For Dr. Richard Coke, it was a cleaning job that really paid off.
It happened on July 20, 1969 — the day when American astronauts walked on the moon.
Back then, Coke was on a mission — not to the moon — but to become an army officer. Coke was at Officer Candidate School at the U.S. Army’s Artillery School in Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
“Due to our grueling training schedule, very few of us were lucky enough to see the landing and the first moon steps. But luckily for me and a few others, we saw the event live on television,” Coke said.
Coke, a retired dentist, is among area residents who remember that historic time and shared their memories with the Fremont Tribune.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the day when Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. landed on the moon.
Armstrong would become the first person to step foot on the lunar surface. He acknowledged the milestone with the words: “…one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Aldrin would follow 20 minutes later.
An estimated 530 million people saw Armstrong’s televised image and heard him speak, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Coke was one of those people.
Looking back, the Fremont man recalls that the training schedule at the Officer Candidate School wasn’t put on hold so people could watch the moon landing.
But that day, Coke was part of a “detail” whose job was to completely clean the Battalion Day Room — a large break room for off-duty soldiers.
The room had lounging chairs, card tables, pool and ping pong tables — and a television.
“Just prior to the moment of astronaut Neil Armstrong’s first steps, we halted our mops and floor polishers and watched that momentous event,” Coke said. “We all were filled with pride as landing on the moon was accomplished. Then we went back to work.”
Gary Schlapfer’s memory begins with an outdoor experience.
That day, he baled hay for the only time in his life, before sitting to watch Armstrong take that one small step.
That sight would have a profound effect.
“Since then, I have become a NASA educator and have taken thousands of kids to Kennedy Space Center over 23 years to see Launch Pad 39 and all the other displays about NASA’s manned flight program,” the Fremont man said. “I have also taken on and corrected every misguided soul who claims the landing was a fake.”
Genelle Hargens of Morse Bluff associates the moon landing with a family member’s illness.
“Our 3-year-old daughter had contracted the measles,” Hargens said. “She had been vaccinated, however, she had a few spots, and was not sick at all. She had given what the doctor called ‘the hard measles’ to her Dad.”
For weeks, the man was not allowed to be any place where there was any light.
“So the drapes had to be closed and all windows were covered so there would be no light in the house,” she said.
July 20, 1969, would be the first day they watched TV together. “Of course, he had to wear sunglasses,” she said.
Fremonter Gary Hansen made a special stop to make sure his son, Ron, would be able to watch the moon landing.
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It all began when Hansen asked if his son wanted to ride in his truck for a trip.
“He gladly said, ‘yes,’ and we were off hauling Gamble store stuff for Gambles warehouse,” Hansen said.
Late in the day, Hansen realized the moon landing was going to take place and didn’t want his son to miss it.
“We stopped in Basset, Nebraska, at a motel and went in — and yes — they had it on what was then some sort of TV,” Hansen said, adding, “It has always stuck in my memories.”
Richard Hirschman watched the moon landing from an overseas location.
Hirschman was a social studies teacher in West Point, Nebraska, in 1969.
That summer, he received a grant to attend a folk school in Helsingor, Denmark. Until then, he’d never been on a plane or traveled outside of the United States.
“I watched the moon landing on a TV in the dormitory lounge along with hundreds of millions who watched around the world,” Hirschman said. “The optimism I felt seeing Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon was such a contrast to the ongoing Vietnam War and demonstrations in the U.S. We really needed that boost of confidence.”
Dr. William Svoboda’s interest in the moon landing was right in step with his own family’s history.
At the time, Svoboda’s father was a podiatrist in Fremont. Svoboda was in his residency at Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
Knowing Svoboda’s captivation with astronomy, his father sent him a telegram with an observation that might be expected from a foot doctor.
The podiatrist asked his son to “Notice what portion of Neil Armstrong was honored to first touch the moon.”
Svoboda immediately replied: “In keeping with NASA policy … the most expendable.”
Many might smile at Svoboda’s humorous response.
And there’s another story behind what Svoboda called his “rabid fascination with astronomy.”
Svoboda, who was adopted, never knew anything about his birth parents until — at his daughter’s urging — he did some genealogical research.
“I was amazed to find that my great uncle, Milton Humason, had been a world-famous astronomer and former head of Mount Wilson and Mount Palomar observatories in California,” Svoboda said.
So Svoboda makes an observation of his own:
“Perhaps an astronomical fixation is a hereditary trait?”
Whatever the case, Svoboda and other folks interested in the broad expanse beyond earth can appreciate the bravery and boldness of astronauts to dared to venture into space and be the first to walk on the moon.
History records that Armstrong and Aldrin spent 21 hours and 36 minutes on the moon’s surface during the trip.
There, they’d collect samples and deploy a scientific experiments package.
They’d leave various items on the moon, including an American flag and a commemorative plaque which reads: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
The flight of astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins, the command module pilot, continues to capture the interest of people — even five decades later.
And that small step has paved the way for more space exploration.