Friday, July 19, 2019

While Walking on the Moon

While Neil Armstrong was walking on the moon 50 years ago today, July 21, I was working in the garage of his parent’s home in Wapakoneta (Wapak)... covering perhaps the world’s largest news story as a reporter for The Associated Press (AP). (BTW: in the photo at the upper left, that's me interviewing Mrs. Armstrong.)

A note on dates: The lunar launch was on July 16, 1969; the lunar module landed on July 20; Armstrong stepped on the moon 6 hours later on July 21.

We got to Wapakoneta in time for the lunar launch on July 16.  We stayed 10 days in one of the few hotels in Wapakoneta ... each of us had our own room.

AP Photographer Gene Herrick and I had been assigned to cover the moonwalk.  Since Time/Life had an exclusive contract to cover the Armstrong family, their writer and photographer got to sit in the living room.  The rest of us reporters and photographers hung out and worked from the Armstrong family garage.

As I mentioned in my previous piece, Gene Herrick had 29 years experience with AP; I was a rookie with only 1½ years experience in reporting.  Gene shared some really great advice as we drove and worked:
*        Never check out of your hotel until you are leaving town.  You never know whether    you’ll be asked to stay another day.
*        Always eat a big breakfast because you don’t know when you’ll eat again.
*        Know your surroundings and how you can depart quickly if needed.

We covered the Armstrong family’s reaction to their son’s walk on the moon only when they came out of the house.  Usually, they held a press conference on the front lawn.  Those of us in the garage got an announcement of the time of the conference.

Gene, of course, was a master at getting and posting great photos ... of the family (when permitted), townspeople and the community.  While Gene was taking photos, I was writing stories focused on how Armstrong’s parents and his hometown were reacting to his moonwalk.

We finished our work when the astronauts landed safely on July 24.  Thinking the assignment was now over, I checked out of the hotel.  True to his advice not to check out until you’re leaving town, Gene did not.  Toward the end of the day, we got a call from the AP Office in Columbus.  “The Ohio Governor is coming to Wapak tomorrow to announce something.  So, you’ll need to stay one more night!”   Ah, Gene’s advice was spot on.  Fortunately, he let me share his room!
The next day, the Governor flew in to the Wapakoneta airport and held a quick news conference.  I grabbed a good quote and ran to the only telephone (a pay phone booth) at the airport and called the AP office with my story from the airport news conference.  

In those days, United Press International was AP’s main competitor and our goal was to put the story out first.  While I was ending dictating my story to the AP office, the UPI reporter came up to wait for the phone.  “Keep talking,” I told the AP office ... I don’t want to give up the phone to UPI.”  

Meanwhile, the Governor’s motorcade (with reporters) prepared to leave.  The UPI reporter left in a huff to go with the motorcade to its next stop.  That stop was the Grandmother’s farm.  I knew where it was so didn’t have to follow the motorcade.  The UPI reporter did not so she scurried off to catch up.  I finished delivering my story and then drove to the farm.  

And my story was hours ahead of hers!  Ah, Gene’s advice to know your surroundings, was also spot on!

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