Thanks to Smithsonian magazine and NASA’s meticulous timeline of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, I have finally reconstructed how I happened to be sitting in a warehouse in New York City when Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. And although the Apollo flight coincided with my own flight a bit, there were some distinct differences.
Luckily their flight was recorded in Greenwich Mean Time, as was my flight log. Apollo 11 lifted off at 13:32 GMT on July 16, 1969. At that hour I was sleeping peacefully in the high country of Yosemite National Park. My “liftoff” from San Francisco in a Flying Tiger Lines freighter came four days later at 05:30 GMT. Accustomed to the more edible meals I served to troops on FTL transports to the Far East, I was not impressed by the can of petrified C-ration cookies provided when we landed briefly in Detroit.
To celebrate their successful landing, Armstrong and Aldrin had indulged in ham-salad sandwiches and fruit strips.
As they accomplished numerous checks and experiments prior to exiting the Lunar Module, I flew on to Newark, New Jersey, and was driven to New York City for a mandatory overnight break.
Meanwhile, back at Mission Control, the people who had worked for years to accomplish their mission were each tensely awaiting the result of their efforts.
Among them were those responsible for the safety of the spacesuits. The Smithsonian article commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first moonwalk described how Sonny Reihm, in charge of that aspect of the mission, was in a fret the entire time the pair were outside the lunar module, afraid that something would puncture the meticulously designed and fabricated spacesuits. According to the article, Reihm recalled “When they went back up that ladder and shut that door, it was the happiest moment of my life.”
Flying Tiger Lines was not as concerned about safety: Our uniforms were bright orange mini-dresses, with a zipper down the front and a zipper-pull the size of a rip cord. We typically safety-pinned the pull from the inside. Low-tech, but effective.
As the time approached for that amazing first moonwalk, I wandered around a landscape nearly as alien to me. New York City was amazing, the people were friendly and helpful, but finally it was time to head back to the hotel.
I hailed a taxi. The driver, a fairly young man, had a request. He had been busy with fares all evening, and REALLY wanted to watch the first moonwalk. I recall he said that there would only be one first (an obvious statement, in some ways, but said with such emphasis it was obvious it meant a lot to him). Would I mind if we stopped by his apartment for a few minutes?
Yeah. I know what you’re thinking. However, I wasn’t thinking it. “OK.”
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His “apartment,” it turned out, was on the third floor of an apparently abandoned warehouse. In the middle of a vast open space sat a grand piano, bass, drums and other miscellaneous instruments. Seated around a small television were his “roommates,” apparently all musicians. They were watching the moonwalk in silence. Occasionally one would get up and start playing the bass, or the piano and others would join in briefly, then they would sit down and watch some more.
It was warm, though I don’t recall it being oppressively so, and I sat in the frame of an open window. Across the alley was a man on a fire escape landing. In a sleeveless T-shirt and with a beer in his hand, he seemed an iconic summertime New Yorker to my inexperienced eyes.
Relieved that he had been able to see at least a part of the moonwalk, the cabdriver took me back to the hotel.
The next morning I flew out of McGuire AFB in New Jersey and a couple of hours later, the Lunar Module took off from the moon.
Over the next few days, as Apollo 11 flew through the comparative emptiness of space, I flew to Alaska and Japan. After their splashdown I made various flights to Cam Rahn Bay and Bien Hoa, Vietnam, Washington, New York and California.
The Apollo 11 crew was released from quarantine on Aug. 10. I continued to fly a couple of weeks longer, but by August 27, I was back in the high country of Yosemite. That was the day NASA shut down the EASEP (Early Apollo Surface Experiments Package), which had been left behind when Apollo 11 took off.
That was the day I went down to Yosemite Valley and phoned in my resignation to Flying Tigers.
Lyndel Meikle lives in the Deer Lodge area.