Oddly, I recall that my first thought upon waking up on the morning of July 20, 1969 was that I did not want to miss the lunar landing. We had a family gathering to attend that afternoon in the nearby town of Freeland, Michigan and I was concerned that the TV at the home where the gathering would take place would likely be occupied by with Tigers baseball like it always was at such summer family get-togethers. My folks assured me that I had nothing to worry about, but I was far from convinced. Of course mom and dad knew full well that none of the networks would be carrying anything but the Apollo 11 landing, their 12 year old son, however, could not fathom such reasoning- I continued to fret.
Our family gathering that day had nothing to do with Apollo 11. The fact is that my younger brother and my cousin both shared close birth dates on the July calendar and it was decided to have a big cookout at my cousin's house in Freeland to celebrate them together. The trip there was considerable by the standards of a 12 year old- all the way across town and out to farm country. I had no way of knowing that four years later my own family would move from Saginaw out to Freeland and I would eventually graduate from Freeland High School- on that July sunday in 1969, it was a respectable road trip to me.
On the way out of town, dad stopped for gas at a Gulf station. He pumped in a few dollars worth, went inside to pay and upon returning handed me a large piece of card-stock paper. It had black and gold shapes printed all over it in a series of odd patterns. For a second or two I studied the sheet, then I recognized the two triangular windows of the LEM in among the patterns! Dad told me that they were giving these away at Gulf and you had to pop the pieces out and then you could fold it into a LEM model! GREAT! He also warned me not to start until we got to the party, so I wouldn't lose any of the pieces. All the way to Freeland I studied the sheet of paper as I sat in the back seat of dad's 66' metal flake navy blue, Buick Special. I was sure that making that paper LEM was far beyond any skills and abilities I possessed... and I was right about that.
By the time we got to the party the TV was already locked onto CBS and Walter Cronkite and Wally Schirra were earning their pay. Unlike the launch, this time I sat on the floor in front of the TV, transfixed at everything that was happening. Here was the kid, well known as the one who rarely paid attention in the classroom, who was instantly bored by any reading assignment, who could not sit still long enough to focus on more than three arithmetic problems, who was always "out the window" rather than in the lesson, sitting there in full "learning mode." My parents and relatives were amazed. I watched each simulation of what was to come and soaked it in as the paper LEM model sat nearby waiting for someone... anyone... to start working on it.
Amid my new found focus on the technology of spaceflight, I became so engrossed in what was going on in the TV that I forgot to eat. The result was a nasty stomach pain, yet it was not enough to distract me from the mission broadcast. My mom eventually delivered a plate to me containing a hotdog and some beans... I don't recall eating it, but I'd sure I did... probably under threat that mom would turn off the TV if I didn't eat. Several folks, including my dad, an uncle and a few of my older cousins, came and sat with me- all of whom took a stab at assembling that accursed paper LEM... no one got very far.
As the Eagle went into PDI and began to arc toward the landing I was totally focused on that TV set. Odds are that there were people around me... lots of them... but I don't recall a single one. I do recall, however, every "GO" call relayed by Charlie Duke to the crew. I knew enough to recognize that "go" was good in the vernacular of spaceflight. The communications were peppered with static and break-ups and the series of computer alarms clearly did not seem right. Since the alarms did not seem to bother the crew, I wasn't worried either. I figured that NASA had planned and rehearsed every second of this operation- since that was what the newsmen on the TV had always told us that NASA did... of course I was wrong in that assumption... but hey, I was 12.
As the CBS simulation showed the LEM touching down, however, the air-to-ground voice did not match the simulation. Indeed the LEM was shown on the moon for quite a while before the video tape of the simulation was suddenly wound back to showing the LEM still in flight. I knew that was wrong, but reasoned that it was a CBS error and not a problem with the landing... I was wrong again... hey... I was 12... remember?
It has often been said by the engineers and crews that the landing of Apollo 11 was more significant than was the EVA. So it was for me- as I heard Charlie Duke say "...we copy ya' on the ground, ya' got a bunch of guys about to turn blue, we're breathin' again, thanks a lot." I knew that they had indeed landed on the moon. Around me my relatives clapped and cheered a bit, then went back to the party. My cousins who were near my age went back to running and playing. I simply sat there... thunderstruck... watching, listening, soaking it up like a sponge. I wanted to know more- for the first time in my whole life, I wanted to learn more- more about these vehicles, more about this program, more about that moon, more about space and how it all works. But- there was a problem... you see, no one who was not on that TV, no one who was at that family gathering with me, no one in my entire neighborhood... could teach it to me. In retrospect, at that moment in time, I already knew more about the space program than anyone else near me. If I was going to satisfy my new urge to learn more about the space program, I would have to teach myself.
The party broke up a few hours after the landing and I gathered up the parts of my paper LEM and we headed home. Just before we left they announced on the TV that the EVA would be moved up to around 10 pm that evening. It had originally been scheduled for the following morning, in fact President Nixon had already given all federal workers Monday off as a "Day of Participation" now they'd just have a nice day off. When we got home, my dad asked me to break out my little 50 power refractor telescope. We took it out into the backyard and set it up on the deck of our 4 foot deep above-ground pool, and pointed the lens toward the crescent moon.
When the EVA began, no one really knew what that grainy black and white image was of. In fact, it was upside down at first- but soon the folks at NASA flipped it over and before long we saw a boot followed by Neil Armstrong's shadow. I heard his words as he stepped onto the lunar surface and then I ran outside to look through the telescope... as if I was going to see something. While the EVA went on everyone gathered at our house... and we did have a sort of secondary family gathering going on, since most of my aunts, uncles and cousins lived within a block of my house... took turns running out to that stupid little telescope and looking up at the moon. Interestingly, four decades later I find that this same pointless exercise was going on all over the hemisphere at that same time.
I didn't make it through the entire EVA. I pretty much ran out of steam toward midnight and don't recall how I got to my bed. Odds are I fell asleep in the living room during Nixon's call or shortly there after... Nixon had that sort of influence on a space buff.
When I awoke, however, I would be a different kid than I was that morning- many others would as well. That damned paper LEM, however, never would get put together... 40 years later, it's probably still beyond my skills and abilities .