Residents share memories of the first moon walk

Robert Houk • Jul 20, 2019 at 12:00 AM

Joe Alexander was14 when he gathered with his family in front of a black-and-white television in their Elizabethton home on July 20, 1969, to witness a profound moment in human history.

 A man was about to walk on the moon.

Like most kids his age, Alexander dreamed of someday becoming an astronaut.

“I was 6 when I watched Alan Shepherd become the first American in space,” said Alexander, whose insurance office in downtown Elizabethton is decorated with NASA memorabilia and prints of paintings by Apollo 12 astronaut and moonwalker Alan Bean. “We grew up in the space age.”

Alexander remembers the excitement he felt when Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong climbed down the steps of the lunar excursion module and uttered the now famous words broadcast around the world: “That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.”

That giant leap had come just two two-and-half years after Alexander’s NASA hero, Ed White, and his fellow Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom and Rager Chaffee died in a fire on the launch pad during a training mission. 

“It was just amazing to be sitting there in front of a grainy TV screen watching live while Armstrong took his first steps on the moon,” Alexander said earlier this week. “It seemed surreal — like a dream.”

Seeing History On A Couch

Washington County Commissioner Suzy Williams was a mother of three young children, one an infant, when the Eagle landed on the moon 50 years ago today. Her family was living in Memphis that summer while her husband, Jack, completed his residency in orthopedics.

“I remember sitting on a couch watching the moon landing on a black-and-white TV on a rolling stand,” Williams said. “It was such an emotional evening for all of us here on earth.”

Williams said she was “sitting on the edge of my seat, thinking to myself: ‘My goodness, it doesn’t seem real.’”

Her euphoria over the successful Apollo 11 moon landing and surface excursion by Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin was soon replaced by a feeling of anxiousness.

“We were worried about them getting off the moon,” Williams said. “It was truly a remarkable venture.”

Riding With The Astronauts

State Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, was 8 when he joined his parents and some of their friends in his family’s home in Michigan to watch one of humankind’s greatest achievements. He recalls everyone gathered around the TV to see a fuzzy image of Armstrong taking his first steps on the moon.

“I didn’t quite realize the gravity of the moment, excuse my pun, but I could tell from the reaction of al the adults in the room that it was very important,” Lundberg said. “It is one of the great moments in my memory.”

Lundberg said while there are many tragic moments in history that are “seared in our conscience,” the Apollo 11 moon landing was a happy memory.

“This was not a tragedy, but a heroic moment,” Lundberg said. “We were all riding along with that rocket.”

A Point Of Pride

Sonja Fox said there was a lot going on in the nation during the summer of 1969, much it divisive, but there was one thing that seemed to bring Americans together. Like many others in this country, Fox was seated in front of a TV inside her house in Gray to watch humans walk on the moon.

She was joined by the members of a local Girl Scout troop, which she served as a leader.

“The community was so proud, “ Fox said. “It was a time for the nation to come together.”

She said the Girl Scouts were very excited to see the success of the Apollo mission, and asked her if they would ever be able to go to the moon. 

“I told them they could also be astronauts someday,” Fox said.

Meeting Neil Armstrong

In the summer of 1970, 14-year-old Wayne Winkler was living in Detroit, Michigan. Winkler, who is now director of WETS-FM in Johnson City, decided to see a girl he recently met who lived in Grosse Pointe, a wealthy suburb just east of the city.

After a bus ride and some walking, he reached Sarah’s impressive family home where he was let in by a housekeeper and told to wait in the den.

“I’d been sitting there for maybe 10 minutes when a man walked into the room, extended his hand and said, ‘Hi, I’m Neil Armstrong.’ He didn’t need to introduce himself,” Winkler said. “I recognized him. It had been less than a year since I’d watched him walk on the moon, and he was still probably the most famous man on the planet and the last person I expected to see in Grosse Pointe that afternoon.”

Winkler later learned that Sarah’s dad was the president of the local Rotary Club, and Armstrong was going to speak at their meeting.

“We chatted for a few minutes,” Winkler said. “He asked me where I went to school and what classes I liked. I was in shock and don’t remember contributing much to the conversation.”

Afterward, Winkler said he thought of dozens of things he could have asked Armstrong, but the opportunity had passed.

“Armstrong shook my hand again — at least I had the presence of mind to say it had been a pleasure to meet him — and he excused himself,” he said. “I don’t remember much about my date with Sarah, which turned out to be both our first and last date, but I never forgot meeting Neil Armstrong and how friendly and gracious he was to a tongue-tied teenager.”


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