Great deeds are possible when people are inspired to do them. We thought a moon landing wouldn’t happen in our lifetimes. Then, President John F. Kennedy, in his inaugural address, told us that it would.
The year 1969 marked one of the 10 summers that I worked in the wooded isolation of Camp Galahad, a wonderful residential camping experience for disabled children and adults that was located on Blue Creek, in Eastern Kanawha County. It was while I was there that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left their footprints on the moon. And I saw it live, which wasn’t that easy.
Those who have been there know the remoteness of the area and the difficulty of getting news. Camp Galahad was a mile or two downstream from Union Carbide’s Hunting and Fishing Lodge and a half-mile upstream from camps Camelot and Carlisle, where the children of Carbide’s employees camped. We all drove 5 miles to the town of Glen, where we picked up mail. We had a doctor nearby when the diabetic children were encamped, but, for the biggest part of the summer, the nearest physician was 30 minutes away, in Clendenin. There was a party-line phone (young people, look it up) for emergency use and our radios picked up a station or two.
But despite our location, we saw the moon landing on a television in the camp’s dispensary. The caretaker, Buster Johnston, had a TV set in his trailer and had placed an antenna several hundred feet up the mountainside, well above the secluded valley that contained cabins, a dining hall and a pool. He allowed us to hook on to his antenna. He cautioned that, in a thunderstorm, we were to unhook the antenna clamp and throw the wire out the window.
On that day 50 years ago, palpable anxieties hovered over our campsite. Would the lander make it safely to the surface of the moon? Would the astronauts’ suits hold up? What if the material snagged on a piece of metal? Would a tiny rip bring instant death to the wearer? Would the lander be able to lift off the moon and would the men make it back to Earth in one piece? I sat in Camp Galahad’s dispensary and watched, aware that one seldom sees an event for the ages as it happens. Yet, there it was. It was one of the few times that the term “awesome” truly fit the circumstances.
A few decades shot by, until the spring of 2008, when I was directing an international student exchange program at Marshall University. Our visiting students from Poland and Hungary were intelligent, worked hard and made excellent grades. In mid-year, one cautiously approached me with a question. Had the moon landing really happened, he asked. Many people back in Warsaw, including a number of his teachers, remained skeptical, he said. Could the moon landing have been an elaborate hoax by our government?
I sat down. The last Soviet troops had departed Warsaw in 1991, when the student had been a toddler. Suppression of the media, and its evil twin, actual fake news (unlike the fake news that has taken up residence in our president’s imagination), were hallmarks of the era’s Soviet domination. Thinking of the best way to reassure the student that the moon landing was real, I told him the truth — that our raucous, hurly-burly U.S. government isn’t sufficiently organized to have kept a secret like that for 40 years.