The Moon Shot: Part I

A rocky road to the Cape

by Juan Wilson

(C) The Gobbler: Bounty 1994

Chrysler Building as seem from Empire State Building, New York City 1969

It was the summer of 1969. My friend Ralph and I had just finished our second year at The Cooper Union School of Architecture. We both lived near the school in tenement walkups in the lower east side of Manhattan.

These tenements were crowded, stifling brick ovens in summer, so we were looking for any excuse to leave town. Neither of us had full-time jobs for the summer, so we had time to spend seeking out inexpensive adventures.

In late June, we found a notice at the school about sharing a ride to Florida with an alumnus, a graduated chemical engineer named David. He was looking for two guys to join him in attending the liftoff of Apollo 11 in Florida in mid July.

This space voyage was scheduled to culminate with the first manned landing on the moon and we were definitely interested. We copied his number and phoned him.

David met us the next afternoon in downtown Manhattan. He looked a bit like a NASA engineer himself. He was small, clean shaven, crewcut and in his mid-thirties.

He wore a white short-sleeved polyester drip-dry shirt with black narrow dacron tie. He had a loaded pen-guard in his shirt pocket and carried a narrow plastic briefcase.

We, on the other hand, were long-haired, bearded "hippies" with appropriate loose fitting colorful clothing from various third-world countries. We figured this guy was some kind of techno-nerd who would be polite but never ride with two "freaks" to Florida.

David, it turned out, was from South Africa. He had a wicked accent that sounded almost Australian. He worked for Exxon in one of their laboratories in northern New Jersey. We figured he was probably designing a new charcoal briquette lighter or a cheaper jungle defoliant for Exxon.

On the face of it there seemed no way we could stay within arm's reach of each other for a week, right? Well, in the first of many surprises,

David took a liking to us right away, and he was infectiously likable himself. His humor was sharp, especially when trained on stereotypes of engineers or himself.

The three of us sitting in a Manhattan coffee shop and making plans must have looked like a scene out of "My Three Sons Meet The Partridge Family". However it looked, by the time we went home we were all "Go" for the trip.

Our plan was to leave from New Jersey early enough to get a good camping spot in Florida from which to see the Saturn V liftoff on July 17th.

As of Friday the 12th, David had a week off work and Ralph and I were as free as birds.

We decided to leave on the 13th. Not having a camera, I brought a notebook and some felt-tip pens to draw things of interest along the way.

We got to Dave's rented suburban split-level in Mahwah, New Jersey, at about noon on Saturday. To me there is usually something odd about a family house rented to a single person. This place was no exception.

Our tour came to an end in the garage and in front of the car we would be riding in for the long trip south. It was then Ralph and I had our first doubts about the trip.

The car was a 1956 Chrysler convertible; a year short of qualification as an antique. It shined under a new Simonize job, but it was old.

As Dave proudly explained, it was a big V-8 in mint condition with all the extras. Automatic transmission, power steering, electric windows, power outside mirrors, and power seat control. Interpretation: lots of things to go wrong.

Nevertheless, Dave assured us it was in great shape and quite capable of a 3,000 mile round trip through ninety plus degree weather.

At 2 p.m. we left from Dave's, heading south on Route 17. Yes, this is a continuation of the Southern Tier Expressway ( Route 17) that runs through our backyards here in Chautauqua County, but in New Jersey it's is a commercial strip. There the road is bordered by discount furniture places, frozen custard stands and high-tension power lines.

By 3:30 in the afternoon of July 13th we were off 17 and onto I-95 in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and I was sketching water towers and overpasses. I-95 stretches from Florida to Maine, and is the main connection between Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

Water tower off I-95 north of Washington DC. Saturday 7:15 p.m. July 12th 1969

We did not stop until 8 p.m. when we got hungry. This was a little below Washington, D.C., in Virginia. It was dusk, in that moment just before the mercury arc lamps sense the darkness. We bought sodas from a machine and ate some sandwiches from brown bags.

The evening sky was violet with a few streaks of pink stratus clouds. Tourists were actually barbecuing at the rest stop picnic benches that evening as the mercury arc lamps ignited.

The old V-8 had hummed smoothly for five hours. With three of us able to drive, we calculated that we could run that Chrysler around the clock and be in Florida by mid afternoon on the 14th...or so we thought.

While we ate our sandwiches David surprised us with a proposal. Since things were going so well, and we were ahead of schedule, he wanted to get off the Interstate and travel the back roads of the south until we got to Florida. This, he thought, would make for a more picturesque trip and he wanted to see the real USA.

Ralph and I argued that this would take too long, and that the anticipated 1,000,000 moon shot witnesses would all be camped between us and the launch pad by the time we reached the Cape Kennedy Space Center.

But there was no changing Dave's mind; besides it was his car.

Soon we were speeding south through the dark along a state route in North Carolina, the rural landscape illuminated by our headlights and pink heat lightning.

Occasionally we would come close enough to the interstate to see distant illuminated truck stop signs poking above the darkened profile of the treetops. They read "PURE" and "SPEED & BRISCOE".

At 2 am on Sunday, July 14, we thought we were on Route 401 near Fayetteville when our adventure in the '56 Chrysler came to an end. The fact was, we were lost at the time. Ralph was driving when it happened. A metallic snapping sound was quickly followed by uglier noises.

Something like shaking a bag of broken glass and metal parts in front of a PA mike. We coasted to a stop along a lonely stretch of backwoods highway in the Carolinas.

Ralph shut off the headlights and everything went black. There was no light to be seen in any direction. It was a moonless night, I could just make out the silhouette of a utility pole fifty feet away., so I suspected we hadn't reached the end of the world. Little did I know.

Lost on back road in North Carolina. Sunday 2:00 am July 13th 1969

David was into the trunk for a ratchet set and a flashlight. By god, we were going to fix that car right there and then, at two in the morning. Ralph and I had nothing better to do, so we held the flashlight and murmured while David skinned his knuckles and worked on exposing the problem.

David actually got the head off the engine. He determined that at the least we were facing a broken rocker arm and valve spring. This was the automobile equivalent of a coronary. We weren't going any farther that night.

At dawn a black man found us. I think he was amused by our grease covered appearance, but was polite about it. He was quite friendly and drove us to a white owned filling station a few miles away.

By mid morning, we got the car towed to the station, and by afternoon the busy station owner told us he couldn't help us. He referred us to a another place a few miles further off the beaten track. Again we were getting towed. This time our journey by hook took us down a two-laner to sandy dirt road in a pine forest.

As we turned off the pavement Ralph and I looked at one another with apprehension. If the movie "Deliverance" had been made in 1969, our apprehension would have been terror. From the sandy dirt road the tow truck turned left into the pine woods, narrow and dark even at three in the afternoon.

After a quarter mile we came to a clearing of a few acres. In the middle of the clearing was a shack. It was unpainted and raised up above the ground. It became clear that the shack was a home when we spotted the three or four kids dressed in dirty underwear in the shade of the porch.

Surrounding the house, chrome and glass glistened from a field of wrecked cars.

Most had their hoods opened with weeds growing up through the engine compartments. David negotiated with the proprietor. The man claimed he could fix the car if David could get the parts to him. David seemed to trust him. Ralph and I didn't like the place or the man.

While they negotiated, Ralph and I conferred privately. We agreed that the Chrysler would never leave this auto purgatory, and we'd be lucky to leave intact ourselves.

Meanwhile, David made a deal with the proprietor to call from Florida to see what parts were necessary, and get a rush order started. David was ready to leave. I took him aside while Ralph small talked with the junkyard owner.

I suggested to Dave that he take with him anything he wanted to keep: clothes, tools, camera equipment... all we could carry.

He didn't understand. He thought we should leave stuff we didn't want to carry locked in the trunk. Travel light. We'd get it on the way back.

It was a delicate matter telling him we didn't think his car would be ready for the return trip. Dave did finally take the extra camera equipment bag out of the trunk before turning the keys over and climbing up into the tow truck.

"Ford" agency sign near North Carolina bustop. Sunday 3:25 p.m. July 13th 1969

The truck took us back to the village gas station. It was a small community of a few hundred people. It had the gas station, a Ford dealership (with a Model T vintage sign) and a small general store. The store was an addition to the front of a private home. The porch in front of the store was the bus station.

As we approached we noticed what looked like the victim of a hit and run laying in the road in front of the place. It turned out to be a hound dog that was alive. It lay motionless in the July afternoon sun ignoring traffic and even flies. The hound was owned by the elderly white manager of the store / bus station.

Upon inquiring we learned the dog's name was Frisky. Frisky got up only for buses.

Detail from "Blast-Off" pinball game Fayetteville, NC, bustop. Sunday 10:25 p.m. July 13th 1969

We sat on the porch studying the bus schedules and worked out a plan. We had a few hours to wait until 4:30 p.m. when a City Coach bus would come that could take us to Fayetteville.

Unfortunately, this bus would be a local, stopping at every gas station in North Carolina. But once in Fayetteville we could get an express bus to Florida. This scheme would get us to liftoff a day later than we planned, but still some time to get a good camping spot.

Part II: Up Close to a Saturn V Rocket