Small steps and giant leaps


Oak and Crescent, Sierra Foothills, California
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
320 mm
1.6 seconds
ISO 400

July, 1969

I turned 14 that month. I was into baseball, chess, AM radio, astronomy, and girls—not necessarily in that order. Of particular interest to me in 1969 was the impending moon landing, a milestone I’d been anticipating since tales of American aerospace engineering ingenuity and our heroic astronauts started headlining  the Weekly Reader, and my teachers began gathering the class around a portable TV to watch the latest Gemini or Apollo launch or splashdown. If you remember the Sixties, you understand that the unifying buzz surrounding each Apollo mission briefly trumped the divisive tension surrounding headlines detailing Vietnam battles and demonstrations, the Civil Rights movement, and Communist paranoia. Unfortunately, without checking NASA’s schedule or asking for my input, my parents and three couples they knew from college decided mid-July 1969 would be the ideal time for our four families to join forces on a camping trip in the remote, television-free redwoods of Northern California. (“What could we possibly need a television for?”)

Apollo 11 was halfway to the moon when the Locher and Hinshaw families pulled up to our home in Berkeley (the Hardings, coming down from Eastern Washington, would meet us at the campground a couple of days later). The warm greetings exchanged by the adults were balanced by the cool introductions forced on the unfamiliar children. We departed the next morning, caravan style, our cars connected by woefully inadequate walkie-talkies that we’d almost certainly have been better off without (it had seemed like such a good idea at the time). I remember my dad keeping a safe distance behind Hinshaws, as he was convinced that their borrowed trailer, that seemed to veer randomly and completely independently of their car, would surely go careening into the woods on the next curve. But somehow our three-car parade pulled safely into Richardson’s Grove State Park late that afternoon.

In true sixties style, the three dads went immediately to work setting up campsites while the moms donned aprons and combined forces on a community spaghetti dinner. Meanwhile, the younger kids scattered to explore, while the four teens, having only recently met and being far too cool for exploration or anything remotely resembling play, disappeared into the woods, ostensibly on a firewood hunt. Instead, we ended up wandering pretty much aimlessly, kicking pinecones and occasionally stooping for a small branch or twig, just far enough from camp to avoid being drafted into more productive (and closely supervised) labor by the adults.

But just about the time we teens ran out of things not to do, we were relieved to be distracted by my little brother Jim, who had just rushed back into camp breathless, sheet-white, and alone. We couldn’t quite decipher his animated message to the parents, but when we saw our dads drop their tarps and tent poles and rush off in Jim’s tracks toward the nearby Eel River, we were (mildly) curious (to be interested in anything involving parents was also very not cool). So, with feigned indifference, the four of us started wandering in the general direction of the river until we (somehow) found ourselves peering down from the edge of a 50 foot, nearly vertical cliff at the river toward what was clearly the vortex of all the excitement. It was that instant when I think we all ceased being strangers.

The scene before us could have been from a bad slasher movie: Flat on the ground and unconscious (at the very least) was 11 year-old Paul Locher; sitting on a rock, stunned, with a stream of blood cascading from his forehead, was Paul’s 10 year-old brother John. As disturbing as this sight was, nothing could compare to seeing father Don Locher orbiting his injured sons, dazed and covered in blood. The rest of this memory is a blur of hysterics, sirens, rangers, and paramedics.

It wasn’t until the father and sons were whisked away to the small hospital in Garberville, about 10 miles away, that we were able to piece together what had happened. Apparently Paul and John, trying to blaze a shortcut to the river, miscalculated risk and had tumbled down the cliff. My brother at first thought they were messing with him, but when John showed him a rock covered with blood, he sprinted back to fetch the parents. Arriving at the point where the kids had gone over, the fathers made a quick plan. My dad and Larry Hinshaw would rush back to to summon help, and see if they could find a safer path down to the accident scene. Don would stay put and keep an eye on his sons. But shortly after my dad and Larry left, John had looked down at his brother cried, “Daddy, I can see his brains!” Hearing those words, Don panicked and did what any father would do—attempt to reach his boys. Thinking that a small shrub a short distance would make a viable handhold, Don took a small step in its direction, reached for and briefly grasped a branch, lost his grip, and tumbled head-over-heals down to the river.

After what seemed like days but was probably only an hour or two, we were relieved to learn that John needed no more than a few stitches; he was back in camp with us that night. Paul had faired slightly worse, with a concussion and a nasty cut behind his ear—the “brains” his brother had seen was ear cartilage. Paul spent the night in the hospital and was back with us by the time the Harding clan arrived the following afternoon. Don, however, wasn’t quite so fortunate. In addition to a severe concussion, he had opened up his head so completely that over 150 stitches were required to zip things back together. Though Don spent several days in the hospital, needless to say, we were all relieved by the understanding that it could have been much worse.

By Sunday, Don was feeling much better but was still a day or two from release to the dirt and fish guts of our four family campsite. Most of us had visited at one time or another, going in small, brief waves and respecting the hospital’s visiting hours. Nevertheless, there was another priority that had gone unspoken in the first few days following the accident came to prominence with the realization that Don would be fine. I can’t say who first recognized the opportunity, but I’m guessing that Larry Hinshaw had something to do with convincing the nursing staff to look the other way when Don was suddenly host to 20 simultaneous visitors that night. Whatever magic was worked, I’ll never spending that Sunday evening, July 20, 1969, shoehorned into a tiny hospital room, sharing a tiny black-and-white television screen with 20 pairs of eyes, witnessing history.

Besides my parents and two brothers, the rest of the crew that night I’d only met just a few days earlier, but I can still name every single one of them. The relationships formed that week continue to this day. And so do the stories, which, like this story, are filled with some of the greatest joy I’ve ever experienced, and also with some of the greatest tragedy. But it’s this story in particular, the catalyst for all the stories that follow, that explains why the words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” have a very personal significance for me.

Today it’s hard for me to look at the moon without remembering that hospital room and the emotional events that enabled me to witness Neil Armstrong’s historic first steps with those special people. As a child of the Sixties who very closely followed all of the milestones and tragedies leading up to that moment,  I couldn’t help but wonder while assembling the images for the gallery below about that week’s role in shaping who I am and what I do today.

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A lunar gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

13 Comments on “Small steps and giant leaps

  1. I watched the Lunar landing and walk with my family (wife & son). I’ll always remember that!

    Ralph French

    • Yeah—it’s one of those moments we’ll never forget where we were and what we were doing. And rare because it wasn’t a tragedy.

  2. This shot is so dynamic, the colors are unbelievable in those clouds, my date for the heart is Aug 1st sure wish I was going with you instead.

  3. An emotional and very compelling recounting, Gary. It has always amazed me how events in our lives that seem so spontaneous and disconnected at the moment, turn out to be those that we think back on so many times going forward and slowly (or quickly) realize the influential aspects that they truly have. All I know is that all of these things had an impact and influence on you and the benefit that we all derive from that s the magical images before us presented by you. PS – Barbara and I were in Belton, Texas where we lived as I was was “working off” the last few months of my Army service..when we watched the Apollo 11 event on pour little Black and White TV…thousand and a half miles from the scary event that unfolded for all of you. Thank You Gary 😉 dj

    • Thanks, Denny. What’s particularly cool to me is the knowledge that all these stories were happening at exactly the same time. While I was crammed into my hotel room, you were in front of your little B&W in Texas, Bob was sweating in front of his TV in Panama, and Ralph was sharing the moment with his family. Somehow that knowledge just makes me feel a little more connected to the rest of the world.

  4. Having completed our six day shift of “eves” at 11pm on Friday, 18 July, my work team roamed the streets and alleys of Panama City, Panama in search of adult beverages which we found readily and in great quantities. I returned to my un-air-conditioned apartment well after the sun had risen on July 19th, mentioned something about a Spanish princess partying with us to my wife at the time and promptly fell asleep. When I got up later that day we decided to buy a 20″ box fan for the apartment. Instead we returned with a black and white “fan” (aka TV – $239 as I recall – close to a month’s pay). On Sunday with a bunch of friends in our un-air-conditioned apartment (still lacking a fan) we watched the grainy scene unfold on Armed Forces TV as Neal Armstrong stepped onto the Moon. Very moving.

  5. Gary, you’re a brilliant writer. (Saying anything else seems unnecessary, which is why I’ve sat here, poised and ready to type but typing nothing for several minutes.)

    • Thanks so much, Leslie. (I do that all the time too–like right now, trying to figure out something to say that’s more profound than, “Thanks so much, Leslie.”)

  6. I am long overdue in commenting on this story. This is John Locher, the 10 year old “I can see his brains” kid from the story. First off, thank you Gary for your writing and remembering. I have such a personal vantage point that it is wonderful to read your well-written perspective. And your moon photos! Just stunning and now I am reminded of that 1969 moon walk point of view. I knew there has always been something special between me and the moon. I didn’t always remember what it was. You have reminded me. More about the moon at the end.

    I have never written about this so I am grateful to Gary for the spark and forum. This is a tad cathartic for me so please forgive the detail or length. But if not here and now then where and when?

    Those family camping trips and “PK” gatherings were wonderful. Gary, I will let you explain the Preacher’s Kid perspective perhaps one day in a separate blog (or an entire memoir)? That epic cliff experience seemed surreal then and now. I remembered the cliff as much taller (as I might as a ten year old) with an upper and lower portion. That is why we went down it to get to the river faster, it looked doable from the top portion. Your little brother Jim had the good sense NOT to go down it. I was following my brother Paul after watching him tumble. Paul thought he could make a handhold of that branch on his way down. He missed it. The cliff was basically an eroded edge of a washed out pathway with exposed roots. Paul slid and disappeared and I heard a thud and some mumbling, then nothing. I had to go and just followed. After my own easy roll I was on the rocks below with my unconscious brother bleeding all over the place and his ear dangling off. I remember yelling to your brother Jim and showing the bloody rock. That got him to run away fast for help. After that some things are a blur. I helped my brother and waited. He got up and thrashed about. It was scary. What happened some time later was not a blur. It was pretty horrific from a 10 year old son’s view. After yelling back and forth with my dad who was way above us, and evidently yelling about seeing brains, a few minutes later my large man of a father came rolling end over end down this sharp tall cliff. He always wore glasses and had a long forehead. Amazingly he stood up and came to me and Paul. His face and head were torn open from his glasses and the rocky cliff. I screamed looking at him and he reached up to his forehead to feel where the skin was split in many places. I could see skull and it looked worse than the torn ear of my older brother. I was a mess. Dad was a mess. Paul was totally out of it. The string of events after that was more of a blur. I remember the rangers and other fathers finally coming to us from the river area below. They got us to the hospital where we were all separated. I was clearly in shock and terrified about my dad and brother. My mom was now at my side with a nurse. I was on my back on a gurney and gazed up at hospital fluorescent lights. The nurse told me to count the number of holes in each of the 60’s style acoustic tile ceiling squares. I will never forget those silly holes. Heck, in 1969 those tiles were probably asbestos.

    Sometime later there was this seemingly large and crowded hospital room with at least two beds. My dad in one and brother in the other. My other brother Mark and Debbie were there, and all the other matching age PK kids and parents. Paul hadn’t said a word and looked glassy eyed the whole time. We were all worried. As other families arrived the TV was on. It was mounted from the ceiling in classic hospital design. It was right up against those awful acoustic tile squares full of countless holes. This grainy black and white flickering image showed us a historic moon landing and steps on the moon. We were all silent. Looking back it was so much more of the setting and events leading up to that live TV moment than the actual history of the moon. I was ten. I came to appreciate the significance of it all as years went by. It is one of those moments where we all remember where we were, what we were doing.

    My brother came around slowly in the days after and my dad had several plastic surgeries to repair his forehead. Many key things from that experience have always remained visible and imprinted in my mind. There is an image of the branches of that bush that we all tried unsuccessfully to grab. I remember looking way up at Jim Hart on the cliff as I held up high a bloody rock in my hand as evidence. My dad thudding as he rolled down in front of me. Those blasted holes in the ceiling tiles. And finally, the moon walk in a crowded hospital room.

    Gary, your spectacular moon photos have sparked brightness in me for several reasons. You have a clear reverence for the posture and grandness of the moon. How you chose to frame it seems to pay homage to the illumination and its importance in relationship to the surrounding beauty.
    The moon is very meaningful to me. I have gazed upon it when I really missed a loved one who was far away. I always knew she could be looking up at the same moon, at the same time, wherever she was. We even planned such simultaneous viewings (long before cell phones and Skype).

    I live in the northwest, the Seattle area, in a very tribal region of our country. Right near to me is the Snoqualmie tribe. They are the “people of the moon” and Snoqualmie means moon. I only realized fairly recently that I lived in their area and that they had such a reverence for the moon. Today I feel as if the importance of the moon on me is no accident. It was an accident that my brother and father were so badly hurt. The moon played a role in the healing and the remembering. Once again the moon serves as a constant and bright guide to the past, the present and for looking ahead.

    I believe the illumination of the moon remembers and reminds us who we are. When you gaze upon the moon think of the small steps and giant leaps you have made, and will make, then smile.

    John Locher

    • Thank you so much for sharing this, John. Those vacations our families shared were literally the highlight of my youth—ironic that they had such an inauspicious beginning.

      To say that your description of your experience that day is powerful would be an understatement. I have vivid mental snapshots of that day, particularly of your dad sitting in the river, covered with blood. So while there was no question of the severity of the accident, but I never fully appreciated what it must have been like for you, at ten years old, to be hurt yourself yet still needing to take care of your brother. And then to have to see your dad, such a strong man, so seriously injured….

      Rereading my words about that day, I realize how easy it is for those of us on the perimeter of a tragedy like this to rationalize that everyone survived, so let’s move on (with a good story), without appreciating that those in the vortex have had their lives altered forever. And after reading your words, I see that our shared, hospital moon landing experience was so much more than a fortuitous event that makes a good story for me; it now feels like a gift from God that started the emotional healing.

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