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One Small Drive

June 2024
3min read

Friday, July 11, 1969, found our family excitedly preparing for our annual vacation trip. I was in the back yard of our Cold Spring, Kentucky, house, with my two sons, thirteen-year-old Steven and eleven-year-old Mark. We were storing rods, reels, and tackle boxes in the station wagon, strapping luggage on the roof and preparing for an early Saturday-morning start. My wife, Pat, was busy in the house with our two daughters, Margie, who was eight, and Jeannie, five. They were busy packing clothes, beachwear, games, and snacks.

This would be our twelfth consecutive trek to the Sands Motel, on the beach at Treasure Island, near St. Petersburg, Florida. It didn’t matter that it took us two 10-hour days of driving with a stopover in Atlanta to get there; we were looking at ten days at the beach!

I wouldn’t say the drive down was uneventful—two days with four kids in a station wagon—but our memories are all good ones and the fact that we did it year after year was a testimonial to something. The radio rode right along with us, for the entire 975 miles, and the big story on the news was the coming Apollo 11 space launch. The first attempt to put a man on the moon. Liftoff was scheduled for Wednesday the sixteenth.

My wife raised the question first, “How far is Cape Kennedy from St. Pete?” and I wondered out loud, “What would traffic be like?” We discussed the possibility. “Could we possibly see the liftoff?” “Would you need a special pass to get within sight of the moon shot?”

We checked into the Sands Motel on Sunday evening. The children hit the beach, while Pat and I relaxed by the pool and reviewed our upcoming week. Fishing at John’s Pass, trips to the Driftwood cafeteria, a drive over and back across the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, with picnicking at Fort De Soto State Park, deep-sea bottom fishing from the deck of the Kingfisher . It was a very busy schedule, but now we were considering something new and even more exciting.

Tuesday, July 15 the decision was made. “It’s a go.” 152 miles to Cape Kennedy. We would leave at 1:00 A.M. , drive the Bee Line Expressway to the east coast and wing it from there. Liftoff was scheduled for 9:32 A.M.

The kids were sound asleep when we drove into Titusville, at 5:00 A.M. We had no clue as to where we might go to see the liftoff. Pat spotted an allnight service station and suggested we seek directions. When I came back to the car, she asked, “What did you find out?” I told her, “This all sounds too simple.” The attendant’s instructions were: “Follow this road about ten blocks to the first traffic light. Turn right at the light and drive about six or seven miles and you’ll be able to see the rocket.” My wife’s comment was, “Gene, he’s making fun of you.”

But we followed the directions anyway. As we drove, the road slowly curved to the left. We had left a fairly populated district and were now proceeding along a dark, flat rural area. Suddenly there it was, directly in front of us, like a huge white candle, bright lights shining on the rocket, so it stood out in the dark, early morning sky, with white vapor streaming all around it. Pat shouted “It’s beautiful.” I was speechless. The children were now awake and everyone was discussing the moon shot. We continued curving left until the launch pad with the Apollo 11 rocket was directly off to our right, with a body of water between us. Several cars were parked alongside the highway, but there were still plenty of parking spaces available. We eased off the road and pulled up parallel to the highway.

Blankets were spread out on the ground and as daybreak slowly arrived more and more cars began filling up the area. Car radios and portable radios were all tuned to the same station. People were discussing the liftoff with each other and passing around binoculars so everyone could get a closer look at the rocket, sitting there, poised. A friendly carnival air enveloped the scene.

Time passed quickly. Cars were bumper to bumper now on both sides of the road. Boats of all sizes rocked in the water between us and the rocket. The final countdown started. People counted down with the radios. For a split second nothing happened, and then smoke billowed out around the spaceship.

Then, ever so slowly, it started to rise. Up, up, almost directly over us. Eyes, heads, cameras, binoculars, all followed in unison. People started cheering. Then came the noise, not loud, no boom. A pop, pop, popcorn popping sound arose around us and then the spaceship was gone, on its way to the moon.

The boats started leaving. People got into their cars and pulled onto the highway. No traffic jams, no problems. We were back at the Sands Motel at 2:00 P.M. to continue our vacation. We followed closely on television the spaceship’s journey. We were a part of it now.

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