“It was the third of June another sleepy dusty delta day
I was out choppin’ cotton and my brother was bailing hay”
Bobby Gentry’s song speaks to the mundane. The routine, the heat and bored-out-of-my-mindness of late summer.
It wasn’t the third of June but the 20th of July.
We couldn’t wait to get out of school a few weeks earlier but by now, we were missing our friends. Missing school too but would never admit it.
We were only half-way through the summer and the second half promised to be just as hot and miserable as the first.
I was 13 the summer of 1969.
Days had an interminable, forever, drifty dreamy quality.
Summer would never end and school would never begin. I was both terrified and excited, as I would be starting high school a few days after Labor Day. That felt like a long time in the future on this particular hot July day.
Each day was a carbon copy of the day last, filled with softball, fans that didn’t move nearly enough air, library books, chasing frogs into the creek and on good days, a trip to the swimming pool and an ice cream cone after the work was done.
Mom had lots of rules that had to be obeyed, designed specifically to interfere with my fun. Of that, I was sure.
Yes, another sleepy, dusty, sweaty July day.
That time of the summer, sweating never stopped.
Air conditioning didn’t exist. Windows were propped open for the entire summer.
Our old black and white television worked when it took a mind to – which wasn’t often.
It had rabbit ears appended to the top and on the best days we got 3 channels. Most days, one or none. Some sets didn’t even have rabbit ears.
Television shows were rationed to 2 or 3 a week because TV was just about our only luxury and we needed to make that old thing last as long as possible. Tubes burned out regularly. Repairmen cost money. We watched Lassie, Walt Disney and Bonanza. Sometimes we splurged and watched Tom Jones too, but Tom Jones only made the hot summer hotter.
My Friend Jim
I had been babysitting for several years.
The young couple that lived across the street had two children and soon, her brother came to live with them.
I don’t remember much about the couple or their children, but I remember that brother well. His name was Jim and he was infinitely, infinitely more interesting than the kids, my library books, any chore I’d been left to do and pretty much anything else on any boring summer day.
My favorite pastime that summer was convincing Jim that I had a twin sister.
You see, I had 2 pairs of glasses, and I would wear one white-rimmed pearlescent pair with one outfit, then change to another outfit and wear the black-rimmed pair. In one pair of glasses I wore my hair in a ponytail and in the other, down.
Yes, I was very, very bored and I have no idea just why I thought that was so much fun. Perhaps because Jim confided in both sisters about the other one.
Jim was an older man – all of 16. A lanky redhead with a job and a car. He also had a girlfriend, Cindy who did not like me AT ALL!
Wonder of wonders.
Jim wanted to take me to the drive in root-beer stand – well one of me anyway. We climbed in his turquoise Mercury Cougar with bucket seats and cruised the neighborhood with all 4 windows down.
The root-beer stand served beverages in frozen mugs. Just roll your window up about 3 inches and they affixed the tray to the window. They also served frozen custard and fried tenderloins. Those were the days, I’m telling you!
This Cougar, which is for sale, looks just like Jim’s! Be still my heart. The car, not Jim.
I’ve always been a car buff. I can’t help myself. It started young. As soon as I began drooling it seemed I was drooling over cars, and well, I’ve never stopped.
I liked Jim, as a friend. If you’re a guy, those words are the kiss of death.
Cindy really didn’t have anything to worry about.
I loved hanging out with Jim and his guy buddies. I helped him change the spark plugs and oil. That was one honking big engine.
I enjoyed waxing his car after I washed it with the hose. Yes, sometimes I wore a bathing suit, especially when I mowed the yard. No, not a bikini, mother would NEVER allow that – a modest one-piece with shorts. IT WAS HOT!
Jim often came over to help. He helped me with the yardwork and I washed his car. We both thought we got a great deal.
Sometimes, we cruised the circle drive around the local Seashore swimming pool. There was an open-air dance hall with a jukebox and someone was always there. In the summertime, the pool was the hangout place and there was always drama, every single day.
Flirtations occurred beside the pool, in the dance hall and we all kept an eye out for who was cruising and riding shotgun with whom.
Toward the end of July, the boredom became flat out intolerable. When jobs around the house begin to seem interesting, it’s time to go back to school. I did love to visit the library, and Jim seemed to enjoy taking me just about anyplace I wanted to go.
Even back then, I was already a geek at heart, reading voraciously. Jim just shook his head, but he gladly shuttled me to feed my book addiction.
By that time, Cindy really REALLY didn’t like me.
Jim had an older buddy named Dave who was kind of well, slow. Other people made fun of Dave, how he acted and walked, with a bit of an awkward strut, but we just accepted him. The difference being that eventually Jim and I grew up and Dave never did.
We were protective of Dave and made sure to include him in our activities. It must have been difficult for Dave to age, but never to be able to drive and to watch his friends outgrow him his entire life. I don’t know what ever happened to Dave.
The Stars and the Moon
Sometimes I wanted to talk about things Jim really didn’t want to talk about. No, I don’t mean anything like THAT – I mean space.
Not the space like gapping a spark plug, but interstellar space, science and astronomy.
In 5th grade, my teacher made the mistake of asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I opined that I didn’t know, so she pushed me a bit. I pronounced that I was going to be an astronomer. The shocked look on her face said it all, but I was innocently oblivious and missed the significance entirely. She wasn’t expecting that answer and tried to gently dissuade me, encouraging me to make another selection, but I was having none of that.
I had always been fascinated with the moon and stars and space since I first saw the planets. Other kids wished on the stars. I was filled with wonder, yearned for knowledge and to go there. I couldn’t get enough – drinking up every smidgen of information like a sponge.
I joined the math club. I ran the library out of science books, reading them over and over. I was the original geek.
I loved to look up at the moon. While other kids were thinking about cheese, I was thinking about what might really be there and how the cosmos worked.
Oh, of course, I would have loved to just be all star-struck and dreamy, but my kind of dreamy was different from anyone else.
Not even Jim or my best friend Curtis understood that. No one where I lived in small-town Indiana would ever understand that.
To me, the moon was a destination, a place of fascination. I longed for the moon to give up her secrets. I strained to see. We didn’t have a telescope.
Soon, very soon, history would be made and I wanted more than anything else to be a part of it.
The Space Age
I was a child of the space age. I don’t ever remember the space program not existing. My early school days were punctuated by rocket launches and news of men orbiting the earth, narrated by Walter Cronkite on the evening news. Walter Cronkite was the voice of America in those days – the “Most Trusted Man in America.”
Often, we didn’t watch the news, but we surely listened on the radio.
Mother seemed to regard me with an air of amusement, like she was just waiting for me to outgrow this phase and get back to Barbie dolls.
That was never going to happen, not unless they introduced Space Barbie – and I don’t mean Space Ken.
July 20, 1969
It might have been hot and dusty, but it wasn’t the third of June, it was the 20th of July.
Apollo 11 was orbiting the moon. THE MOON!
I had chores to do. My deal with Mom was that I worked and did chores in the morning, but I got to go swimming in the afternoon, so long as I got my chores done, left the pool by 5 and was home by 5:15. She watched me like a hawk.
Mom wasn’t at all sure about our neighbor, Jim. After all, he was “older” and might be a bad influence. According to Mom, all boys were bad influences.
Mom came home for lunch, but then went back to work. I asked Mom if she was going to watch the moon landing, and she said that she couldn’t.
I wanted desperately to watch, but our TV wasn’t working. I was supposed to go to the pool in the afternoon, but Jim suggested that he, Dave and I go to the park, on the way to the pool, and listen to the first man walk on the moon. After the landing, he would drop me off at the pool. Seemed like a great idea to me!
Mom probably wouldn’t have approved, but she was at work.
We didn’t know exactly what time the landing would occur, or actually, if it would occur at all. There were so many things that might go wrong.
Would the Eagle lander separate from the Apollo 11 capsule?
Would the Eagle burn up on descent in the moon’s atmosphere?
Would the Eagle crash land, being a sure and certain death sentence?
Would there be an explosion when they landed?
Would we watch the astronauts die?
Would they sink in the dust on the moon?
Was the dust actually dust, or was it tiny meteor shards that would destroy their space suits, meaning they would perish?
Would the Eagle be able to lift off from the moon?
Would the Eagle be able to dock with Apollo 11 so that the astronauts could come home?
No one had ever been there or done this before. We had no answers. Only questions. Many, many questions.
What were the odds that everything would work exactly right?
The small park was deserted, probably because it was beastly hot, so Jim pulled the car under the trees the near the swings.
We opened the doors so we could hear the radio and swung on the wooden swings.
As it became evident that the landing was actually going to happen, we all three went back to the car, getting inside, but leaving the doors wide open, hoping for any breeze. Dave was in the back seat, but all three of us were leaned as far forward as possible, as if that would help us hear.
Our sweaty legs stuck to the seats, but we didn’t care.
The astronaut’s voices were gravely and distant.
Not a peep.
There should be.
It had been too long.
Something was wrong.
We looked up at the sky through the windshield, just in case we could see.
Of course, we couldn’t and felt ridiculous.
No. One. Even. Breathed.
Minutes that seemed like eternities passed.
Finally, at 4:17, we heard what our ears had been straining desperately for, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
Oh. My. God.
There were only three of us, but we cheered and shouted and hugged each other. So did the crew at Mission Control in Houston.
We were both ecstatic and relieved.
The astronauts were supposed to sleep at this point, but who could sleep.
They began to prepare for their descent onto the moon and into the pages of history.
One Small Step
We knew that the walk on the moon wouldn’t happen for some time, and we were hungry. The pool closed at 5 so we decided to head for the drive-in and get a tenderloin and mug of frosty root-beer to celebrate.
A couple hours later, back at the house, we coaxed the old TV to life and heard Buzz Aldrin radio to Earth, “I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.”
We had all been and would continue to be in a rather constant state of prayer. Gus Grissom who burned to death in January 1967 on the launch pad in Apollo 1 was a Hoosier. The Air Force base near where I lived was named in his honor. We were keenly, painfully aware. That horrific memory was still very fresh.
There was so very much to be thankful for on July 20th. The safety of the astronauts, the successful landing and the fact that this kind of “win” meant that no one suffered a painful loss. It was a win for humanity, not just the US.
600 million people worldwide watched Neil Armstrong descend onto the surface of the moon at just a few minutes before 11.
As Armstrong stepped down onto the surface of the moon and declared, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” I was crying. So was mother. I have no idea what the others were doing.
The pictures transmitted from the moon were grainy and unclear, ghostly surreal images, but we knew just the same what was happening because Mission Control was narrating. It’s amazing that we saw anything at all “live.” You can see what we saw, here.
The iconic footprint that would inspire a generation, including one young girl in Indiana and another Jim in Ohio.
We watched Buzz Aldrin plant the American flag.
Half of the televisions in America were turned on and tuned in to CBS News. In fact, you can watch the full 3 hours here.
We clung to every image, every word and every minute. Two hours flew by. Mother had fallen asleep on the couch, but I was wide awake. Dave had already gone home.
After the astronauts entered the Eagle again and lifted off, we clicked off the TV. Jim needed to cross the street to his house, so I walked outside in the yard with him.
Neither of us were ready to sleep, having just witnessed history being made.
We sat down in the grass in the yard, trying to unwind from hours of adrenaline, and looked up at the moon shining brightly.
Jim said that it would never be the same, and I sensed melancholy in his voice.
I too realized that it would never be the same, except my heart was full of giddy anticipation.
I knew that we had crossed a frontier and that I wanted to be a part of the space program more than I had ever wanted anything. I desperately wanted to explore the unknown.
It never, not once, occurred to me that because I had only seen and heard men at mission control that females might not be able to become astronauts or scientists. It’s a good thing that I didn’t understand about discrimination at the time, because I would have been discouraged.
But I wasn’t.
I wasn’t thinking that the moon wouldn’t be as romantic anymore, now that men had walked there. I was dreaming of a bright and exciting future.
I became even more focused on science and technology. Given my propensity for motion sickness, I wasn’t destined to be an astronaut, but I was destined to work in technology and research fields, both critical and peripheral to the space program.
I refused to accept no for an answer when told that “girls” couldn’t enroll in advanced placement classes. I stood my ground when informed that they “weren’t going to waste a perfectly good science seat on a girl.”
Eventually, I would earn graduate degrees in computer science, not astronomy. My contributions would be through data analysis. I would have been one of those engineers at mission control, not in the space capsule, and that would have been just fine with me – but life sent me on a different path.
The computer science field was booming and I managed to land in the right place at the right time to be on the frontier of multiple technology discoveries and programs. After college, I worked for a think-tank, figuring out how to do what “couldn’t be done.” I loved every minute.
By the time we lost Challenger in 1986, I had been gone from Indiana for years and was working for a Silicon Valley company. I always listened to the space launches and I was driving that morning.
I heard the Challenger explode and had to pull over. I was trembling like a leaf and was physically ill.
Indeed, they had prepared for their journey and “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”
The Challenger disaster followed by losing the Columbia and her crew slowed the space program considerably. By that time, humans had already been absent from the moon for a decade.
With less focus on space, the computer science field propelled me in other directions, but I never lost my fascination with and keen interest in the space program.
Another Jim, Another Frontier
A couple years later, I would meet Jim, the man who is now my husband. He grew up in Ohio and he too was watching and listening on that fateful day in 1969. The moon landing inspired him and changed the trajectory of his life too. His chosen field, after that day, was electronics and computer science.
Our life together hasn’t always been geeky-bliss, but you might say that we somewhat resemble two kids visiting Disneyland during our visits to Cape Kennedy and the Johnson Space Center.
In fact, here’s Jim sitting in Apollo 11 Flight Director Gene Kranz’s seat in Houston where Gene said those unforgettable words that NASA literally lives by, “Failure is not an option.” Those have been guiding lights in my life.
In the past couple of years, Dr. Jim, who wasn’t going to go to college before that fateful day, has contributed in a very unique way to the space program. Unfortunately, I can’t expand and brag on him, but I’d love to. Let’s just say that this has been his geeky dream come true and part of his work too has slipped the bonds of earth.
As for me, I found my way to research genetics though the unusual combination of computer science and genealogy. I’ve spent the last 20 years focused on the frontier within, the ultimate space race. This is where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to do with my life, exploring our personal universe gifted by our ancestors.
I found my destiny, my calling, just as the Apollo 11 astronauts found theirs. I wish I could thank them for their life-altering example and incredible inspiration. They sewed the seed in space and watered it with moon-dust.
I’m so grateful that the younger me had no idea of what “couldn’t be done,” just like the astronauts weren’t deterred by what had never been done. They set whatever fear they had aside and persevered.
Today, July 20, 2019, Jim and I along with the millions of others are celebrating that paradigm-shifting epic event of half a century ago. We’re watching space documentaries, making commemorative quilts, listening to 1969 music and having a 1969 buffet. How could we have more fun?!!
Apollo 11 and the moon landing literally inspired and motivated an entire generation, challenging us in perpetuity to literally go where no human had, or has, gone before.
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Roberta, thanks for this blast from the past! I, too, was 13 in the summer of 1969.
Have you been to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex at Cape Canaveral? I made it there in 2006, and it was even better than the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum in D.C.
I guess our fascination with science made it inevitable that we would be drawn to genetic genealogy.
Yes, I love both the space centers. It was all I could do NOT to put a bunch of those pictures in. 😁
Great story. Thanks.
Roberta, thanks for all the MEMORIES!!! I was a young woman, married for three years.
The memory is SO VIVID — looking at the small TV in our small apartment in Northern California — and then switching to look out the WINDOW. It was like I was suspended in a space — not here, not there BUT both here and there.
You are my favorite blogger — the personal stuff, the helpful stuff, the masterful family accounts. You inspire many!!
This is a wonderful story. I turned 14 the day of the moon landing.
Kudos on using “Where no one has gone before” before I could make the reference. =) I kind of figured you’d end the blog with that. But, aren’t you a Jedi master? You said so yourself in one of those Rootstech streams.
That’s okay. We must all coexist. Trekkies, Star Wars fans and Whovians. I say this as I keep an eye on what’s happening at San Diego Comic con.
Obviously, I wasn’t around for the Moon landing as I was born in the late ’70s. My first foray into space exploration (At least the real world kind) was unfortunately the Challenger disaster in 1986.
I remember that day just as clearly as you remember July 20th, 1969.
My parents also remember. They were both in medical school and I think my dad watched the landing. It was definitely a great day. Not just for Americans. But, for all of humanity.
I remember watching a recording of the event in school, though, shortly after the Challenger disaster. That was, I think, an attempt to get a bunch of first graders to think positively about space travel again. After all the teacher who died was from our state. It was sad but it was heartening to know that despite that, we still press on. Hopefully, we continue to do so.
Space exploration always fascinated me and it impacted my writing a bit. Didn’t help that my dad introduced me to science fiction. I hope we continue to do more amazing things out there like landing on Mars or something else. There’s nothing we can’t do if we put our minds to it. Fifty years ago we proved that.
Now let’s boldly go where no man….where no ONE has gone before.
WOW that is quite a post. such great writing of great memories…… I am a tad bit older than you and I was at work.
What a great story. Thank you. I was 12 that summer. Brings back so many memories.
You missed your true calling, as a novelist or maybe even a poet. Very nicely done!
What a beautiful essay, Roberta. Thank you.
Fantastic. Extremely well related.
I was 22 at the time and well remember staying up into the early hours to watch it all unfold. I too have visited both space centres including the Apollo command room near Houston. This week I have thoroughly enjoyed watching many hours of space programmes. Let’s hope that 2024 and more actually happens.
Good Morning Starshine! Roberta Jean Estes, you are exactly where you need to be, right here, right now! Isn’t it just unbelievably awesome that each of us who are reading this great article are connected at this very moment through electronic devices which were totally unknown to anyone a few years ago? Which were made possible by what was learned during our space program? How wonderful that such an account this monumental time in our collective history as remembered and creatively documented by one person, was instantly published and made available to inspire so many! If it were not for our United States’ Space Program….well, just fill in the blank!
I enjoyed see the photos of your dads that you posted too. Thank you so much. We live in an amazing time!!!
A wonderful set of stories, Roberta, all tied together by a unique event. Thank you for sharing.
Wonderful story! Great that you found the perfect calling for you!
Thanks for the memories. There are some events we never forget where we were when they happened. I was 22, married and in San Francisco’s China Town on vacation. My cousin and his wife took us there as they lived in the bay area. People started making a commotion in the street, so we walked into a restaurant with a TV and watched, and then ate as we watched, and we watched more later, and watched the next day at my aunt’s house. Then we traveled farther north to the redwoods, and left TV watching behind. We watched the moon in the sky. The moon landing has always fixed that vacation in northern California on my memory time line when I might have later forgotten what year that happened.
Awesome memories and awesome article about those memories.
I was 8 years old when the moon landing took place…yes I love studying about the stars, moon, and planets in our solar system too. Today I have a telescope and bust it out every once in awhile just to look at the moon wishing I could have been an astronaut and visit the moon.
When the Challenger blew up I was preparing to go to Bootcamp in Orlando Florida…definitely a day to remember and when the Columbia blew up I was stationed in Washington State and definitely another day to remember.
As I look back on my own childhood and my own memories and seen and gone to many places around the world, I think of all those things I have done and seen will definitely be stories that I can pass on to my children.
Thanks for the trip down memory lane. Great article.
Thumbs up …. great story and great story telling.
Marvelous historical story – loved reading about you and Jim and Space! Thanks, Roberta.Hugs\
Roberta, what an outstanding post. I love your blog anyway but this is so special and fun to read. I was 19 and at home alone as my folks and younger siblings were up at our cottage in mid-Michigan. They watched it all on a little portable TV that fortunately had good reception. The guy I was dating celebrated his birthday on July 20. What a great gift for him. I got a little freaked out with your photo of your seashore swimming pool. The city I live in (Dearborn) has its own Sea Shore pool that looked almost identical to the one in your photo before they “modernized” it. My mom had even biked to ours when she was a girl, a trip of about 7-8 miles. Non-residents paid a dime to swim. She said her mom never knew how far away the pool was (but I’d bet that she did know – a mom thing for sure).
Thank you so much for triggering some great memories.
Karen Harper Krumbach