One of the town’s crack riflemen had his telescope focussed [sic] on the astronauts as they walked on the moon surface, collecting samples of rock... -- The Northern Times, Carnarvon, 24 July 1969
Carnarvon, Australia, had no television service in 1969, yet it was the first place in the world to see the Apollo 11 landing. Thanks to Aussie telecommunication engineers, the first live feed ever to Western Australia was established—from the tracking station near Canberra to a small TV set on stage at the Carnarvon Memorial Theatre north of Perth. The townsfolk jammed the theater, using whatever devices they could to see the tiny screen. The rest of the world saw the event after it rode a distance-delayed, quality-tweaked signal from Australia to Houston, via Intelsat III, and then out onto the international airwaves.
That’s how it came to me, sitting in a small tavern with a bunch of grizzled Croatian fishermen on the Island of Krk, off the coast of Yugoslavia.
Last week, for the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, NASA’s PR juggernaut asked 84-year old Buzz Aldrin, the late Neil Armstrong’s partner on the first moon landing, to issue a last call for (older) people everywhere to send him their memories of that day, 20 July 1969.
Forty-five years is a long time and my mind easily conflates what I saw on TV in that Krk tavern with what we’ve all seen and heard since then. I honestly don’t recall Neil Armstrong giving his little speech or anything much of the rock collecting, flag planting or kangaroo hopping. Less than fifty years on, I guess my memory of NASA’s greatest achievement needs a signal boost.
It may not be what you and NASA are looking for, Buzz, but here’s what I do remember.
The Cat and the Fiddle
I remember the Island of Krk, the stone and stucco town of the same vowel-less name, the gin-clear Adriatic waters, cooled and cleansed by submarine springs, the striking Dalmatian coastline, grilled ovrata, half-liters of local beer, carafes of primorska wine, friendly greetings and nods of approval.
I was on a long weekend holiday from my job in Slovenia, a couple of hundred kilometers north of Krk, accompanied by my wife, Judie, and sister, Vickie, who was visiting for the summer. The trip down took us from Ljubljana, the capital of the Yugoslav Republic of Slovenia, through the isolated town of Kocevje and onto a gravel road surrounded by rugged hills so wild they hid Tito and his Partisans from the Germans for most of World War II. Eventually, we crossed the unmarked border into Croatia. From there, a paved highway from Zagreb guided us to the coast and the ferry to Krk, the largest island in the Adriatic.
We spent a couple days doing the “usual” stuff – sleeping late, eating grilled fish and lamb at a local gostiona, swimming, accidentally stepping on sea urchins, sipping wine and beer and, on Sunday, stopping by the tavern to catch the Apollo 11 landing. We—visitors and locals—were all impressed with NASA’s technical feat, the astronauts’ matter-of-fact courage and the intrinsic symbolism of the event.
For that, I sincerely thank you and your companions on the Apollo 11 crew.
The Cow Jumped Over the Moon
Feeling pretty good about the weekend, we packed up the car on Sunday afternoon and drove down to the ferry dock. To entertain ourselves while we waited for the ferry, we gathered all our leftover cheese and bread and tossed it piece by piece to the fish milling around the dock. Finally, the ferry arrived and, out of food and with bags of wet towels and swimsuits, we drove aboard for a short ride to the mainland. The ferrymen had to pick our car up by the front bumper and move it sideways so it would fit.
After disembarking, we found the main highway to Zagreb. In an hour or so, we turned onto the gravel road north to Kocevje, still a couple of hours away through dank and mossy forest. Our home in Ljubljana was another hour-and-a-half beyond that. In the late afternoon light, it was easy to imagine wolves and bears (that still inhabit these parts) lurking in the shadows, waiting for a passing car to break down.
Not far over the border into Slovenia with no sign of settlement for miles around, the left-rear tire began to go “frop frop frop...” A puncture. I got out, replaced the flat tire with the spare and with some apprehension drove on. Within fifteen minutes, another flat. Uh-oh. In 1969, farmers in Yugoslavia still used oxen for transportation and for tending their small family farms. The oxen’s shoes were forever dropping nails. We had hit one just right and now, caught trying to buck Murphy’s Law, we had another flat and no spare—in the middle of a wild, communist no-man’s-land.
Still with me, Buzz?
The Little Dog Laughed to See Such Sport
Within an hour, a sky blue Skoda came humping up the road toward Kocevje. It stopped and a Czech family, hurrying home to Prague after a holiday on the coast, asked if they could help. Well, a ride into town would be really great, so Mom got into a back seat littered with kids and beach toys, I squeezed into the front seat with one of our tires on my lap and we disappeared into the forest.
Of course, there was no room in the Skoda for Judie and Vickie, so they stayed with our VW Squareback and settled in for a very uncomfortable and anxiety-ridden wait for what we had estimated would be several hours.
My Czech angels got me to Kocevje without incident and dropped me at a “Vulkanizer,” a tire repair shop, which was closed on Sunday. Nothing to do but find a place to stay for the night. The Hotel Kocevje was basic but comfortable and, to empty my mental space of worries about the two women I had left alone in the woods, I went across the street to watch the week’s film, Jesse James, a 1939 classic starring Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda, playing here for the first time ever.
In the meantime, Judie and Vickie, with nothing to eat and only wet beach clothes for warmth, started imagining bandits and murderers sneaking out of the forest toward the car. Then, from the pines and beech trees, two shadows emerged: young women in plain peasant dress. They had come from a farm, just over the next hill. They quickly ran off to tell their parents of the strangers stuck out on the road. Within a half hour, their mother appeared with a bowl of hardboiled eggs some schnapps and a couple of blankets. Soon two local boys showed up, clearly interested in the girls, and the party was on. And it went on until dark when they all went back to their farms leaving my womenfolk to their imaginations in a cold car on a lonely road, waiting for me to come back.
And the Dish Ran Away With the Spoon
Here comes the nice part, Buzz.
It took most of Monday morning to have the tire repaired, and I finally got a lift back to our car from a forester headed in the same direction. We said our “thank yous” and “goodbyes” to the farm family that had been so kind and, after extending an invitation for them to visit us, we drove off for Ljubljana. Just past Kocevje, we had another flat, but we were out of the woods now and a phone call from a nearby house to colleagues in Ljubljana brought help.
Later that autumn, the mother (her name was Anna) came to visit, and since then we have twice been back to her farm in the woods. Forty-five years ago, and perhaps yet today, Anna’s farm was a self-sufficient, ecological family enterprise with a water wheel for power; a mill and a still; an apple orchard; and a curved trough bearing a great stone wheel to crush apples for apple juice, apple schnapps and vinegar. Anna roasted green coffee beans in her wood burning stove and made her own thick egg noodles for soups. Anna’s husband tended the beehives, the oxen, small fields of wheat and corn and a woodlot allocation. It was a lovely, bucolic farm in a Hansel and Gretel setting, complete with a cozy log house and a muster of peacocks.
And, that’s it. That’s my story of your big day, Buzz. Thanks for asking. While you and Neil were confirming that the moon is a desolate and inhospitable rock covered in dust, I reconfirmed that our home planet is indeed beautiful and exciting – and neither as frightening nor as hopeless as we imagine it to be.
By now, we should all see that the value of your voyage was not in beating the Soviet Union to the punch or in leading the human race in its escape from a dystopian planet—a scenario that appeals to many adolescents, Star Wars fanatics and techno-Apocalyptians. The true value of your mission was in demonstrating how to solve complex problems through education, imagination, ingenuity, political commitment, long-range planning, superior management and teamwork. After forty-five years of straining at the stars, it’s time to bring that cow back to Earth. -TBM
Jay Moor lives with his wife, Judie, on Earth, which they still prefer to any alternative.