The summer of 1969 was one of the best I ever had in my life. I was a 23 year old lieutenant junior grade in the U.S. Navy, and had just completed my first assignment on the light cruiser, USS SPRINGFIELD based in Norfolk, Virginia. The SPRINGFIELD was the flagship for the Second Fleet and NATO strike force. The duty was life shaping, we traveled all over Europe, the Caribbean, and up and down various ports along the east coast.
I left the SPRINGFIELD on June 18 and headed to New York for a couple of weeks leave before driving to Vallejo, California to begin 11 weeks of Swift Boat training at the Mare Island Naval Station. Only a month away was the planned first landing on the moon, and everyone was talking about it. Excitement was in the air.
I stayed at my mother’s house in Staten Island, got my affairs in order, and on Monday, July 7th, got on the road at 6 a.m. to begin the long, solo drive to California in my used 1965 six cylinder Mustang, stick shift/three on the floor, and no A/C. I arrived in Vallejo on Friday, July 11 sometime that evening. One of my best friends from the SPRINGFIELD and in life, Ken Cozart, was one class ahead of me, and he and two other officers found an apartment five minutes from the base. I made number four.
Reminiscing, I was 11 years old, in sixth grade in October 1957 when the Soviet Union surprised the world in its launching of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to circle the globe. Dwight D. Eisenhower was president at the time, and panic set in. Overnight money was appropriated for education in math and the hard sciences. The government was determined to catch up to the Soviets, and this was the beginning.
Sputnik remained big news at the time, how America had lost its place as the leader in technology, that perhaps communism had more to offer. When I was a boy in Brooklyn, the Reverend Cornelius Greenway, the minister of my church, had one of the most valuable autograph collections in the world. Somehow he got Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to autograph a photo of Sputnik, which made the front page of the New York Times. I don’t know if the secret was ever revealed how Greenway was able to pull this off.
When John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, he committed this country to being the first to put a man on the moon. It was pie in the sky at the time, but it became one of the greatest examples of why the United States of America was the one country with its freedoms, its determination by individuals to succeed, and opportunities to convert ideas into realities. The space race was on, and American ingenuity went to work and succeeded beyond imagination.
On my lonely drive to California, a lot of this was on my mind. One of the things commonly discussed during this period of time was what Neil Armstrong’s first words would be. Would he be so shocked that a string of expletives would spew out of him as he was overwhelmed with awe? Did he have very well-rehearsed phrase or two? Who knew, but it was fun guessing.
On Sunday, July 20th, I got up at 4 a.m. to drive one of my roommates to Mare Island where he would be boarding a bus and a plane for a week of survival school. Came home and returned to bed. Got up at around 11 a.m. and Kenny and I enjoyed a late breakfast. That afternoon we sat outside by the pool, which was right outside my bedroom window, and joined several of the young women who lived in the same small apartment complex. I went back and forth between the small black and white TV inside and the pool to watch the moon landing developments.
At approximately 7 p.m. PDT, I watched as Neil Armstrong became the first human being to walk on the moon and heard his memorable words, “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” We were transfixed. It was one of the most singular and memorable moments of my life. About an hour or so later, Kenny and I hit some of the bars in the area. People were still watching in amazement.
President Nixon, only six months in office, spoke to the nation in words that are not remembered like Neil Armstrong’s. He declared Monday, July 21 a holiday in honor and celebration of the astronauts, the scientists and all who made this “mission impossible” possible. It proved that our system of government, that capitalism and free markets working together with government in one dedicated enterprise, could do the impossible and change the world.
July 20 was a moment in time when Americans came together. There were no political differences that day, no Republicans and no Democrats, and a one day hiatus occurred with Vietnam War protests and civil rights marches — the two big movements of the decade. Time stood still as one giant step for mankind took place, and we were all Americans, proud of our birthright, proud of an accomplishment that was unimaginable only a decade earlier. It was a great time to be alive, to have been present for one of the greatest achievements ever.