Grab The Moon

This post will be a lengthy one because I have a lot to recount here about my day, and word count or attention span for this event isn’t a factor.  Those are irrelevant by comparison.

To briefly foreshadow this, I posted about my experience getting William Shatner’s autograph.  That day was awesome, and it falls into the category of an experience someone can’t forget.  Not, of course, until some other day comes along to top it.  This is what you’re reading about right now.  But first, I have to divert you to my distant past.  I’ll recount one of the most formative experiences of my life here, which has relevance throughout as well as at the conclusion.

My father, relocated from my birthplace in Phoenix, journeyed to California and set up our next home for Mom, my newborn sister, and me.  We settled in and things were normal.  The family lived there for several months before the night in question.

At around three AM on the 11th of December, 1972, my father made me wake up and come to the living room.  We had an old TV, the kind where a repair guy could actually fix it by swapping a real vacuum tube or two out.  It was black-and-white only.  My father admonished me to pay attention and watch.  It would be a once-in-a-lifetime thing, he said.  That’s not the stuff an almost-four-year-old would know about, but dad said pay attention, and lucky for me, I did.  Thus far, Dad remains correct on his assessment.

As my sleepy little eyes watched, Eugene Cernan descended the ladder of the last Lunar Module on the Moon and became the 11th man to walk the surface of another world.  I didn’t fully understand what I saw at the time, but dad insisted it was important.  I can remember that early, early morning now more clearly than I can recall last Tuesday.  His trick worked.  I remember.

View of the crescent Earth rising above the lunar horizon over the Ritz Crater. Image taken during the Apollo 17 mission on Revolution 66. Original film magazine was labeled PP. Film type was SO-368 Color Ektachrome MS CEX,Color Reversal, 250mm lens., Longitude 98.2 East, Azimuth 264, Altitude 113 km. NASA Identifier: as17-152-23274

(Wikipedia) (Humans SAW this) View of the crescent Earth rising above the lunar horizon over the Ritz Crater. Image taken during the Apollo 17 mission on Revolution 66. Original film magazine was labeled PP. Film type was SO-368 Color Ektachrome MS CEX,Color Reversal, 250mm lens., Longitude 98.2 East, Azimuth 264, Altitude 113 km.
NASA Identifier: as17-152-23274

You might ask right now, “Why didn’t you become an astronaut?”  Yeah, I’d agree, why not?  After all, you’ve only wanted to be an astronaut your whole life, and took the Army career as a sideshow second, right?  Even though the Army delivered on excitement, it still finished a pale, distant second to ‘astronaut.’  So what about that?

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‘Jack” Schmitt, 12th person on the Moon, rams freedom into said Moon

Simple answer is, I became tragically nearsighted when I was in 6th grade, struggled with that, overcame it, and by the time standards in the space program relaxed enough, I was too old and had no relevant skills to offer NASA.  Honestly, my civil engineering degree is great, I don’t regret it.  However, civil engineering requires gravity, and there’s a distinct lack of that in free fall or in the exotic gravity-free areas far from Earth.

All that aside, I kept my fascination with space, astronauts and the exploration of what lies beyond our little planet close to me.  Think of it like a little, burning ember in a fireplace after the logs are done burning.  This ember has burned for over forty years.  It inspired my love of science fiction and writing science fiction.  Let’s flash forward now, into the present.

I live in Military Hub Central, even with the Pentagon and its basements excluded.  Near me, about 21 miles and 35 minutes away, is a formerly-sleepy Army post called Fort Belvoir.  Under the Base Realignment deal, it became a Joint base where all four services could do military things.  It got bigger and got noticeable.  I go there at least once a week for whatever reason.  One day, I was getting some good tax-free beer, and my wife noticed an advertisement and grabbed the leaflet.

The event was to be hosted at the Post Exchange.  Being BRAC’ed and refurbished, the Ft. Belvoir Exchange is obscenely huge, even by American strip-mall standards.  Suffice it to say that you could play three, maybe five, games of football inside, at once, foregoing the stadium seating on the sides.  This place was the setting.

You’re wondering: Who did we go to see?  Curious.  I’ll reveal it now and tell you:  Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin.  The second man to set foot on the moon.  Take a minute to absorb that, please.

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Buzz Aldrin’s footprint on our Moon

While you wait, a quick bio of Colonel Aldrin.  The New Jersey native graduated 42 years ahead of me from West Point.  He took a commission in the Air Force, common then due to the youth of that service.  Later he earned a doctorate in astronautics at MIT.  As a decorated combat pilot in the Korean War, Colonel Aldrin flew 66 missions and shot down two MiG-15’s.  Years after, he was accepted into the astronaut program and spacewalked as a Gemini astronaut.  He became the second individual of our species to set foot on our Moon on July 21st, 1969.

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Buzz Aldrin’s NASA publicity photo, Apollo-style

To bring this back to my personal narrative, I was just over four months old at the time Aldrin helped make history.  While I don’t recall that particular event, I’m proud to say it happened within my own lifetime.  Later, at the revampted Army post in Virginia, I got to meet this man who helped define the modern world we now know.

The refurbished setting, as I said, was Fort Belvoir.  I, my tiny wife and equally small daughter arrived and found a line just to have him sign his new children’s book.  It is an effort to revive an exploratory spirit toward Mars, in which I enthusiastically believe in.  In addition, I carried my copy of “First On The Moon,” a first-edition I’d lucked across and read.  Aldrin, with Michael Collins and Neil Armstrong, co-authored the fascinating tale of Apollo 11.  I took this just in case he might sign it.

rants Apollo_11_insignia

Of course I have a reproduction version

Colonel Aldrin had a grid of chairs waiting, apparently for a group of children from local schools.  I have to hand the man due credit – he let every little kid to the front of the line no matter why or what.  After a quick, un-broadcast talk to the kids, he started signing books.  I feel for this hero of one war, two spaceflights and an ongoing battle with life.

The line as I mentioned was one football-field long when we arrived.  By the time Colonel Aldrin arrived, it had stretched to three fields long, and kept growing.  Post Exchange employees had to come out and force people around walls and hallways to get everyone in out of the muggy Virginia afternoon.  People without his new book were asked to leave.  Luckily, my Little One secured a copy two weeks ago.

I – we – waited for three hours in line.  I counted our progress by the number of exposed steel girders we passed.  I worried that an 85-year-old moonwalker and astronaut would tire under the onslaught of demanding people who simply wanted to stand in the same bubble of air as this man.  People just like me, to be honest.  I wasn’t disappointed.

While I waited, I contemplated some possible significant things to say or ask Aldrin.  “Would you please come over for the best ribs you ever had?” I wanted to start with.  Perhaps, I thought, “Can I buy you a beer, Sir?” would be a good one too.  Anything to lure him into a long conversation, where I could ask him if moon dust actually smells like gunpowder, and of course describe how damn awesome it must feel to ride the most powerful machine built by humankind.  On that, not only just into space, but to the Moon, then walk on it, and come home.  With rocks and proof.  There were a lot of angles to compare.

In the end, I handed over the book and he signed his name.  He asked my daughter a question or two.  And then he shook my hand.  Let me restate this:  I shook hands with the second man to walk the face of the Moon.  My hand, shaking his.  A living component of human history.

IMG_8394

Buzz Aldrin, as-of this week, and awesome

I thanked him.  That’s all I said.  He probably thought I meant, ‘thanks for the autograph.’  That’s not what I intended.  For want of emotion, I couldn’t form clear words, and didn’t want to weep in public.  I would have gone on about as long as this post.  What I meant to say was, “Thank you, Sir, for doing what you did, for going to the Moon for all of us, and from all of us… because… holy damn!”

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He signed my book… damn!

I spent most of the 35 minutes driving home trying to absorb what I’d just experienced.  We were all happy, but nobody more than me.  I had trouble forming simple sentences and answers.  I let the radio fill the awkward silence.  This, I thought, was as good as being an astronaut.  Then something else happened.

Later that night, my daughter came down from her room, probably to scavenge food.  She sat with us briefly to talk and said she had fun.  I wondered out loud whether any 14-ish would enjoy the day I just described.  She said she did.  “Duh, I talked to Buzz Aldrin,” she made her point.

An awesome statement from someone so young.  Awesome that it comes from my step-daughter, a young lady who somehow looks enough like me that nobody blinks when they see the two of us together.  The young lady loves science and all things nerdy, much like her not-actual-father.  Yet, I don’t have enough time in the Dad seat to have rubbed off on her that much.  Still, I call her, ‘Peanut.’

So to tie this all back together at the point where I started, I related to her the story about my father on that night in 1972.  I added that if she’d decided that she was too tired or too-something (teen-related ennui), I’d have compelled her to go, and made her stand in line, and made her witness such a man as Colonel “Buzz” Aldrin.  After all, I added, there are only eight of the original twelve who walked the moon like him alive now.  Neil Armstrong, Aldrin’s lead on Apollo 11, died in 2012, and three others (Pete Conrad, Alan Shepard, and James Irwin) have likewise moved on to better jobs.

Peanut said she completely understood.  She said she wouldn’t have been upset, and she said it never would have been a problem.  The reason was because she wanted to see him, because Peanut knew it was important, and because it would be more awesome than hanging out with friends doing stuff.  What killed me was this: “I wanted to see the look on your face when you met Buzz Aldrin.”

Such are the simple statements that make grown men lose it and cry silently in the garage on the guise of fetching themselves another beer.

At this point, at the end of this long, long post, I’m not sure what part of my day was the best.  I’ve decided that it doesn’t matter.

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27 Responses to “Grab The Moon”

  1. I’ve been moved to tears myself. Beautiful post, ‘Rants.

  2. Sounds like an amazing fucking day all the way around. It’s weird how children can make us feel all the feels with a simple gesture or a handful of innocuous words.

  3. That was so moving and awesome. First of all your dad was a visionary he knew how see this would impact you. An absolutely beautiful story. Thank you for sharing.

  4. So real. Great story well told.
    Watching all that holding our breath. We grew up in/are in the NASA community. High energy – sky high dreams
    Hope the generations who have grown up with space travel and computers some day have some event that makes as big an impact. And feel real awe and wonder.
    What a day you had.

  5. It’s hard to put into words, that special feeling when you meet someone who figures into history. I’ve met a few – Michael Collins (yeah, you pipped me by one), Paul Newman (huge, if not the same level of overcoming danger, though it WAS after I pulled him out of a disabled race car), and the one I’ll never forget, Johnny Cash. About the same amount of discourse between he and I, with him joking about us having the same-spelled first name, but having grown up on his music, still a HUGE deal.

    The most awesome was somebody I never knew prior to our meeting – Leon Lederman, a multi-doctorate physicist who ran Fermilab out in West Chicago/Batavia, Illinois, the home of the biggest particle accelerator until the LHC at CERN fired up. We had a lunch-hour chat during a summer Saturday mornings class I attended. He was charming, in that weird old uncle way with his Einsteinian hair and love of sweaters. It was part way into the chat that he just casually started talking about the old professor he worked with. Yes, he was the head lab guy for Albert himself! For a kid who knew the differences between mesons, fermions, and baryons in sophomore-year high school, just hearing stories about his work with Einstein made my toes curl! That was one heck of a memorable day, and still is with me despite my drug-induced faulty memory.

    And I bet you thought I was gonna rate meeting Grace as my most memorable. (Actually, that’s my most favourite one of all, but doesn’t carry the appropriate gravitas for this post – even if she did work with Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon, making me only one degree separated from two great film actors! 🙂 ) And yes, I did meet the great hairpiece – yawn. Too much ego for my taste. (Though his rugs are SLIGHTLY better than the #2 great hairpiece, The Donald.)

  6. There were actually two Kleenex-shredding stories in that tale. Aldrin is awesome, but I had trouble breathing while reading the ‘family story’ that got you there. I think there’s big winners on both sides. Peanut sounds awesome! 😀

  7. I am so happy for your happiness! What a fantastic experience, all of them.

  8. Despite how your eyesight hindered at such a young age…..I understand. My eyesite prevents me from doing what I’ve wanted to do….correctional vision only takes us so far. I hope we don’t argue. You might like it, I don’t. you don’t care. Ugh. What the fuck…I am happy for you.

  9. Its beautiful! I wanted to be somebody important. I guess we all do. But I am no one.

  10. […] only the last flight, but the major awesomesauce happened while I have been alive.  In short, I got to shake the hand of the second member of our species to set foot on somewhere other than Eart… Read about that awesome shit […]

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