Belfast Telegraph

Our moon landing memories: John Laverty and Alex Kane on that one small step

History-maker: Neil Armstrong plants a US flag on the lunar surface
History-maker: Neil Armstrong plants a US flag on the lunar surface
Neil Armstrong
John Laverty with older brother Gerry and father Joseph in the late Sixties

Two Belfast Telegraph writers remember where they were when Neil Armstrong, whose forebears hailed from Fermanagh, became the first man on the Moon

John Laverty: ‘If we missed it, we’d regret it for all our lives’

Looking back, it was probably the first inkling that something extraordinary was happening. We were loading up Uncle Charlie's Cortina for the traditional mid-July excursion to Magherahoney - but this time the TV was coming with us.

I was delighted to see the heavy old black and white Bush being lifted into the boot - a summer holiday with television; bliss! - but a tad confused too.

My dad had little or no interest in the box, save for the footie, and Mummy was a take-it-or-leave-it Corrie watcher.

Granny McCambridge didn't have a telly in her Co Antrim countryside cottage - and had no intention of getting one - yet here we were, bouncing down the Frosses Road with this thing (which, technically, belonged to Radio Rentals, not us) on board.

It was older brother Gerry who believed he'd uncovered a flaw in the scheme.

"Granny doesn't have a TV aerial, Daddy..."

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Daddy smiled. "No, but we have a set-top one, and they get a strong signal from Scotland down there..."

Two days later we were all crowded around the illegally transported Bush watching grainy live monochrome images from a quarter of a million miles away.

"This is why we brought the TV," said Daddy.

"If you miss this, you'll regret it for the rest of your life."

I was just 12 months old when JFK was assassinated, so this was my first 'where were you when?' moment.

And what a moment. Well, I say 'moment' but it went on for hours.

Amid all the excitement of that night, people forget that, for what felt like interminable spells to a near-seven-year-old, nothing seemed to be happening.

But a bespectacled man I now know to be legendary BBC science correspondent James Burke and that funny looking bloke with the wonky eye (Patrick Moore) did their best to fill in the gaps.

Burke, especially, came across as a lot smarter than any of my primary school teachers.

"He's the cleverest man EVER!" I declared.

Daddy: "He's from here."

Me: "What, planet Earth?"

Daddy: "Well, yes. Derry."

Me: "He doesn't sound like it..."

Back on the Moon, Neil was preparing to make history. The live pictures were, however, inexplicably upside down. Technical expert Daddy smacked the telly but nothing happened.

Had the Moon suddenly spun around? I'd heard about that phenomenon in school.

Then, as if by magic, the inverted feed corrected itself in time for Neil to step off the lunar module's footpad and deliver the immortal (but grammatically wrong) line about "one small step for (a) man".

(Do you notice that he pauses between the second 'one' and 'giant leap for mankind'? I'm convinced he was mentally kicking himself for fluffing the most momentous quote in human history).

I recall being disappointed that Neil and Buzz didn't bump into anyone up there, the way the Robinsons always did in Lost In Space.

I'm sure I slept between the Eagle landing and that first small step, and perhaps the enormity of seeing the first human beings set foot on another celestial body passed me by then, but not afterwards.

That Christmas, Santa brought me an Airfix 1/144 model of the Saturn V that propelled Apollo 11 crew Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins to the Moon half a decade ago.

I also collected all the Apollo badges over the next few years; 15 was my favourite because it looked like the one on Captain Kirk's shirt - and Jim Irwin got to lark around in the lunar rover.

Unforgivably, this obsessive even cut the 'Space Age' bits out of Mum's expensive encyclopedia collection for my scrapbook. Sorry, Mum.

By the time Apollo 17 lifted off in 1972, however, Bestie was competing with Buzz for space on the bedroom wall.

And chronic claustrophobia had stymied my dreams of becoming a pilot/astronaut.

Yet the import of what I saw in the early hours of July 21, 1969, only expands over time.

Indeed, what Nasa achieved is now employed as a pointed barometer of what we CAN'T do: 'we' put men on the Moon but we can't cure cancer/prevent wars/deliver a parcel on time/solve the Brexit backstop conundrum.

It's a funny old world that Armstrong and Co were gazing back at.

Alex Kane: 'Mum woke me with soup and sandwiches'

There have been a number of 'do you remember where you where?' moments in my lifetime, and two of them happened at the same time: 3.56am BST (from 1968 to 1971 the UK was experimenting with remaining one hour ahead of GMT) on Monday, July 21, 1969.

It was three weeks before my 14th birthday and I was allowed a very small glass of Pimms to mark man's first footstep on the Moon.

My dad's logic was simple: "You've more chance of remembering exactly where you were when you had your first drink than exactly what you were doing when you had it."

He was right. And on the night when Neil Armstrong died - on August 25, 2012 - I stood in the back garden, winked at the Moon and raised a glass of Pimms to the memory of both moments.

I went to bed just after lunch on Sunday the 20th and waded through the listings/timings guides in the Radio Times and the pages I had torn out of newspapers which printed things like, 'Your Guide To The Moon Landing Jargon' and 'What Happens If Something Goes Wrong?'

My mum woke me a few hours later.

She had made an enormous pot of celery soup (kept warm in a hostess trolley) and a mountain of egg and tomato sandwiches, wrapped in tin foil and placed on the table beside their chairs and the sofa she had moved up for me (I think they assumed I would fall asleep again).

I remember the television as being quite small, although I am pretty sure that it must have been the standard size for the time.

I also remember the wonderful James Burke - to all intents and purposes the BBC's space correspondent - and his ability to infuse even the most mundane piece of information with sheer, unbridled passion.

He clearly loved his job: and in our era, when every event, even the most trivial, requires a truck-load of pundits and analysts to explain what often doesn't need to be explained, it is astonishing to watch the TV footage of James Burke doing the job for hours on end, often single-handedly.

At around that time I was reading a book about the great explorers and adventurers of history; how they had crossed oceans, discovered countries and peoples, mapped out their discoveries, brought back their trophies and paved the way for others.

When Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin placed their feet upon the Moon I was thinking that, like Polo, Columbus and Livingstone, they had joined the pantheon of immortals; names that would be recalled with awe for so long as people could read and remember.

Oddly, I also found myself wondering if Michael Collins (he was the command module pilot on Apollo 11 and didn't join his colleagues on the surface) would be remembered by anyone other than historians and space junkies.

Sadly, he wasn't.

My dad hadn't been to bed and was getting tired. I still have a very clear image of him opening and standing just outside the French windows in our lounge and looking upwards.

He beckoned me over, put an arm around my shoulder and semi-whispered, "Your generation really does have a new world out there to embrace. I hope they make a better job of looking after that world than many people have done with ours."

Then he hugged me, hugged my mum and went to bed.

I don't ever remember him being that emotional before, or afterwards.

I assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that within a few decades - and certainly in my lifetime - we would have bases on the Moon and elsewhere.

I hoped, too, that along with Captain James T Kirk we would have made contact with "new life and new civilisations (and boldly gone) where no man has gone before".

Again, sadly, that seems to be an excitement which will elude me.

That said, judging by the very strange new breed of politician emerging around the globe, we may already and unknowingly have been invaded by creatures from another world.

Belfast Telegraph


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