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Harris Blackwood: This week, a great remembrance about life and human achievement
Harris Blackwood
Harris Blackwood

Georgia native Alan Jackson wrote and recorded a song after 9/11 called “Where were you (when the world stopped turning).” It is a song about remembering where you when the attacks happened in New York, Washington and in a field in Pennsylvania.

I’ve known folks who remember hearing on a Sunday afternoon in December of 1941 about the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. In those days, folks knew little about Hawaii. It was just a little group of islands in the Pacific.

Many of our remembrances are about death. People remember where they were when they heard about Elvis or John Lennon. We also remember where we were when the Kennedy brothers or Martin Luther King Jr. were killed.

My mama was big on history. She didn’t know much about it, but anything she perceived to be historic was important for her boys to see.

I remember going to the state Capitol in January, 1971, to pay our respects to Sen. Richard B. Russell. I really didn’t know much about him because I was just 10. I knew that my great-granddaddy lived in a nursing home in Russell, the railroad stop outside of Winder that was named for the senator. He, too, would die in May of that year.

I remember seeing President Richard M. Nixon emerge from a limo to go and place a wreath by the senator’s casket.

But, a couple of years before that, I remember a historical event that fortunately didn’t involve death.

Three astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins climbed aboard a rocket and headed to the moon. Armstrong and Aldrin would go down, land and walk upon the surface of the moon. Collins stayed in the mother ship and circled the block waiting on them.

We watched it all on a little GE black-and-white TV. I can remember adjusting the “aerial” to bring it in clearer. It just had one telescoping antenna. We only had a rabbit ear.

Walter Cronkite was the anchorman that most people watched on CBS’s coverage of the event. Wally Schirra, who had recently retired from NASA after flying the Apollo 7, joined him. Schirra served on a number of corporate boards in his post-NASA life, including the Jesse Jewell Co. in Gainesville from 1971 to 1973.

Astronauts were big celebrities in those days. You might see them on the late night shows of Johnny Carson or Dick Cavett. You also saw them make appearances on some of the regular prime-time variety shows.

Collins, Armstrong and Aldrin were given a hero’s welcome and treated to a ticker-tape parade in New York and Chicago.

Collins and Aldrin, the two remaining astronauts, made a return to the launch pad site in Florida this week. Television will provide us with replay after replay of the grainy video from the moon.

The space program fulfilled a promise of President Kennedy that we would reach the moon before the end of the 1960s. It was an example of what we can do when we put our minds to it. Less than a year later, we saw what creative minds could accomplish when they quickly developed a temporary repair for Apollo 13 and brought three astronauts home alive.

It was Apollo 13 that put future space exploration on hold. At the end of 1972, the final mission, Apollo 17, went to the moon and back.

Those handsome astronauts of the Gemini and Apollo programs are now either dead or in the sunset of their lives.

I couldn’t name a recent astronaut. I think NASA purposely tamped down the celebrity status in its more recent program. But the names of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins will remain in my mind because of their great accomplishments.

Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on www.gainesvilletimes.com.

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