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