Gratiot County Goes to the Moon – in July, 1969!

The week begins – July 19, 1969.
Front page of the Daily Record Leader on eve of the landing.
July 23, 1969 advertisement from the Daily Record Leader. Want to buy a new color television?

     It was July 1969. A recent poll of Americans stated that over fifty percent of them approved of President Richard Nixon’s policies regarding the Vietnam War. The reigning World Series Champion Detroit Tigers were twelve games behind the rival Baltimore Orioles. The team’s mood was that there was no way that the Tigers could catch the Birds. In the end, they were right. A recent incident at a place called Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts threatened the political future of Senator Ted Kennedy. 

     If people in Gratiot County had not been paying attention that July, American astronauts were about to set foot upon the moon. The goal President Kennedy set earlier in the decade to send a man to the moon and return him safely home, soon would happen.   For almost two weeks, Gratiot County followed television and read the newspapers about this event that marked American history.

     In anticipation of the Apollo 11 mission, on July 11 four St. Louis men boarded a 1966 Cessna Skyhawk and flew to Florida to watch the launch at Cape Canaveral. Sig Chrzanwoski piloted the plane. He was accompanied by his brother, Mike, his co-pilot, along with Lloyd Sutherland and Mike Smith. After a nine-hour flight, the group aimed to land at Tico Field. Upon arrival, the four men slept in their sleeping bags on the ground. Their biggest disappointment before leaving was that they had no room for the television that they wanted to take with them.

    The night before Apollo 11 took off, the three astronauts (Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins) appeared on nationwide television. Four newsmen questioned them about their impending trip.  The program drew a broad audience of viewers on the eve of liftoff. It was the start of a suspenseful week as people watched the astronauts proceed to the moon.

     On a humorous side earlier in that week in Gratiot County, another “air event” took place involving the Red Baron, Orville Lippert, of Riverdale. Lippert was out flying his World War I German fighter plane, practicing takeoffs and landings when his plane went off of his airfield and crashed into the trees.  Lippert luckily only suffered minor bruises, even though he hit the trees at 50 miles per hour. To celebrate his survival, Lippert promptly took out his miniature stuffed dog, Snoopy,  and placed him on the wing of the plane. After assessing the results of the crash, Lippert learned that he only damaged his plane’s landing gear.

     On July 17, two days before the landing on the moon, President Richard Nixon asked that all American workers be given a day off from work.  Nixon requested the holiday “so that as many of our citizens as possible will be able to share in the significant events of (this) day.” Nixon also asked that “all of our people on that historic day … join in prayer for the successful conclusion of Apollo 11’s mission and the safe return of its crew.” None of Gratiot County’s industrial plants planned to close for a holiday. City and county officials, as well as banks, all waited to hear if Governor William Milliken would officially call for a state holiday.  Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh made that Monday a public holiday in Detroit, and that was about as close to a “day off” as Gratiot County received.

     Down in Texas, Gratiot County had a connection to the Houston Space Center. William J. Harris, a St. Louis native, and 1957 St. Louis High School graduate had been at the head of the McDonnell-Douglas flight systems team for Apollo 10. After working as a booster systems engineer and heading up the flight controllers team for Apollo 10, Harris remained in Houston for the Apollo 11 mission.

     One of the topics of conversation in Gratiot County on the eve of the moon landing was guessing what official first words would be spoken on the moon. The Alma Daily Record Leader asked different people what they thought. Area children gave their opinions. Twelve-year-old Steve Holcomb of St. Louis, commented that one of the astronauts would say “Where’s all the moon maidens?”  Danny Paton, age 10 and also from St. Louis, echoed the humor by thinking the men would remark, “Show me to the green cheese. I’m hungry!”

     Adults added their humor about the choice of words. Dick Anderson, from Riverdale, said, “Blast it –no women!” Stan Nesen, chairman of the Gratiot County Board of Supervisors, proclaimed it would be, “I forgot my crackers!”

      Other, more serious comments appeared in the newspaper. “Frankly, I think they will be too awestruck to say a thing,” said Gratiot County Clerk Eva Smith. In the end, Dr. William Knowles of St. Louis ended up being closest to the actual first words when he speculated that the first to walk on the moon would say, “We have arrived.”  The exact words would be “The Eagle has landed.”

    The moon landing happened on Sunday, July 20. Those who could not watch the walk on television listened to their radios. Gratiot County newspapers also kept a tab on the different things happening that day that that involved the United States. American GIs were fighting in Vietnam. Hippies openly romped unclothed in a California stream. At Kennedy International Airport in New York, approximately 3,000 people watched the moon landing on a giant television screen. Screens were also set up at Kitty Hawk, South Carolina, where Orville and Wilbur Wright had the first powered flight.  When an announcement of the landing was made at a baseball game in Seattle between the Pilots and the Twins, the game stopped, fans stood, and sang “America the Beautiful.”  Many baseball fans could not find a game on television or the radio due to coverage of what happened on the moon.

      Similar public amazement and interest in Gratiot County continued on Monday, July 21 when astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon for little over two hours. Gratiot County was again asked to comment about what they thought it meant to see Americans walking on the moon. Most citizens sounded proud, impressed, and optimistic. Maurice Carmany of Ashley responded, “I think it’s inevitable that people climb as high and go as fast as they can. This allows us to take pride in being Americans.”  Nancy Stahl of Ithaca thought, “It’s unbelievable. It’s just like watching an old movie on film, but this time it’s true. Moon adventures have been predicted for years in movies and books, and when it really happened it was so similar.” Father George Serour of St. Louis exclaimed, “The moon landing is a great historical event, the greatest next to the birth of Jesus Christ. Hopefully, this is a means God will use to bring mankind together for the glory of God and the uniting for all mankind.”

     Then there were a few Gratiot residents who did not sound quite so confident about Apollo 11’s landing and what it all meant.  Carl Dodge, bank vice president in Pompeii, uttered that “The moon landing is four billion dollars all gone for nothing. But 20 years ago I wouldn’t have said that.” John Hartman of St. Louis responded, “To me, it is very exciting and thrilling. I’ve tried to evaluate the meaning of it. The government officials may see the importance which isn’t obvious to us – perhaps it’s a stepping stone to the next planet. If there isn’t any long term value, they’re spending millions and billions that could be used to good advantage right here. Fate wise, I’m not sure. I believe in God and the fact this is God’s world, and I feel that it couldn’t have happened if He hadn’t intended it to be that way.”

     Still, area newspapers and writers thought that Apollo 11 had done a tremendous thing. Gratiot County Herald writer Bob MacDonald mused about that time.  “What a weird, mystic feeling it was to step out on the porch Sunday evening and gaze at the moon, knowing a couple of Americans were walking around up there. The moon took on a different aspect at that point.” David C. Martin from the Daily Record Leader wrote in his editorial on the topic. “We regard the Apollo 11 moon mission as one of the most epochal events in man’s long history.” As the crew prepared to head home, Martin added, “Our prayers for a safe, successful return go with astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins today.”

       I too remember where I was and what I was doing during the Apollo 11 mission. On Sunday, July 20, the day Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon, my father took my brother and me to cool off in the St. Louis swimming pool. On that hot day, I clearly remember my father talking to me poolside about “what those guys are doing  on the moon.”

      As a result of that day in St. Louis,  I would like to think that the Apollo mission had another influence on my life. Two years later, after my parents were intrigued about having a swimming pool,  they purchased an above ground pool and put it up late in the summer of 1971. Maybe the moon landing on that hot July day in 1969 had more of an influence on my family than what I first thought.

Copyright 2019 James M Goodspeed

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