The fast approaching 50th anniversary of the successful launch, landing upon the Moon, and recovery of Apollo 11 this week seems an auspicious and fitting occasion to remember my father and some of our times. My father is 87 years old. His name is Skip, and odds are will turn 88 on the 27th of this month. But his health is failing, and he is in hospice care. His mind is still sharp as ever (retired law professor) and he has displayed a remarkable physical tenacity and resilience in his winter years.
My father is dying and I wanted to tell him some of the things that I have learned from him. Since that won't be possible directly, I am writing him – a common and comfortable mode for both of us – an open letter. To my confessors, you, readers of the AVA.
July 1969. 50 years ago this month.
Here is a little context for our younger (and older) readers:
I was 11 years old in 1969, a white American boy growing up in the nice suburbs of LA. Most of me was what they called back then an “all-american boy”, but there was a small but noteworthy streak of juvenile delinquency, which I engaged and indulged to bacchanalian excess with my older brother and our friends. Kyping smokes out of cars, (this was back when people left packs of cigarettes in unopened cars), smoking the occasional joint, (Mexican “dirt-weed”), blowing mailboxes with M-80's—these were a few of our favorite things.
But I also played ball, and was a Cub Scout. I was proud of being a Scout. With my cool uniform, stripes and patches, I was on my way to being just like my Dad. I was a good athlete, and I was bright, though as was sometimes pointed out by authority figures, my application of effort was, ahem, uneven.
I had a younger sister by 3 years and my brother by 3 years older. We had two parents in our house - Patty and Skip. We lived near Topanga Canyon in Los Angeles. A very nice place. Beaches, golden state, hippies and flower children, orange trees and ocean – all of that.
But it was also a place and time with a definite edge. It seems like it was that year, '69, when Charlie Manson got clipped and brought downtown into the old jail, in the Hall of Justice. Before they caught him though, before his capture, he had terrorized what TV news people called “the Southland”. One of their victims was a guitarist who hung out in the Canyon. My brother had known him casually. His name was Gary Hinman, and somehow he got on the wrong side of Manson. So in the land of surfer girls and VW beetles, Charles Manson and his deranged family were operating in the hills all around us. I remember being scared of them.
If not scared, I was certainly intimidated by most of my friends dads. Almost all of them worked at Rocketdyne, a North American Aviation subsidiary that was a prime contractor in the Apollo missions. All of these men looked the same to me. They had very short hair. They all wore short sleeve white shirts with ties. And pocket-protectors. Many wore horn-rimmed glasses. I believe most of those dudes worked on propulsion systems. They used to test fire the big Atlas and Saturn rocket engines on massive concrete pads in the hills just northwest of Chatsworth, almost clear to Simi Valley. Sometimes, at twilight or just after dusk, we would see the glow against the dark Santa Clarita Mountains.
In other parts of Los Angeles, like Downey, other people’s dads were working on the Lunar Modules that the Astronauts would use to descend to the moon, and then blast back off again. If everything worked.
My dad did not work at Rocketdyne, nor did he wear short sleeve white shirts. I was very proud that my Dad worked at UCLA. He was Dean of Foriegn Students. And he had a beautiful and classic sense of style: Harris Tweed coats from Vaughn at Sather Gate, button down oxford shirts with repp ties. And wing tips.
I don’t recall that many, if any, of my friends moms worked outside their homes. We lived in Woodland Hills, a well-off area of generally prosperous LA. My Mom didn't work either, at least not for wages. But that was about to change. Because in 1966, my Mom had begun law school at the San Fernando College of Law, one of eight women in a class of about 160.
She graduated Magna Cum Laude with a JD in 1969. And she went on to a distinguished career as a LA County Public Defender, later elected by her colleagues as President of The California Public Defenders Association. But that was yet to come. In the spring and early summer of 1969, instead of attending my park-league baseball games and my sisters ballet recitals, my mother was preparing to take the toughest bar exam in the nation.
Thus it came to pass that that year, and that year only, my father was going to take his three kids with him that July to the first few days of “Guard camp” up the coast near San Luis Obisbo. This was an annual rite of summer in our house: Two-weeks of active duty training camp every year that he was required to put in the Air Force reserve. My dad was a Major at the time. This time we would go with dad so mom could study for the Bar exam.
This was during the height of the Vietnam war. It is not possible to understand the moon mission without the context of that other American “mission” of the 1960’s. My brother and I knew some older dudes that had been or were going. I was scared of going. I was 11 but positive that it would still be churning along when I came of age. Those same places where my friends' dads worked on Apollo propulsion and guidance systems were also the Nation’s largest defense contractors. And they still are, 50 years on.
The war split our country apart and it split my family too. My father loved the military. My mom hated it. My father's service in the cause of the State was a constant and underlying source of tension in our home. And nothing highlighted his military service more than Guard Camp every year.
Richard Nixon had been sworn in just a few months earlier. Nixon had defeated Hubert Humphrey - barely - in the general election in November of '68. Humphrey’s chances had gone up in smoke in the Chicago Riots attending his nomination at the Democatic Convention. In spite of the damage inflicted, he very nearly beat Nixon. In fact Hubert was closing on Dick fast in the last two weeks. They said if the election had been a week later, even a few days...Well that was just picking at bones. Nixon was president now.
It is an irony of history that Nixon presided ceremoniously over the most visible achievement of his arch-nemesis and doppelganger, John Kennedy. The call JFK made in 1961 for a manned moon landing “before the decade was out”.
I was a little space junkie, reading and watching everything I could about the space missions. I had memorized the sequencing of major mission events that were planned. I remember my parents fairly rolling their eyes as I babbled about trans-lunar docking one night when we went out to eat at El Torito.
Memory is a funny thing. I remember fragments of that July 1969 as if etched in acid on aluminum plates. Of other, equally important events, nothing.
Here is what I will never forget. I will never forget being with my dad, safe in his light blue 1965 Chevrolet Malibu, along with my brother and sister on the 101 northbound. We were somewhere near Santa Maria and listening to KNX, the 50,000 watt megastation that CBS operated in Los Angeles. Walter Cronkite narrated and interjected along with the live voices of the Astronauts as they descended to the moon. I remember being acutely aware of the historical significance of the event and that I was alive for it. I was looking around at other cars to see if they were listening too. I was certain they were. The static-laced voices on the radio calling out numbers, 40, 30 and then, suddenly:
Static and silence. Followed by Armstrong's voice clear and distinct — “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
I whooped. I raised my hands and bounced up and down on the seat. I looked over at the other cars to see those people celebrating as well.
And I remember the moon walk the next day. We were staying at the Motel 6 in San Luis. And it was on a coin operated pay TV in that Motel 6 that I watched the spectral images of Armstrong descending that ladder. The pictures were captured and transmitted to earth by a TV camera that Armstrong had remotely deployed prior to stepping out of the hatch.
And that is all. I have no memory of the blast-off from the Moon, the return to Earth, the splashdown, or the recovery. But I do remember seeing Richard Nixon welcoming and lauding the returning heroes. That was aboard the USS Hornet, the Navy warship that was the recovery vessel. In an odd way it was fitting that Nixon, always faintly ill-at-ease among people, would have to perform this duty in a very sterile manner: Horning in on the glory, he was forced to congratulate the Astronauts in a staged photo-op from outside the Airstream trailer where they were quarantined. It was still early space days, and the pointy heads were not sure if the spacemen might bring some unknown microbes back home. So they kept them apart from other humans for a couple of weeks.
One month later, my mom passed the bar. On the first try.