The memory of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon has personal significance to me. To honor the 50th anniversary of that achievement, I’m sharing an updated version of my story, first posted five years ago.
I had just turned 14. 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 elementary school teachers began gathering the class around a portable TV to watch the latest Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo launch.
If you remember the 60s, you understand that the buzz surrounding each of these missions provided a unifying distraction from the divisive tension spurred by headlines of Vietnam casualties, anti-war demonstrations, Civil Rights clashes, and Communist paranoia. When President Kennedy promised to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade, so far in the future was that goal that in my mind he may just as well have said infinity. But as the decade drew to a close and the promise approached reality, I couldn’t devour enough information on the impending mission.
Unfortunately, without checking NASA’s schedule or asking for my input, my parents and three other couples they knew from graduate school 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 (I’m sure it had seemed like such a good idea at the time). I remember my dad keeping a safe distance behind the Hinshaws, as he was convinced that their borrowed trailer that seemed to veer randomly and completely independently of their car, would surely break free and careen into the woods on the next curve.
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, and the moms donned aprons and combined forces on a community spaghetti dinner. Meanwhile, while the younger kids scattered to explore, 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, lingering 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 rushing back into camp, breathless, sheet-white, and alone. We couldn’t quite decipher his animated message to the adults, 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. Our path was blocked by a 50 foot, nearly vertical cliff that provided a clear view into the vortex of all the excitement. It was the instant of that shared view 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 unmoving 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 by ambulance 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.
Conferring 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 to 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 down 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, we were all consoled 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 the hospital at one time or another in small, brief waves that honored the hospital’s visiting rules. 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 forever remember Sunday evening, July 20, 1969, when our entire group shoehorned into a tiny hospital room to witness history on a tiny, black-and-white television screen.
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 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 very special friends.
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