A brush with the past

November 9, 2012 8:09 pm

I watched him as he rose from his chair, steadied by his assistant, fumblingly making his way down the length of the table and trying incredibly hard not to proceed with so much haste that he might take a tumble to the floor. The elderly and seemingly frail gentleman teetered as he dragged himself upright and tentatively entered the scrum of photographers, autograph hunters and excited enthusiasts who filled the humid room, yet none seemed to see or notice him as he crossed the carpet, taking a bewildered sideways glance at a tall-dark headed man who stepped backwards and threatened for a moment to knock him over. There was nothing in the dress, expression or manner of this octogenarian to suggest who he might be, where he may have come from, or even his status in this jostling pack of anoraks attending the autograph convention at Birmingham’s Hilton Metropole hotel.

However I knew that this particular man was slightly different to the rest of us in one respect; he was Dr Edgar Mitchell, pilot, retired US Navy Captain and most significantly, one of only twelve human beings to have walked upon the surface of the moon.

The following day I was lucky enough to hear Dr Mitchell speak for half an hour about his recollections and personal feelings of what it was like to fly over a quarter of a million miles away from his home and the effect the experience has had on him. Mitchell described at length the ‘euphoric feeling’ and ‘sense of oneness’ he felt while gazing back at the planet through the tiny windows on his spacecraft during the Apollo 14 mission. Once the inevitable questions of ‘what was it like to walk on the moon’ were out the way, Mitchell’s lecture took a distinctly odd turn with his re-affirmation of his belief that the 1948 Roswell UFO crash was indeed a genuine visitor from outer space. This in itself was no surprise; Mitchell has long been an advocate of the little green men theory. What was strange was his explanation for his belief, of how his friend had seen the short, child-size coffins provided to the US military for burial of the ‘Alien Greys’ apparently found inside the crashed craft.

Emerging from the talk you couldn’t help but wonder what on earth happened to Mitchell before, after and during his trip to the moon for him to draw all these conclusions that would seem so absurd did they not come from the lips of a man who possesses a Bachelor of Science degree amongst other numerous academic achievements. It really is one of those days that shifts your perceptions a little; if a man judged mentally capable to fly fast jet fighters and consequently, a moonship, is a believer in this phenomena, then perhaps it might bear more truth than we tend to credit it with?

What I am excited about is that Dr Mitchell is not the only moonwalker here today. Oh no, he is joined by Charlie Duke, the youngest man to visit the moon, Dick Gordon, who flew to the moon as Command Module Pilot on the second lunar mission, and that old favourite of the moon-buffs, Mr Buzz Aldrin.

The face is the same; Charlie Duke as he is today and (right) in 1971

With the recent death of Neil Armstrong, Aldrin has come in for renewed public attention as the pseudo-first-man-on-the-moon, a title the Buzz we know and love would have preferred to have held without it requiring the death of his Apollo 11 commander. I’m unable to get anywhere near his table as it’s besieged by an army of people willing to pay the £250 pounds Buzz demands in return for his autograph. I can catch a glimpse of him as he sullenly scribbles his signature across a huge poster that depicts him standing in the Sea of Tranquillity on 20th July 1969, gripping the pen with a fist that could probably rival Mr T for hitting power; something serial moon-hoaxer Bart Sibrel could testify in favour of, having accused Aldrin of being a liar in public some ten years ago and found himself on the receiving end of a swift right uppercut.

Needless to say, Buzz draws the biggest crowds. One feels almost awkward for Martin Lindahl and the other actors and actresses seated at the tables near him at the comparatively small numbers of people choosing to ask them for a signed photo. Dave Prowse and Kenny Baker, of Darth Vader and R2D2 fame are here as well, but it seems the majority of people want to see a real space adventurer.

Having said that, Aldrin would feel right at home on the dark side. He wouldn’t have to put up with the endless stream of grinning people asking him what it was like to walk on the moon. It’s a pet-hate of his that sees him reply with a bafflingly incomprehensible technical talk, laden with hardware-correlating phrases that leave the audience none the wiser to what he actually just said. Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean (One of the friendly and open astronauts, and alas, not present today) once said that Aldrin would ‘rather talk about orbital rendezvous than go chat up the pretty girl in the corner of the dance hall’.

Perhaps it’s inevitable then that as I queue to attend the photoshoot I’m booked in for with Buzz Aldrin that I find myself rehearsing what to greet him with. It’s a quick affair. Entering the room your ticket is snatched from your grasp and quickly torn in half, the ragged stump stuffed back into your pocket hurriedly as you step toward America’s second moonwalker for a quick snap then right out of frame to pick up your printed photo from the surprisingly cheerful lady on the desk. It has all the appearance of an industrial production line, and watching it you can believe that Buzz Aldrin is the money-making machine that everyone portrays him to be. Pay him several thousand dollars and he’ll talk about anything at length until he feels you’ve had your money’s worth, at which point he’ll clam up like a fairground ride that abruptly stops when your allotted time is over.

My turn comes after a forty-minute wait, and I note with trepidation that fact that Buzz seems very awkward today, only smiling for the camera when necessary. My ticket is duly wrested from my grasp and I step forward toward him.

Meeting a moonwalker is not quite what you’d expect

‘Mr Aldrin, hello!’ I offer, grasping his proffered handshake that seems a hallmark of this particular photoshoot. No reply. Quickly turn toward the camera. Smile. Flash. Turn back toward Buzz whose smile has faded as quickly from his face as a British summer does from memory. ‘Thank you very much’ I remark, but it’s no good because Aldrin is already looking toward the next group of people he has to endure a photo call with. I’m glad he can’t see the incredible queue outside the room that snakes through the hotel lobby and even into the lifts; he’d probably decide he’s made enough money and refuse to do any more.

 

 

So there it was, my meeting with Buzz Aldrin over as quickly as it had begun. Thankfully, I would have other opportunities to talk to Charlie Duke and Dick Gordon. Gordon is the one I’m most interested to meet; he flew with Alan Bean and Pete Conrad to the moon on Apollo 12 in November 1969 and doesn’t appear in public very often. The fun-loving Conrad and his crew are a firm favourite with enthusiasts and historians of Project Apollo, in that they made flying to the moon look like a weekend trip to a theme park. Conrad ensured his crew bounced their way to the moon singing along to the bubblegum hit theme tune of ‘Sugar sugar’. I join his queue for an autograph because his happens to be significantly cheaper than Aldrin’s £250. Gordon only wants £30 for his. It may have something to do with the fact that Gordon was a Command Module Pilot; he looked after the ride home in lunar orbit while Conrad and Bean descended to the surface in their lunar lander. He isn’t a moonwalker, but he made the trip (all bar the last 60 miles to the surface) and was scheduled to walk on the moon as Commander of Apollo 18.

Unfortunately for Dick, there never was an Apollo 18 and Apollo 12 was as close as he ever got. I choose a photo from the various ones spread out on the desk for singing and walk up to the table. Dick greets me with a cheerful smile. ‘Hello Mr Gordon!’ I smile back. He happily takes the photo from me and asks whether I’d like a personalised signature. I wouldn’t because I can’t imagine what I would ask him to write. Gingerly I ask if signing all these autographs gives him a sore hand. Quite pathetically it’s the only thing I can think of while my mind reels in the presence of a living legend. ‘Not really.’ he answers. ‘It’s all in the wrist.’ He goes on to explain the fine art of balancing his pen on the crux of his thumb and index finger in order to reduce any stress on his hand. It’s incredibly technical and he makes it sound almost as hard as flying to the moon. Attending his lecture that same afternoon, he provides a potted history of the space race that everyone in the room probably knows like the back of their hand. The talk takes an interesting turn though when someone brings up the subject of Pete Conrad. Dick explains how the two men met in flight training during the 1950’s, shared a room on board their first aircraft carrier posting, eventually flew together in space on two different mission and forged a long and happy friendship with Alan Bean that lasted until Conrad’s tragic death on a motorbike in 1999. Gordon pauses for a moment and is lost as he looks glumly at the floor, clearly trying to hold back an emotional reaction. Quite simply, but laden with emotion, he murmurs. ‘I miss him. He was my best friend.’ It’s a sign of how close the two men were that Dick Gordon, a hardened naval aviator and American hero, is almost on the verge of tears when talking of him.

It ends the lecture on a very personal note and reminds you that behind the historical facade of death-defying, heroic, unflappable astronaut heroes there is a unique and often heart-wrenching story carried by the men that made the journey and had the moon cast her strange shadow over their subsequent lives.

Charlie Duke is one of them; he was an easy going, friendly and non-plussed North Carolina-born US Air Force pilot when he flew to the Descartes Highlands on the moon onboard Apollo 16 in April 1972. Yet when he returned his relationship with his wife Dorothy, or ‘Dotty’ as he affectionately calls her, broke down in spectacular style and he drifted further and further away from his family until he found his calling as a devout Christian. Today he enjoys a happy life surrounded by friends and family and is happy to talk of his experiences during his own ‘moonshot’.

It’s the same in his photoshoot; Duke greets me with a warm grin and ‘Hello, how are you today?’. That oh-so-typical American smile and handshake are all too apparent. He even thanks me for coming, as if I’m the one who he came to see. Later I see him seated at his desk, tall and slim by astronaut standards, as a father ushers his two young sons toward the moonwalker, who stretches his arm across the table to shake their hands, holding them rapt with attention as he tells them the story of his incredible journey. The two boys don’t look a day over seven. I should imagine this kind of meeting touches Duke, because his own sons were of a similar age when he made his moon voyage. In his lecture he remarks how they weren’t that interested in their father flying to the moon, because in their neighbourhood just outside Houston built especially for the astronauts and their families, ‘everybody’s daddy was going to the moon at some point’. Duke smiles as he jokes that his grandchildren are more astonished by what he did than his own children.

And perhaps that is why it appeals so much. The Apollo program is an anomaly, out of time and out of place. Travelling to the moon is perhaps the most futuristic and technologically dependant act you could possibly think of; yet it was achieved before many of us alive today were even born. These old men are all that remain of that age and as long as they are alive and well, people will rely on them for the stories that they want to hear told.

As I wait in the corridor I overhear a security guard remonstrating with an autograph hunter. It seems the man has upset one of the guests by making unreasonable demands upon him. I get a funny feeling that they may be talking about Buzz, given his history of altercations with such people. (In September 2002, the infamous moon-hoax theorist Bart Sibrel was punched by Aldrin outside a Beverley Hills hotel after accusing the ex-astronaut of being a ‘liar, a coward and a thief.’) The man argues with the security guard for a while before a manager arrives to escort him from the premises, and as the guard re-enters the autograph room, the door swings open to reveal an empty chair recently vacated by…sure enough… Buzz Aldrin. A crowd mills around the empty desk unsure of what to do – it seems Buzz has taken real offence at the troublemaker’s actions. Just like that, the moonwalker has upped sticks, disappeared into the throng of bustling people and is gone.

It’s a sign of how rare such men are that you wonder if you will ever meet their sort again.

Anthony French

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