Apollo 11 Anniversary Brings Back Memories

By: Roger Sheppard
By: Roger Sheppard

Of one boy's adventure to Florida and back

This week’s 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing brings back many memories.

Forty years ago, I was 15 years old and an absolute space nut. (Other than being 40 years older, the space nut part remains!)
A friend of mine, Paul Taylor, and I hatched a plan in late 1968 early 1969 to go to Florida by bus to watch the launch of Apollo 11. He spoke to his folks and I spoke to my Mom. They both said “OK, if you can raise the money.” I’ve always assumed that they believed we’d give up, lose interest, or fail to raise the necessary money.
About a month or so before the scheduled July launch date, Paul’s parents finally realized we were serious and told him he was NOT going to Florida to see the launch. I was devastated. When I told my Mom, she said “Well, if he’s not going, you’re not going.” A perfectly logical answer, but not what I wanted to hear.
I begged, pleaded, and cajoled. I reminded her of how hard I had worked to raise the money and how important this was to me. I don’t recall if this pleading went on for hours or days, but eventually she said “Well, if you can get the mayor or the police chief to make you a hotel reservation (this was in the days long before the internet, of course) I’ll let you go.”
I’ve often wondered if my Mom trusted me completely or had a huge life insurance policy on me! We’ve talked over the years about how she let her youngest child undertake this adventure on his own. I marvel at her taking that risk and trusting that everything would be OK. I don’t know that I could be that trusting. Thanks, Mom!
I contacted the mayor of Cocoa, Florida and he helped me make a reservation.
I caught a Greyhound bus at the old bus station on 5th Street in Parkersburg on July 13 or thereabouts. I met lots of interesting people on the 27-hour journey to Cocoa, Florida. I met an African-American lady in the bus station in Charleston, WV. I had to use the restroom and I asked her if she would watch my suitcase while I went. She said yes. When I came back we sat and talked. Finally she asked me “Are you from England?” I said “No, I’m from Parkersburg!” She said “You sound like you’re from England or somewhere!” I assume that must have come from my having listened to so many Beatles recordings in the previous few years!
In the Carolinas, I spent a lot of time talking with one young serviceman as the bus rolled down the road, until an attractive young lady got on the bus and suddenly he preferred to sit with her rather than me. Funny.
Finally, I got to Florida. I found my way to the hotel, which was a short walk from the bus station. It was pretty seedy. And Hot. And not air conditioned. I was pretty naïve at 15, but even then, I had the sneaking suspicion the hotel was making more money by the hour than it was by the night!
But from its rooftop, you could see launches from Cape Kennedy pretty well, from a distance of probably 15 miles or more.
After checking in at the hotel, I went for a walk outside. The first thing I saw was a palm tree…with a monkey in it! I thought that was odd. I assume it was someone’s pet that had gotten loose.
On July 15, the day before the launch, I took a guided tour of Cape Kennedy. We visited the Verticle Assembly Building, the huge square building where rockets (and later the space shuttles) were put together prior to being rolled out to the launch pad. We were able to see the Apollo 13 rocket being put together to get ready for its launch (and near fatal journey to the moon) several months later.
On the morning of the launch, I climbed the stairs and ladders to the roof of the hotel so I could see Apollo 11 go up. When the countdown hit zero, I could see the fireball underneath the massive rocket, even from that distance. And then, I watched the fireball and plume climb skyward. It wasn’t until it was high in the sky, and arcing southward, that you could hear the roar. And it remained audible long after the spacecraft went out of sight.
I later learned that two Parkersburg men, whom I would get to know in later years, were in Florida for the launch, too, along with maybe millions of other folks. Photographers Dave Ferrell and Harry Barnett were there as official photographers. I have seen Harry’s photos of the launch and they were incredible. I think one may be on the wall at Colombo’s restaurant. I wish I had known them then. Perhaps I could have hung out with them and seen the launch from their vantage point. Oh well.
Later that day or first thing in the morning, I got back on a Greyhound and headed home. Another 27 hours later and I was back in Parkersburg, in plenty of time to see the actual landing live on TV the night of July 20.
Quite an adventure for someone my age. You might say it was “one small step for a man…but one giant leap for a 15-year-old.”
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