July 16, 1969

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.

The Big Event

The Big Event

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.

Peace, equality and 1,000-pound bombs

Since Monday was the ‘official’ MLK day, I’d like to briefly depart the topic of wargaming and write about something more appropriate for a bank/government holiday that celebrates the memory of a man dedicated to peace and equality.

Yep. On Saturday I took Junior Destructo Man 3.75 over to the Ocala airport and let him get a good, close look at three old warbirds that had been flown in for the weekend. To me, nothing says peace and equality quite like the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator.

B-17G visits Ocala

B-17G visits Ocala

A P-51 Mustang was also on display, but turns out it wasn’t really in ‘warbird’ condition. It was more sporterized in a modern, air-racing sort of way – except for the fact that they’d added a second seat so they could sell ‘flying lessons’ for the tidy sum of $2200 per half hour. I didn’t see any takers.

The airport’s smallish terminal was crowded with Old Guys showing off Old Stuff at their trinkets tables. As befits what was essentially a charity event (Keeping those old planes flying isn’t cheap), the grounds outside the terminal featured the usual weenie and funnel-cake vendors.

The bombardier's station

The bombardier position

But the two old bombers were the centerpieces of the show. To my untrained eyes they were in very good condition for sextagenarian former members of the Aluminum Overcast. Since I don’t at all mind throwing a bit of financial support at a good cause, I ponied up the $18 so that Juanco and I could clamber around inside the old bombers.

Looking forward from the bomb-bay

Looking forward from the bomb-bay

Despite the fact that I’m a history buff and an aviation enthusiast, until Saturday I had never set foot inside a flying model of either aircraft. Warbird shows and visits to air museums have come and gone, but for some reason I had never taken advantage of any of those opportunities. This time I figured that the few flying big warbirds that remain likely won’t be flying for very many more years, so it was time to get on in there and take a look around.

Hey, the kid could fit

Hey, the kid could fit

My first observation is that airmen back in the 1940s probably weren’t quite my size. Juan Carlos – being just a shade over three feet tall – didn’t have any problems getting around, but for me it was a tight squeeze. In my defense, I’ll note that I am leaner than I used to be (although hardly ‘lean’) so it was more an issue of shoulders than of waist. [Yes. I am the stereotypical broad-shouldered man-stud for the New Century.]

We climbed in the nose hatch of the B-17, which landed us right behind the bombardier position and below the pilots’ stations. In order to access the rest of the aircraft, we clambered up between the two pilots’ seats. From there, a knee-knocker (for me, anyway) of a bulkhead door gave entrance to the smallish cabin with the radio and navgear and the top gun turret. A narrow catwalk through the bomb-bay lead back to the aft cabin with the stations for the ball-turret, waist guns and other doodads.

Another view of the B-17

Another view of the B-17

The B-17 was considered a large aircraft when it was designed, but throughout our little tour I was struck by how small it was in comparison to contemporary heavy-lifters. As I sqwaddled along the bomb-bay catwalk I thought “This is all?” – because I somehow imagined I would find a space much bigger. But I guess that’s all the space needed for the six- to eight-thousand pound payloads the aircraft typically carried.

Think about that for a moment: Thousands upon thousands of times during the war, the ten-man crews aboard B-17s risked their lives (and all too often lost them) in order to drop maybe six or eight thousand-pounders on their enemies. Yeah, they were smaller than me – but they had a lot more guts, I think.

A look at the Liberator

A look at the Liberator

After knocking and banging my way through the B-17, the moderately more spacious B-24J was something of an anti-climax. We entered through the aft hatch in the bottom of the aircraft. The aft area where the tail-gunner held court was off-limits – much to the disappointment of the gray-haired former tail-gunner I encountered who wanted to see if he could still fit in his one-time flying office space.

In the B-24, we only had access to the aft compartment. It’s a bit taller space than on the B-17, and it also includes access to the ball-turret. I’ve always read that ball-turret gunners were typically the smallest men in the aircrew, and after getting a look at one of the gizmos up-close now I understand why. The turret hatch was closed, of course, but it was pretty easy for me to figure out by simple measurement that I probably couldn’t squeeze into it much beyond my knees. I don’t think it was two feet wide.

The B-24's spacious accommodations

The B-24 - spacious accommodations

The area forward of the bomb-bay was also off-limits to the tour, so we had to exit through the bomb-bay. Some steps down were thoughtfully provided. Unfortunately, there were some structural supports mid-bay on the catwalk – and they were spaced too narrowly for my big butt to squeeze through. I could squeeze between similar supports on the B-17, but on the B-24 there was less vertical space and I had to squat in the bomb-bay. The combination of my knees poking out one way and my big butt poking out the other way killed the deal. My kid easily made it to the steps and hopped down, but it was obvious I wasn’t going to get that far.

So. Bombs away. I had to jump out the bomb bay.

Not quite a thousand-pounder, fortunately.

Holiday travel, circa 1968

Maybe it’s a little odd, but I’m a child of the 1960s and I can’t help myself. On this Christmas Eve, at least for a while, my thoughts turn from the usual holiday preparations and onto one of the singular events I remember from my childhood.

Forty years ago today, the world changed forever.

On Christmas Eve, 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 was in orbit around the moon – the first humans to slip away from the Earth’s tight grasp and look back across the lonely void at their distant, verdant home world. The images that they sent back to the then-largest-ever live television audience were startling and starkly beautiful.

Our fragile world revealed

Our fragile world revealed

From that moment forward, the Earth would never seem quite the same to us. Our planet – all water and rock and concrete and steel from our perspective here ‘dirtside’ – suddenly appeared small and fragile, a tiny island of life floating in the middle of absolutely nothing. The philosophical impact of the first images of a distant Earth are still being felt to this day. People too young to remember (or not then born) may not realize the impact Apollo 8′s imagery has had on their lives.

Volumes have been written about the topic and time is short today, so I’ll leave it to you to Google around and get educated. But while you’re Googling (or whatever), I would also like to ask you to pause for a moment to consider the courage shown by the three men who volunteered to have themselves blasted out into that place where, truly, “no man had gone before.” You want heroes? Here are three of them:

Frank Borman, William Anders and Jim Lovell - the crew of Apollo 8

Frank Borman, William Anders and Jim Lovell - the crew of Apollo 8

In closing their broadcast that Christmas Eve long ago, the crew read the opening verses of Genesis – which mankind listened to, for the first time, with a new understanding and insight:

William Anders 

“We are now approaching lunar sunrise and, for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

Jim Lovell 

“And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.

Frank Borman 

“And God said, Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.

And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

History in a box

Most of the time when I use the term “history in a box”, I’m talking about wargames. But today I mean a different kind of history – real historical documentation, this time in a box full of old photographs.

A few days back I posted a photo of USS Staten Island that my Dad took when he was a Navy photographer. I’ve got a box full of ‘em, mostly from the ship’s 1953 Arctic cruise, but a few of them from 1952. When he was leaving the service Dad originally had a lot more photos, negatives, chromes and 16mm movie reels. Unfortunately, hardly any of them remained after his car was broken into just outside Boston Navy Yard.

I’ve seen more than the photos I have in my possession, including a journal or two stuffed with photos and tall tales from the far North. But I haven’t seen them in years and I’ve no idea where they might have gotten off to after Dad passed away a couple of years ago.

Arctic cruise yearbook, 1953

Arctic cruise yearbook, 1953

Just to show off a bit of my history in a box, I’m going to toss up a few images. The first is the cover from a thin staple-bound booklet – sort of a yearbook – that’s packed with photos from the 1953 Arctic cruise of AGB-5. Truth be told, the cover treatment reminds me of the same paper stock that was used in my similarly staple-bound yearbook from junior high school about 20 years later. Small world.

Next are scans of a couple of pages from the cruise yearbook. These cover Operation Mushrat – the launch of high-altitude sounding rockets from balloon platforms. While the “Rockoon” program pioneered by James A. Van Allen is documented in a number of places, little coverage is given to the ships and crews that performed that actual launches. I’ve found a few fleeting sources on the Internet that date the launches and platforms, but even some of those are in error.

Mushrat: Sounding rockets launched from USS Staten Island

Mushrat: Sounding rockets launched from USS Staten Island in 1953

In a couple of sources that I’ve found, the 1953 launch program is credited to the USCGC Eastwind WAGB-279, a sister ship of Staten Island (which later became WAGB-278 in Coast Guard service). I think this yearbook makes it pretty clear that USS Staten Island was the launch platform for at least part of the 1953 firing program (there were about 19 or 20 launches during the summer of 1953).

I don't think Mushrat was popular with the crew

Man-handling a sounding rocket aboard USS Staten Island in 1953

Just setting the record straight. And it still looks darned cold.

Just another American story

November 11, 1918 found Rutherford B. Edwards laid up in a military hospital in Kansas. About six weeks earlier, the corporal in the US 1st Infantry Division had gotten a whiff of either phosgene or mustard gas when his crappy issue gas mask had failed during a German gas attack. He never made much of an effort to find out exactly what had happened – he was just damned happy to be alive.

After his discharge from the hospital (and from the Army) some months later, “Red” (so nicknamed because of his thick, red hair) didn’t immediately head back east to his hometown of Ashland, Kentucky. He was a brother or two down the totem pole from taking over the family farm, jobs were scarce back home in the post-war wind-down and, besides, there was an influenza epidemic raging that he figured somebody with gas-damaged lungs should probably try to avoid.

Kansas and neighboring states still offered plenty of opportunity to work in the wide-open spaces, so Red knocked around a bit working farm jobs, punching cows and mending fences. A lot of Great War veterans did essentially the same thing – just with different details in different parts of the country – because it was difficult for them to settle in to work-a-day America after what they had just been through.

War has never been a pleasant experience for those on the pointy end, but World War I was warfare as men had never before seen. The tools and systems of industrialization enabled slaughter on an unimaginable scale. Mass conscription kept the technological abattoir freshly stocked, and simultaneously insured that tens of thousands of survivors were exposed to war’s most soul-shattering horrors.

In 1919 they didn’t call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but many veterans wrestled with the horror just the same. Fortunately Red had a good religious grounding and a common-sense understanding of human nature that helped him cope. He knew other men who weren’t so fortunate, however, so until his dying day he thanked God that he always had the ability to face his wartime experience and not allow it to dominate his life.

Red had a gal back home, but he wasn’t able to lure her westwards. When the American Rolling Mill Company announced construction of a new plant in Ashland in 1920, Red headed back home to take both a steady job and a wife.

By the time I came along, my granddad Edwards was already 70 or thereabouts and long-retired from Armco Steel. “Papaw” always carried a bit of the war around with him – although no one else in his family would really ever know it.

Except for me, anyway. He had plenty of grand-children (6, I think), but I guess of them all I was the best listener. I wonder to this day if he thought I understood what he was talking about all those afternoons we spent sitting on that old concrete culvert down on the back of his property. My guess is that he knew, at least a little bit, his experiences would help shape my view of the world.

So today, as on every Veteran’s Day, it’s with a mixture of awe and sadness that I think about my Papaw Edwards and all of the veterans who stood for their country during the Great War and in every American war since.

I am awed by their courage and their sacrifice. And I am saddened that the War to End All Wars… wasn’t – and that none of the wars since then have been, either.

Some thoughts on Veterans Day

On November 11, 1918, The War to End All Wars came to a conclusion when a general armistice between the Central Powers and the Entente went into effect.


Hmm. The War to End All Wars. That didn’t exactly work out, did it?


Americans have fought in many wars since then. And the other day, while I was stuck in traffic behind a Hummer with a “Support Our Troops” bumper sticker, it occurred to me that as a nation we have odd ways of supporting our veterans.


Generally speaking, we crap on them. We’ve been crapping on them for a long time, in fact. I’m not very well read on anything earlier, but I know plenty of Civil War veterans were crapped on. I know lots of World War I veterans were crapped on – in fact, wasn’t it our old buddy Doug MacArthur who chased them around Washington, DC with some bayonet-toting troopers? That’s a hell of a thank-you.


On Saturday I bundled Junior Destructo Man off to a model train show at the National Guard Armory here in town. He wasn’t so much interested in the large vendor section, but he was fascinated by the two working layouts they had setup in one of the side rooms. He stood and watched the larger scale train (S-Gauge?) for maybe 20 minutes before he even blinked. It didn’t help that the thing went “chug-chug” and “toot-toot” when the operator pushed a button on his transformer console. Bloody hell, I suppose I see what the future replacement for Thomas the Tank Engine will be.


What’s all of this got to do with Veterans Day?


Well, as we were leaving the building there were a couple of railroaders standing around, talking loudly (half deaf from the train whistles, I suppose). One of them was expounding on the proper treatment of military veterans.


“I was in the Marines in Vietnam, and when I came home they [crapped] on me,” one of them announced. “All these whiners today need to just shut up. We’re going to [crap] on them, too.”


Juan Carlos, of course, is a sponge for new sounds so I hope at some point in the near future I don’t have to talk him out of shouting [crap] at the top of his lungs. Be that as it may, it was just kind of sad (and a bit aggravating) to hear a veteran express such resignation. Or was it something more base? I had it crappy, so you’re going to have it crappy too. That would be even more sad.


Obviously, the politicians out there didn’t keep their heads down during the Sunday and Monday events that mark Veterans Day. They should have gone into hiding instead of parading around spouting off a bunch of [crap]. The way we treat our veterans is a national embarrassment.


It is our shame as a nation that a millionaire (as most of them are) can squat on his ass in the well-guarded US Senate for six years and then collect more retirement bennies (which he likely doesn’t really need) than a service veteran who, let’s say for example, has had his leg blown off in the defense of our country.


But back to the train show.


I had parked my pickup truck off to the side of the Armory building. About 30 feet away on the grass sat what remained of a decommissioned Sherman tank – you know the kind of junkchunk they usually park around Guard armories.


“Daddy, whazzat?” Juan Carlos asked. About 20 times in the span of ten seconds.


So I walked over to the rusting green junk pile, and talked to my two-year-old for a few minutes about what it once had been, and the brave men who had served in it and the evil they had defeated. And I thought about my Dad, who served in the Navy; my Papaw Edwards, the gentleman-farmer who fought in the Great War and about all of the other veterans I’ve known over the years who are now gone from this Earth.


God Bless them all. I’ll try to do better for them.