On that day I was 12 year old boy, visiting my Great-Grandfather for what was the last time in Bull’s Gap Tennessee. We had stopped to see him on our trip from Ft. Bragg in North Carolina to Ft. Wainwright in Alaska where my father was due to be stationed.
My Great Grandfather was 98 and a long retired railroad engineer; frail and recovering from a broken hip and emphysema. He used a walker and like Hugh Hefner wore PJ’s all day, I guess he had earned that.
He was one of those who drove steam locomotives most of his life, with those lonesome whistles that would Doppler through the quiet mountain valleys and open plains sometimes in the night. I haven’t heard that sound in years, it’s a thing of the past — a sound that carried across the nation and helped build our country but one that was plaintive – whenever you heard it at a distance you thought of some bereaved banshee wailing for a ghostly lover. By time he retired most of the main lines had replaced their steam engines with Diesel electric so he had driven them as well, and in the late sixties and early seventies even the back-country railroads had replaced their steam engines.
The world was still black and white then, most periodicals and Televisions were anyway, even though color magazines and televisions had been around a while they were still considered luxuries by the average person. Even magazines that had color photographs were still mostly black and white, the exceptions were Look and Life, as well as National Geographic.
Six years earlier President Kennedy had been assassinated, and a year earlier the Viet Nam war peaked with the Tet Offensive. In Woodstock NY, some were preparing for a concert.
I watched the landing as Walter Conkrite narrated and didn’t realize that I was watching one of the greatest achievements of mankind that would occur in my lifetime. I assumed that Mars would quickly follow the moon landing. My great grandfather didn’t believe it… he thought that they must be faking it somehow.. At bedtime I slept in the smoking porch, smelling the stale patina of years of cigars, and looked out at the moon that was crescent and waxing towards half and… for the first time really had men on it. As I nodded off somewhere in a far off valley a steam whistle wailed.