I was standing on a sea wall along the Indian River, maybe 18 miles away. It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen in my entire, young life. As much as anything else, I remember the sound rolling in from across the water with a low, violent vibrato that rattled car windows for miles. Nothing man has produced in the last forty years can come close to rivalling the launch of a Saturn V booster for sheer spectacle.
On that particular Wednesday morning, I considered myself one very lucky 10-year old.
A month earlier our family had settled into a rented house in Clermont – maybe 70 miles from the coast – after moving to Florida from northern Kentucky. My Dad was a high-school science teacher, so it was a foregone conclusion that we would try to attend the launch of mankind’s first attempt at a Moon landing.
Forty years ago, Florida wasn’t quite the fancy place it is today. State Road 50 was still a two-lane highway that bumped and rattled through orange groves and on into Orlando. In pre-Disney days Orlando featured a lot of fruit packers, McCoy Air Force Base and the Naval Training Center.
Eastward out of Orlando, State Road 528 had not yet become the Bee-Line (nowadays “Beach Line”) Expressway. The drive from Clermont to Titusville was not the high-speed run familiar to modern drivers. Travelling from the center of the state to the coast took a bit of time and, occasionally, a Rand-McNally road map.
No matter. Both of my parents worked in the school system, so we typically spent summers travelling anyway. We loaded up our Rambler station wagon the evening before and drove over to find ourselves a wide spot in the road to spend the night.
Times have changed, haven’t they? A1A wasn’t wall-to-wall condos and restaurants, and nobody had much of a problem with people just pulling off onto the shoulders or turn-outs to spend the night in their Dodge vans, VW combis and station wagons.
That evening we found a nice place to park about 100 yards north of a Shell gas station. ‘Convenience stores’ weren’t quite in vogue, but we did manage to snag a few cold drinks and use the johns before calling it a night. I remember the owner telling us that because of the anticipated crowds, he was planning to stay open all night. We stood out in front of the station for a while, chatting with the owner while we all stared across the river at the brightly-lit launch complex.
Shell also had some promotions going to mark the “Moonshot”. Dad bought me a cardboard cut-out Lunar Lander that I fiddled with by flashlight in the back of the Rambler until it was time to scoot into the back and go to sleep.
The decision to head over to the coast half a day before the scheduled 9:30 a.m. launch turned out to be a good one. By the time we started stirring around just after sunrise, A1A was curb-to-curb with parked cars. We trooped down to the Shell station for another toilet break and some more cold drinks, then chowed down on whatever we had lugged along in our trusty Coleman cooler.
Memory is a funny thing. There are some images from that morning that I’ll never forget. Sunrise cast a hazy, purplish hue over the whole scene – parked cars lining both sides of A1A as far as I could see. A few people were already sitting on a sea wall across the highway on the other side of a grassy clearing. The enormous Saturn V rocket in the distance, shimmering like a desert mirage as the July sun began to drive away the morning dew. The pungence of the nearby ocean mingling with the wet aroma of new-mown grass and the occasional whiff of auto exhaust.
Hundreds and hundreds of people along the waterfront all screaming “Go! Go! Go!” as the biggest damn rocket ever built blasted its way into the sky.
Other things I don’t remember at all. How hot was it? I don’t know. It was July, so it must have been pretty steamy. At the time, I think I could have cared less. Were all of those hundreds of people lining A1A paying visits to the gas station’s toilets, or was there something else around for public ‘convenience’? I have no idea. Fiberglass chemical toilets were still a thing of the future. Maybe there was a hotel or something in the neighborhood. All I remember, though, is A1A, a jam of parked cars, the grassy lot and the sea wall.
I wish I had some photos from that day. Unfortunately my Dad – the one-time professional photographer – decided to capture the Big Event with a Bolex Super 8 movie camera. I have no idea what happened to that film. If he kept it at all over the years it likely would have been part of the rusty lump of ruined movie reels I found when I cleaned out his workshop storage after he passed away.
Not that it really matters. Mere images – even moving images – couldn’t possibly hold a candle to the memories captured by a 10-year-old boy on the day men first set forth to land on the Moon.