John Shearer: Remembering How The 1969 Moon Walk Played Out In Chattanooga

Saturday, July 20, 2019 - by John Shearer
Dr. Wayne Shearer, who once heard NASA lead scientist Wernher von Braun speak in Tullahoma in the 1960s while on an Air Force Reserve assignment, holds up 1969 Chattanooga paper he saved.
Dr. Wayne Shearer, who once heard NASA lead scientist Wernher von Braun speak in Tullahoma in the 1960s while on an Air Force Reserve assignment, holds up 1969 Chattanooga paper he saved.
- photo by John Shearer

On Friday afternoon, I was over at the Hixson house of my father, Dr. Wayne Shearer, looking through the cabinets in the den, where he for decades has kept copies of old newspapers from famous events.

 

Since he had in recent years put them in order in large scrapbooks, it did not take me long to find what I was wanting.

 

There, on back-to-back pages and in nothing but black and white newsprint, were full copies of the July 21, 1969, editions of both the Chattanooga Times and the Chattanooga News-Free Press.

 

The old papers had held up nicely and, due to their good, still-white condition and the fascinating content they possessed on the front pages, I can only describe them as looking beautiful.

 

The morning Times had the all-encompassing giant headline, “Man Takes Historic Walk on Moon; Explores Bleak, Desolate World, Disaster Is Averted on Touchdown.” The afternoon News-Free Press, meanwhile, simply stated, “Moon Walkers Start Home.”

 

The reason for my emotional feeling looking at these newspapers and even getting a picture of my father holding up one was that it was in this same den where the papers are stored that I watched the moon landing and walk exactly 50 years ago.

 

I was only 9 years old, but it was perhaps the perfect age to be following something so fascinating and momentous.

I was old enough – barely – to appreciate what was taking place, but young enough to be totally mesmerized and fascinated by it all.

 

In many ways, maybe about everyone was watching the event with the sense of wonder of a 9 year old.

 

I have still not forgotten sitting in the den with my parents, sister Cathy and my aunt, Marie Bryant, who was visiting us from Blount County. We were eating homemade ice cream and glued to the TV set for a couple of hours as the Eagle touched down with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and they walked on the moon.

 

I was probably too young to realize how dangerous the mission was, and I remember my mother, Velma Shearer, saying, “Something’s gone wrong,” when they were trying to land the Eagle on the moon.

 

I think I laughed and kidded her about what I thought at the time was an over reaction, but she was right. As the Times headline referenced, Mr. Armstrong almost could not find a suitable landing spot in the finite amount of time available.

 

But he and Mr. Aldrin soon descended the small module and walked on the moon, and many others and I received the thrill of a lifetime watching them. Only as I grew older did I realize fully the remarkable achievement in both science and sheer human will and how it united the country and maybe a world that was in many other ways in turmoil and conflict.

 

With all that in mind, I have been getting caught up in the excitement over the golden anniversary. I was fascinated like a kid again watching the three-night special on PBS July 8-10 and learned much I did not know. That ranged from the frantic call for help from the astronauts during the tragic launch pad fire of Apollo 1 in 1967, to the uplifting shot of a major league baseball game on July 20, 1969. There, they had announced on the scoreboard that the astronauts had landed on the moon, and the game was interrupted as the crowd cheered as one.

 

I thought it might be neat to go back and look at the Chattanooga papers on microfilm at the public library downtown and see how the community reacted. These of course were many of the same pages I later saw at my father’s house, but I did not want to damage the real papers.

 

A day or two before the famous moon landing and walk on July 20, the News-Free Press, which sold American flags from its 11th Street offices, announced a large uptick in flag sales leading up to the moonwalk. Everyone was feeling American pride over this historic event.

 

And in an unusual twist, local postmaster Frank Moore announced that all the local post offices would be closed as a holiday on Monday, July 21, due to President Richard Nixon announcing that day as a “day of participation.” Local government offices were also to be closed.

 

Editor Lee Anderson was getting caught up in the event as well with a July 19 Free Press editorial calling the attempted moon landing “the greatest exploration step in all of the history of mankind.”

 

A day or two before, the moonwalk was expected to not be until 2:15 a.m. Monday, July 21. Thankfully, they sped up this part of the mission so we could all watch it during prime time. If not, many dreamy-eyed kids my age would have literally been dreaming away in bed and could only say 50 years later that they slept through one of American history’s most positively defining moments. I think I attended the six-week Baylor Camp that summer, but can’t remember if it was still going on by then or if I had to get up Monday morning for it.

 

Among the other events taking place around Chattanooga that historic week, Cavalier Corp. and the city garbage workers were striking, radio station 88.9 was going on the air, and youngster Allison Goree was profiled regarding her trip to Hawaii.

 

In the Sunday, July 20, News-Free Press, the TV magazine “Showtime” stated that national coverage of the moon walk was to be on Channel 3 and Channel 9 starting at noon that Sunday and running non-stop until 6 p.m. Monday. CBS’ coverage featuring Walter Cronkite was starting an hour earlier, at 11 a.m. Sunday.

 

In a column, Julius Parker wrote on a 2019-like theme with the headline, “Should Funds for Space Be Used To Ease Poverty?”

 

There were also a few other news items nationally and internationally over that two- or three-day period. Sen. Edward Kennedy ran off a vintage bridge at Chappaquidick, Mass., resulting in the death of 28-year-old passenger Mary Jo Kopechne. Also, the Rev. A.D. King, the only brother of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was found dead in his pool at his Atlanta home, apparently due to natural causes.

 

And then there was the somewhat forgotten orbiting Soviet module, Luna 15, which actually crashed onto the moon while trying to beat the Americans.

 

When I looked at the papers this week, I wanted to see if they had any stories on how Chattanoogans watched and perceived the event, and I found several. 

 

In the News-Free Press, reporter Tom Gilliland tried to write a creative column as if he were in the lunar module.

 

He also said he had wondered if politics would be involved in the moon landing and if references or praises would be made to the late president John F. Kennedy, who had tried to jump start the space race. He said he was glad that all he heard from Neil Armstrong was, “That’s one small step for man, but one giant (leap) for mankind.”

 

He said, on the other hand, he was disappointed that God was not mentioned by the astronauts, seven months after Genesis was read during the Apollo 8 flight.

 

Fellow N-FP writer Bill Cooley found a mix of opinions among the Chattanoogans he interviewed the next day, with some talking about the amount of tax money going to the space program. 

 

Mr. Cooley also interviewed fellow News-Free Press staff members. Rex Sanders said the moon touchdown was “utterly fantastic, fascinating,” while Pete McCall called it “man’s greatest feat since Orville Wright.”

 

Tim Elledge said they should have gone to Mars, while Kinchen Exum called it “the greatest scientific advancement of the millennium,” although he, like Mr. Parker in his column, wondered if they should also focus on solving the ills of the world.

 

The humor-filled Buddy Houts claimed he did not watch the moon landing and walk.

 

In the Times, reporter Ewing Carruthers had a more serious and thoughtful story examining the Chattanoogans’ reactions, saying, “Most men and women moved back into childhood to act out a favorite daydream as they bounced along the parched ash of the moon with the astronauts.

 

“Children’s Sunday night bedtimes were pushed back a couple of hours so they could witness the most historic event in history – so far, at least.”

 

The Times reporter said the astronauts looked like ghosts and “hopped about like airy skeletons dancing.” 

 

The writer then said Monday in Chattanooga began “with an excitement rarely experienced among people of any epoch.” 

 

In the reflective article matching the historic moment, Mr. Carruthers called the sense of exuberance over the moonwalk the exact opposite of a national tragedy like the attack on Pearl Harbor.

 

He added, “The sense of unity was clearly felt as Chattanoogans moved about shopping, on golf courses, fishing or other activities.”

 

Fifty years have now passed since that momentous event, and plenty of people have been trying to put it all in perspective and are wondering about the significance of the moonwalk in 2019.

 

For me, all I can say I was glad I was able to witness it. It touched me greatly, and I have never forgotten about it. I have stories to tell about it, as do those still-white papers that have never left my father’s house in 50 years. 

 

Jcshearer2@comcast.net

Copies of the Chattanooga Times and News-Free Press from July 21, 1969
Copies of the Chattanooga Times and News-Free Press from July 21, 1969

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