May 10, 2002
Saturn's Children

My dad used to work on the Apollo space program. He has any number of stories, all of them funny. Some of them may actually be true. But this isn't one of them.

The first six years of my life coincided roughly with the manned Saturn V missions. While my mother insists it's not possible, I am convinced one of my earliest memories is of the Apollo 11 launch. Now, considering I was only 15 months old, it's not much of a memory. What I recall is a bright, sunlit day. Our TV, a huge set, probably at least 24 inches, and one of the biggest pieces of furniture in the house, was set up in the corner of the den. It was a sunken den (a big thing in the 60s), with a wrought-iron railing at the end with the step. At the opposite end of the house, past the kitchen on the left and the "green" bathroom on the right, was my parent's bedroom, complete with a king size bed and a blue bedspread.

In the bedroom was a device I was completely fascinated with... one of those "flippy" digital clock radios. You know, the kind where all the numbers are on rolodex-like spools that "flop" down as the time changes. I loved this thing, and later on when I was more co-coordinated got into trouble because I kept re-setting it just to get the numbers to flop down.

Anyway, what I remember quite clearly is this very bright sunny day and my mom being very excited. What I thought was most remarkable was that there was a rocket on the TV and, if I ran down the hall, what was on the TV was playing on the clock radio!!! The exact same thing! This so completely tripped me out that I remember running back and forth down the hall screaming about it. Eventually my mom got tired of it and told me to settle down. This is where the memory pretty much ends.

The next one I think I remember, again this is pretty foggy, is Apollo 12. I know it was Apollo 12 because there was a storm blowing in, and storms kept me from playing outside. All I remember of this one is my dad coming home very angry, yelling about stuff and saying "astronauts" and "lightening" a lot. Apollo 12 was the one that got hit by lightening because NASA wanted to get it off before a storm closed the cape in completely.

The next time a Saturn V entered my life was Christmas of 1969 or 1970. Santa brought me one of the most completely inappropriate but perfectly memorable gifts I have ever received for Christmas... a 1/96th scale model of a Saturn V. It was nearly four feet tall (at least a foot taller than I was) and it dominated my grandparent's parlor room, where the Christmas tree was. I can still see it sitting on the white carpet (none of the grandchildren were ever allowed in this room unsupervised), surrounded by other presents. It was spectacular.

I remember running to it, lifting it up, and toting it out the room (I couldn't have been more than 2 and a half years old, so this may not have happened in sequence). I loved my "big white rocket", but what happened next did not bode well for its survival... I whacked the top of it on the door jamb and knocked the escape tower off.

The next thing that I remember is one of my #1 cherished memories, because we had a meal at my great grandparent's house that day. I remember my great grandmother as a very tall, somewhat scary lady with big glasses and a walker. I toted my rocket all the way there (they lived about two doors down), and danced around it in my great grandmother's house.

I am the only one of my generation of the family with memories of my great grandmother, and that is the memory of her that is most clear.

Unfortunately the big white rocket didn't last all that long. By summertime I'd lost all of the small pieces, and most of the big ones. Eventually all that was left was the top of the first stage... a circular piece of plastic no more than 6 inches across and maybe 1 inch thick, which got thrown away when I was 8. I obsessed over big white rocket model kits for the rest of the 70s and some of the 80s. Revell eventually re-issued it in the late 90s, and I am now again the proud owner of a big white (albeit unassembled) rocket.

I don't have any more specific Saturn V memories for awhile after this. The launches were going on, and I do remember pointing at the rockets on television and asking kid questions about what I saw. My dad says that I was an absolute encyclopedia of rocket lore, not just "big white rocket" but specific stuff like launch schedules and how the thing got set up. He says I used to talk rings around barbers and other grown ups that were dumb enough to ask me if I knew what the picture of the rocket on the wall was.

I do remember being brought outside at night for some sort of satellite launch, perhaps more than once. I was small enough that one of my parents picked me up so I could get a better look. Rockets are loud and bright and beyond cool. I remember waving and saying "bye bye rocket".

I also remember visiting the space center during some sort of open house. I remember the titanic VAB. I think I fell over looking at the ceiling over 500 feet above me. I was completely terrified by someone in a space suit. I remember seeing the hulking shape of the crawler my dad was in charge of, framed by the doors of the building. We couldn't, or at any rate didn't, go closer, as I recall because it was pouring down rain.

The final Saturn V memory I have is much clearer, as by 1972 my now nearly five year old brain was much better wired. My brother, myself, and I think some other kids (Scottie and Lodie? two friends's kids) were loaded up into my mom's big ugly red 70s station wagon one night. I don't think it was made completely clear to us what was going to happen, or if it was I don't think we completely understood. I do remember parking near some interesting looking buildings (it may have been the VAB... I was told later it was a special VIP area), and getting put up on the roof of the wagon. I think we were all starting to get a little cranky because it was getting late for us. I remember being fascinated that I could push my hand down and make the roof of the wagon dimple a little, and that dew was beginning to form.

Eventually however a countdown was read out and when it reached zero one of the most spectacular things in my life happened... a Saturn V was launched in complete darkness. The roar of the engines was simply inconceivable. It was sound made solid, hitting you in the face like a wooden box. The sky lit up with a blinding torch, but by straining and looking very closely I could just make out the big white rocket shape I had got so familiar with over the few years of my life. It was bright enough that you could read a newspaper by the light in Miami. To this day my dad insists NASA did it just to see what would happen.

That was the last of the moon shots, and the last Saturn V launch I would be able to see. The last Saturn V launch of all was when they lofted Skylab up the next year, by which time my family had moved to Arkansas. The giant that dominated my imagination for my entire life left the world's stage with a roar, never to be seen again. I have missed it at least a little ever since.

For a long, long time it simply never occurred to me how special all of it was... didn't everyone have a dad that worked with rockets and astronauts? It wasn't until I was a teenager and the shuttle started going up that it really sank in and not until college that I realized how valuable the whole experience was, if nothing else than to get a girl to talk to me for more than a few seconds. I now write and share them with the world via this website, because my dad's getting on up there and if someone doesn't write all this down then one day it'll vanish into the sky like that last big rocket.

My parents have clearer memories, my dad has much funnier ones, probably anyone over 35 has different ones, but these...

These are mine.

Posted by scott at May 10, 2002 07:51 PM

eMail this entry!

The night launch, I believe was Apollo 13. We were in the VIP area. The others were Leah Kramer and her two boys Scottie and Lodie, her husband Ken Kramer worked with your dad and they were best friend. We spent many, many week ends together, four adults and four little boys. The people we visited when I took the two "Johnson Boys" to Disney World, by myself, were the Kramers. I wish I knew where they were living, I believe the year was 1978.

Thank you for the essay. I am sitting here with tears streaming down my face. I didn't know you remembered my grandmother, she died in 1972. You were the first everything: first child, grandchild, great grandchild like James is now.

You can build that"big ole white rocket" for your first child. Your dad built it for you.

Posted by: Pat on May 11, 2002 02:29 PM

You are going to be in TROUBLE ove that "getting on in years" remark about your dad. ROTFLMAO! I sent a copy of this to Tom and Judy.

Posted by: Pat on May 11, 2002 02:46 PM

Scott, what a Beautiful story, I live in Florida, and Love the Space Program. I call it Man's great adventure.
Your memories, by the very words you use, are quite Strong. You remember it Clearly, as a child, yet Clearly. What a beautiful sharing of a Truly unique part of this human life.
You Sir, are a Missle Man. Joe

Posted by: Joe Connolly on May 13, 2002 12:51 AM

I have check further launches and am pretty sure the night launch was Apollo 17.

Posted by: Pat on January 21, 2003 12:34 AM

This story was amazing. I was actually looking to buy a rocket at the same time I found this essay. Could you please tell me where to buy a good quality Saturn V Rocket. Could you please send me a link where I can get a rocket. I am going to a book signing where I am going to meet buzz aldrin from Apollo 11 and I was hoping to get a rocket signed. Thank you
Michael Laity

Posted by: Michael on May 5, 2006 01:11 AM

Do a search for "saturn V" on our main page. I know I've linked up several kit discussion, I'm just not sure where.

Posted by: Scott on May 5, 2006 12:28 PM

While searching for the date of the Apollo 17 night launch, I ran across your wonderful story. I was there, also, with my 6 children falling asleep in the dew at the VIP area, waiting for the launch. It launched at 12:33 AM.
It was a magnificent view and we are so blessed to have such a historic memory to pass on to others. My husband hopes someday the USA will again go to the moon!
Kitty McLamb
P. S. I have some snapshots from the launch, but they are nothing compzred to the memory!

Posted by: Kitty on June 19, 2006 08:19 PM
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