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How did we drown out the noise of Vietnam? We flew Apollo to the moon

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50th Anniversary of Apollo 11 Moon Landing

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The America of July 1969 was one riven by the bloody Vietnam War, and countered by Apollo.

My cousin Carl Jensen was heading to the Army’s Officer Candidate School in Fort Belvoir, Va., as an engineer. My father’s boss’ son Chip had been killed in Vietnam in 1966. The Nixon administration was about to start ramping up the “secret” war in Cambodia.

All the children on my street in Springfield, Va., had fathers who were either in Vietnam, going to Vietnam or returning from Vietnam.

It’s all they talked about.

“I am afraid my daddy will be killed,” they all said.

I wasn’t afraid my daddy would be killed. He had won the Bronze Star in the Korean War as an Army sergeant and radio operator. He worked as a scientist with the U.S. Forest Service. The year before, we had moved to Washington, D.C., and went to Robert F. Kennedy’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery. We also watched the district burn after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. I saw the fighter jets from President Dwight Eisenhower’s funeral race over our house, 15 miles or so from Arlington.

If Vietnam loomed the largest in my life, the Apollo moon missions were the pleasant, exhilarating background music to the cacophony of the war.

Children of that era were allowed to watch Apollo launches in class. My friends knew all the names of all the astronauts (Eisele, Cunningham, Schirra, Lovell, Anders, Borman, etc…) and what they did on the missions.

Apollo 7 in 1968 was a tune-up, the first manned launch after the deadly tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire just 18 months before. We watched that in school, all hoping there was no fire. Those astronauts in Apollo 1 (Grissom, White, Chaffee) were in a capsule with a hatch they couldn’t open from the inside, a nightmare played out on a launch pad.

Apollo 8 was fascinating itself. That was the first trip to the moon, and it seemed like one long TV show from space. I vividly recall watching their Christmas Eve 1968 broadcast from lunar orbit. Commander Frank Borman and his crew all took turns reading from Genesis: “…the earth was shapeless, and void…” And Borman saying: “Merry Christmas to all of you on the good, good earth.”

Meanwhile, my father had a small part in the Apollo moon program. A plant pathologist, he was detailed to an inter-agency task force studying the possibility that returning astronauts could somehow bring back a catastrophic germ from space that could imperil humankind.

Dad was a scientist, and a brutal realist. I suppose the Korean War and his lab time made him tell me that when the 1970 Apollo 13 mission was in trouble, the astronauts would either skip off the atmosphere and die in space after they ran out of oxygen or perhaps burn up in re-entry. Oh, and go to sleep. Goodnight.

One of dad’s NASA trips was to Huntsville, Ala., where Saturn V boosters were built. The group was given many tours, and, on one of them, they were permitted to inspect the Apollo 4 test capsule. It was sitting on sheets in a hangar, carbon chunks everywhere scattered on the floor from the heat shield.

When my dad returned from Huntsville, he handed me an astronaut tie bar. I was rarely in need of a tie.

“Sorry, Birdie. I was down there and picked up some of the chunks of the heat shield,” he said. “We weren’t supposed to, but I did anyway. I put them in my handkerchief.”

“Great! Where are they?”

“Well, I got a cold and pulled out my handkerchief and blew my nose.”

No carbon heat shield chunks survived my dad’s nose blow.

As the July 20, 1969, moon landing drew near, Apollo 9 (Scott, Schweikart, McDivitt – I did have to look up McDivitt, 50 years later) executed the extraction of the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) in earth orbit. In May, Apollo 10 (Stafford…uh…Googles it, got it: Young, Cernan) orbited the moon, with the LEM approaching 10 miles from the moon’s surface.

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Author mug Jack Ohman Lezlie Sterling lsterling@sacbee.com

Or we would play pick-up baseball in the cul-de-sac until our bare feet burned. We would wait for the Good Humor ice cream truck to come by at 3 p.m. or so. We’d play Army, but, oddly, not Vietnam. WWII.

We talked about the moon. We discussed the new Revell (they were by far the best brand) Apollo models we were building. I took a crack at the Command Module and the LEM. Mine sucked. Glue everywhere, bad paint job. I played with them endlessly anyway.

We also built elaborate space capsules with boxes and Christmas lights. I had read in Life Magazine that, I believe, Buzz Aldrin’s son spent the entire moon mission in a homemade space capsule, maybe as a way to cope with the stress of knowing his father was doing something similar, except that Buzz couldn’t pop out for Froot Loops or a re-run of “The Monkees.”

The day of the Apollo 11 launch, I was in our rec room (no one has those now). It was morning, and I recall the fine filtered, yellow Florida sunlight showed the 363-foot Saturn V in silhouette on TV as a steam drifted off the liquid oxygen tanks. A crude chyron display showed the time until the launch (9:16 AM EDT), and periodically the hard syllables of Jack King, the voice of Mission Control, would tell his audience that the astronauts were going through checklists or that something or other looked good.

The four days while the astronauts were traveling were something of a blur. Kids played outside, saying things like “They’re up there,” while we continued our cutthroat Monopoly games and rode banana seat bikes to the Good Humor truck, our personal spacecraft that delivered the tasty Strawberry Shortcake (25 cents – too much) bar or, perhaps, a red, white and blue rocket pop (15 cents – swingable).

We collected the stories in the Washington Evening Star and the pictures from Life and Look, none of which exist now.

We watched many hours of ABC Science Editor Jules Bergman interviewing people about various technical aspects of the launch, frequently employing models (far better than mine) to describe the event currently taking place. Translunar Injection! Extraction of the LEM! These are phrases that still bounce around in my 58-year-old head.

On NBC, a Gulf oil logo on the anchor desk let viewers know that Gulf was good, and that they supported the moon landing. I also seem to recall a Tang logo on an anchor desk.

I do recall the actual landing of the LEM on the moon. It was sometime midday, I think. My dad laughed when the Mission Control guy said, “You’ve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue.” But that’s all.

In the evening of July 20, my parents huddled around the television with me. Being 8, the scheduled moonwalk at 10:58 p.m. Eastern was about two hours past my bedtime. I fell asleep on the floor.

I recall being awakened by my parents frantically lifting my head up and down to keep me awake to watch Neil Armstrong take the first step. I recall the blue blur of the screen and the static-filled conversation as it happened, as I struggled for consciousness. That’s all I have, and I will bet half the people my age on the east coast had a similar set of history-minded parents trying to keep them awake.

Fifty years later, the Apollo 11 landing is being marked by what will undoubtedly be the last baby boomer milestone anniversary. Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins, the Command Module pilot, are still alive. Aldrin is 90 and Collins is 88. Neil Armstrong died at 82 in 2012.

Both Aldrin and Collins still make public appearances, and many of the principals in the moon landing are still alive: Chris Kraft, Gene Kranz, and many others survive. The younger engineers are in their early to mid 70s.

People my age will watch the documentaries and movies. They will marvel at having the beautiful shared experience of being alive and conscious during humankind’s greatest achievement. Some will shed tears, others will listen to their children and grandchildren wax endlessly about the new “Star Wars” movie.

We will not remind them that we actually saw the real thing. That’s our little gift, our giant leap over their manufactured space experience.

We got to accompany Neil, Buzz and Mike on a vicarious joyride on our banana seat bikes and cardboard spaceships that not even Pixar or George Lucas could conjure.

Luke Skywalker? Buzz Lightyear? Han Solo? Meh.

Neil, Buzz and Mike, baby.

Let’s hit the Good Humor truck to celebrate. I’ll buy you a red, white and blue rocket pop.

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