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VOL. 43 | NO. 30 | Friday, July 26, 2019

Remembering the day man walked on the moon

By Tom Wood

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Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, described his walk of the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, as “magnificent desolation.”

Fifty years later, we of a certain age have magnificent memories of Neil Armstrong’s first descent onto the moon and declaring it was “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Much like social media today, the landing was a shared experience for people around the globe. Over the past weeks, people have used various platforms to tell when and where they were when man first walked on the moon. Starting with my own, here are a few Nashville-area remembrances of that historic occasion.

‘Go, go, go’

Four days before the moon landing, I was an eyewitness to the July 16 launch of Apollo 11 along with my father, relatives from North Carolina, and more than 1 million other people along the beaches, highways and byways near Cape Canaveral.

We lived in Largo, Florida, at the time and drove across state three days before the launch. We kept driving and driving until we could get no closer, and found a spot to camp along the Indian River.

We were probably 8-10 miles from the launchpad, and could see Apollo 11 with our binoculars. It was a fun time bonding with our family and my Uncle Ray recalled us watching “moonfish” jump out of the water.

As bright and sunny as it was that morning, it was like staring at the sun when Apollo streaked into the heavens at 9:32 a.m.

The rolling thunder of the launch was matched by the roaring voices of people around us as Apollo 11 climbed higher and higher into the cobalt blue sky.

I remember hearing my dad’s voice – probably all of us – screaming, “go, go, go” as smiles spread across every face. I recall both the concern and the pride all of us felt as Armstrong walked the moon.

Military memories

Major Gen. Carl Schneider USAF (ret.) says he was in charge of flying operations at the base at Valdosta, Georgia, thinking about his close friend Aldrin, who he helped steer into the NASA space program.

Now, 91, he lives in Thompson’s Station.

After flying combat missions in Korea, they were both flight instructors at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas. A few years later, they were stationed together in Germany, Schneider as squadron operations officer and Aldrin his A-Flight commander.

“We used to go down to Africa in the winter and we decided we’d explore the Roman ruins from Tunisia to Egypt in the southern Mediterranean on the weekends,” recalls Schneider, who has written several books about his flying experiences.

“One night, we knew that the Russians had put up a space capsule of some kind, and we saw Sputnik go over. I turned to Buzz and said, ‘You know, someday we’re going to put folks out in space, and you ought to be one of them.’

“I said, ‘You’re a West Point graduate, you’re a good pilot,’ and long story short, he decided that rather than go to test pilot school, he wanted to back and get his Ph.D. at MIT in astronautics.

“So I wrote him some strong letters, as did some other people, and we got him into MIT. I’ve stayed in touch with Buzz through the years and we meet together, so that’s my relationship with Buzz.”

Larry Woody, an award-winning Nashville journalist, was about halfway through his one-year tour of duty in Vietnam as a combat rifleman in the 199th Light Infantry when Apollo 11 landed on the moon.

“I was in the jungle in ‘Nam during the moon landing and didn’t know about it until a week or so later when mail was dropped off with some newspapers. At the time I was more interested in life on earth (mine) than life in space,” says Woody, a longtime Tennessean sports writer and columnist who now writes for the Nashville Ledger and other publications.

Columbia author Bill Woods was a pilot-in-training at Craig Air Force Base in Selma, Alabama, crowded around a small television set “with what seemed like a hundred other cadets like myself, just glued to the TV watching it transpire. It just seemed like such a surreal thing for somebody to actually do that,” says Woods, author of the recently published “Orient Beach’’ and other books.

“There’s not many memories that stick in my mind like a photograph – the Kennedy assassination, 9/11, and the moon landing. You could just feel the pride, and so much awe.

“We’d talked about this for 10 years and I don’t think anybody ever really thought it would happen. But it did. And here we were, young pilots, and those people up there were pilots – cadets not too long before us. The possibilities at that moment just seemed endless.”

Birthday bashes

Sharing your birthday with the moon landing anniversary is a little like being born on Christmas or any other major holiday, says country music star T.G. Sheppard and former Belmont basketball star Joe Behling, who were both born on July 20 – 23 years apart.

Sheppard just turned 75, Behling 52.

“I’ll never forget that night of watching that happen. It is still embedded in my brain,” says Sheppard, who celebrated his 25th birthday on the extraordinary day in 1969. “We all remember where we were on certain days and what we were doing. And for me, of course it being my birthday, I remember so well where I was when I saw the moon landing.”

Sheppard was in the record promotion business in 1969, a few years away from launching his own recording career that included 21 No. 1 hits over four decades.

“I was in Memphis at the time. I stepped into the lobby of a hotel because I was just trying to get to a TV set,” recalls Sheppard, who currently hosts a SiriusXM radio show from Graceland each Friday on Elvis Radio and will release a new album in September.

“I saw a TV set in the lobby, and there were people gathered around it, and we stood there and we watched that historic event happen. And it just happened to be on my birthday … I think the party was the celebration of America landing on the moon.”

Behling, a former Belmont basketball star center from 1987-90 where he was a three-time NAIA All-American, says he’s always had “a fascination” with astronomy and space travel, and bragged to fellow school kids about being born on that moon date.

“I was born in 1967, so I don’t necessarily remember that (landing), but I’ve just always had a pretty strong interest in that as well. It’s just an interesting coincidence, being born on July 20,” adds Behling, who now is an instructional numeracy coach at Robert Churchwell Elementary School.

“I don’t know if it was providence or whatever, but I’ve always just really been interested in that story and the exploration of space.”

Would he like to venture into space himself?

“Absolutely. Unfortunately, I’m 6-7, so the cramped quarters may get me,” Behling says, laughing. “I’d love to be able to just even attain orbit around the earth, but unfortunately with my size, I think it would be a little harder on me than it would be for the average man.”

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