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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Up Close to a Saturn V Rocket