fairly rolling their eyes as I babbled about trans-lunar docking one night when we went out to eat at El Torito.

Memory is a funny thing. I remember fragments of that July 1969 as if etched in acid on aluminum plates. Of other, equally important events, nothing.

Here is what I will never forget. I will never forget being with my dad, safe in his light blue 1965 Chevrolet Malibu, along with my brother and sister on the 101 northbound. We were somewhere near Santa Maria and listening to KNX, the 50,000 watt megastation that CBS operated in Los Angeles. Walter Cronkite narrated and interjected along with the live voices of the Astronauts as they descended to the moon. I remember being acutely aware of the historical significance of the event and that I was alive for it. I was looking around at other cars to see if they were listening too. I was certain they were. The static-laced voices on the radio calling out numbers, 40, 30 and then, suddenly:

“Contact light.”

Static and silence. Followed by Armstrong's voice clear and distinct — “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

I whooped. I raised my hands and bounced up and down on the seat. I looked over at the other cars to see those people celebrating as well.

And I remember the moon walk the next day. We were staying at the Motel 6 in San Luis. And it was on a coin operated pay TV in that Motel 6 that I watched the spectral images of Armstrong descending that ladder. The pictures were captured and transmitted to earth by a TV camera that Armstrong had remotely deployed prior to stepping out of the hatch.

And that is all. I have no memory of the blast-off from the Moon, the return to Earth, the splashdown, or the recovery. But I do remember seeing Richard Nixon welcoming and lauding the returning heroes. That was aboard the USS Hornet, the Navy warship that was the recovery vessel. In an odd way it was fitting that Nixon, always faintly ill-at-ease among people, would have to perform this duty in a very sterile manner: Horning in on the glory, he was forced to congratulate the Astronauts in a staged photo-op from outside the Airstream trailer where they were quarantined. It was still early space days, and the pointy heads were not sure if the spacemen might bring some unknown microbes back home. So they kept them apart from other humans for a couple of weeks.

One month later, my mom passed the bar. On the first try.

One Comment

  1. Marco McClean July 18, 2019

    The moon landing was in my Fresno years. My mother married Roland in Escondido and he moved us all to Fresno in ’67, I think. On the big moon day, either my mother or Roland had taken me and Craig and Mark to a golf course and left us there to play golf. Fresno in July at midday even then was like 110 degrees in the shade. Mark had a golf bag with four clubs in it that we all used, and he and Craig were good at it; I don’t think that’s just because they were older and bigger than me. I mostly just walked around with them. I had little interest in golf, even less after plenty of practice at a driving range that you could ride your bike to and give them all your money for a bucket of balls to drive them into a giant net. I’d just flail at it; I never learned how to hit the ball right, possibly because the clubs were right-handed, but I just was never even normal-level good at any sport but downhill skiing and pingpong. Years later I developed, from working in kitchens, an ability to toss anything, of any lightness or density or heft or degree of aerodynamic balance, into a trash can all the way across the room, but when I was eight to ten, no: Basketball, no good. Baseball, no good. My childhood baseball mitt smelled like old cooking oil because I used that to try to make it flexible enough to get it to really close on a ball instead of just flapping stiffly half-shut and the ball rolls out. In a magazine it said use /neatsfoot oil/, but, you know, what even is that, where do you get that? And there was Wesson oil right there in the cupboard. Now, of course, with three clicks I get: “Neatsfoot oil is a yellow oil rendered and purified from the shin bones and feet (but not the hooves) of cattle. /Neat/ comes from an Old English word for cattle.” I was in a hurry and lawnmower oil seemed wrong, so Wesson oil, Q.E.D.

    Tae Kwon Do training didn’t make me more responsible or poised or stoic or anything, nor any more or less likely to get in a ridiculous fight, to jump in for no reason at all or cower away in shame equally for no reason. I do not understand my past self but I’m doomed to remember it. For example, one time boxing for fun with my best friend Randy, in real boxing gloves, at a party at Mark Dennis’ house, I tricked Randy with a slick move and punched him too hard, way too hard, and I’m still ashamed, almost as ashamed as I am about /not/ bashing Sean Donovan when he grabbed my arm at a programmers’ meeting at KZYX in early 1990. Why answer the one not called for and not the other that patently required it?

    The old things, the baseball mitt and my Sears banjo and my skis and a very cool sci-fi alien ritual clawed knife/brass-knuckle weapon I’d made in art shop class, were all lost when my mother’s house burned down in the early 1980s, when I’d already been away to Iowa, and then back, and more school, and then ended up in Fort Bragg. My mother rescued all her pets and boxes of pictures and walked around taking pictures of the firemen and the fire. She saved the important things. She sent me a picture of the fire, then. A month ago she showed me a book she just made by arranging those old pictures on her all-in-one-printer/copier to make pages. I barely glanced at it; I was busy getting my radio show together. She said, “I want you to have this because I’m afraid you’ll forget me.” Oh, no. She’s ninety years old. I’m a bad son. But did I look at it later? No. Tch. So the shame machine is still working, see?

    All my life I have hated going to sports games, just like church. It was just hours of waiting, waiting, waiting for it to be over so you could go home and get back to the interesting stuff. Even today, when people are talking about some important sportsball game coming up, or there’s a game on teevee or the radio, and the announcers sound /thrilled and excited enough to vomit/ because somebody’s toe popped a hole in his endorsed shoe and so cost the shoe company a billion dollars in stock value, or a man ran back to the base just in time before the other guy could clock him with the racket, or they rolled the bowling ball /just so/ and knocked over three wickets and the referee or whatever and what a big deal that is, and how it never would have been possible before aluminum bats or the infield fly rule, and the billionaire owner of the team was arrested for buying a hand-job in a massage whorehouse so they confiscate the video to avoid embarrassing him and smooth it over and let him go on as before but every masseuse in that entire block is busted, broken and/or in jail for their terrible crime, and another star viciously beat the shit out of his pregnant wife in an elevator between games but the annoucers are not shrieking excitedly about that, for some reason, and then you find out it’s just the CTE so it’s okay, sorry… Sports. Do you remember The Three Stooges? It’s all exactly like that to me, funny for a minute or two, in a one-eyebrow-up and one down way, but it doesn’t stop after a minute; it goes on all year with a different number and shape and size of Stooges on the different sportsball teams for each season, different kind of padding on the elbows and shins, and so on, but otherwise all the same, and then next year and the next. They could stick the recording of any game in from a couple of years ago, or a whole year’s worth, and what would be the difference?

    I hear myself saying that, and then I think: You could say that about my radio show, couldn’t you. Hmm. Or anything. Elections. Dinner.

    Downhill skiing is all right because on the best of days when you have a lot of space to yourself it feels like dreaming of flying. The last time I went skiing was 1976; I don’t know if there are days like that anymore. Back then high school kids could afford to go skiing with money they earned at their after school jobs. I don’t think that’s true anymore; I think you have to be rich now. Waterskiing is horrible; I remember going waterskiing with friends whose father had a boat, and it was always a nightmare: an entire lake valley of earsplitting noise, and the two-stroke engine exhaust, the choking sensation of floating at nose-and-eye level with the grease on the dirty water. But I’ve seen people hang gliding all afternoon off Mount Hull and above Lake Pillsbury, spiraling up and down using the natural flow of air for power, and that’s silent and graceful and beautiful and uses only the fossil fuel for the bus up the mountain in the first place. I’d be afraid to try it –they can crash and get killed, even the experts– but that’s arguably the best sport right there. Enough, ahem. The moon.

    So it’s July, 1969, my stepbrothers and I had finished golfing, such as it was, and we were in the golf course bar watching the moon thing on the teevee there. I don’t remember which adult came to pick us up, but they said, “You can look at that at home, come on.”

    One of the many nice things about Fresno in those days was Norm’s, a sprawling low shack-like restaurant where a hamburger was a dime and everything else was either a nickel or a dime. A whole big family could fill up on burgers and fries and soda pop for a dollar-fifty. And there was an Army-Navy surplus store that Craig and I would ride our bikes to, that I could spend all day in and often did. Every town in America had an Army Surplus store with fascinating junk left over from World War 2 and the pointless Korean War and then pointless Vietnam: parts of machines, radio sets and parts, field phones, guns, bearings, coaster wheels, gas masks, fishing rods, archery stuff and slingshots and camping things, car parts, everything; the best toy store ever, all just leftover war crap and modified campfire technology, as Travis T. Hipp once described the Saturn V rocket to be, which I still feel is a bit unfair, if apt.

    Marco McClean

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