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Apollo 13

A Brief Touch With History......I think

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, June 28, 1995.

I saw the Apollo 13 launch. I think. It was the only one I ever saw, and I mean to tell you a Saturn rocket at full throttle was something that stayed with you for a while. Like thousands of others, we jammed into a motel across the way from Cape Kennedy - it was then - and could see the launch tower and the white shaft next to it.

A quarter century ago, it was still possible to find sections of Florida’s east coast with no buildings whatever, and the four of us - theoretically in college - had decided to view the launch after a day on New Smyrna Beach, just below Daytona. On New Smyrna, with its shallow water extending forever and great body surfing, those long perfect days biodegraded into drunken and equally enjoyable nights. My soon to be wife, our banjo player and his girl friend, all of us constituted a small bluegrass band, and the night previous had decided that, hey, the Space Center wasn’t that far, we had enough money, and why shouldn’t we do the tourist thing and see one of the space shots that had only a year before had put Neal Armstrong on the moon. Big of us, lowering ourselves like that. In the days of thirty-five cent hi octane and the six dollar motel rooms, we could afford it.

Such a half-hearted decision along with rousing hang-overs, propelled us to a crowded beach across the estuary from the launch site. Florida had a hazy morning, one of its common moods, and the sky and sea merged to view close to shore. It was humid, and fairly warm and together with thousands of radios tuned in to different stations, we stood on the beach, dimly peering at the launch site.

The exhaust of white smoke and steam billowed heavily to the left in silence while the sound rumbled heavily towards us. Miles away, there was an actual shock wave of noise - a smack in the face - when the roar hit us. And the rocket did not move. Then, slowly, it lifted off with a perfect flame of white and blue expanding beneath it, and the low rumble increased and was joined by higher frequencies until the sound was startling in its volume. And speed. The ship vanished quickly in the mist, and only the deep flame, now trimmed with darker colors, was visible. And then it vanished, and all that was left was the roar. And that faded.

Somewhere in those clouds, we were told later, lightening hit the ship and the mission was endangered before they made it into Space. I’m quite sure it was Apollo 13 we saw, but memory is not clear on this. All I clearly remember that is being in love and being thin, tan, and happy beyond recall while people only a few years older than I rode that giant Ronson into the Florida haze, willingly risking their own happiness for....what? Fame?

No astronaut, even Armstrong, really cashed in. And most people cannot even recall their names today. And yet that morning festers in my mind. Once again, I witnessed something I only appreciated later, and blew a chance at insight, or something. Like the summer on Cap Ferrat where I worked for a family between the North Vietnamese representative in France and David Niven, or the dinner at college with Buckminster Fuller and William Douglas, I was not appreciative, did not participate.