Journalists get paid to be in the right place at the right time. Sometimes we carefully plan it because we have sufficient advance notice of an upcoming event. Sometimes we have to drop whatever we’re doing and scurry to an unplanned event such as a big fire or accident. And then there are times when we just stumble into it.
Such was the time for me on July 20, 1969 – 50 years ago yesterday – when American astronauts landed on the moon, creating “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” as astronaut Neil Armstrong described it.
Millions of Americans watched on television as Walter Cronkite and other broadcasters reported on the historic event.
I was not among those watching from home. I was a 23-year-old reporter for the Aurora Beacon-News in Aurora, Illinois. The moon landing occurred on a Sunday, a day off for many working Americans, but not for me. As the newest member of the newspaper staff, I got the Sunday assignment. I had the responsibility of covering a news event that day – a benefit being held for a clergyman who used his private plane to do missionary work. The plane had broken down and friends and followers put together a program to raise money for him to fix his plane.
They thought it would be fitting to have an air show for the missionary pilot and arranged to have it at an airstrip near a cornfield in the small, rural town of Sandwich, Illinois, not far from Aurora. (And yes, that’s the real name of the town. You can look it up.)
Something really special was to occur. The highlight of the program would be an appearance by Bob Hope, the most popular comedian in America. The name might not be familiar to today’s generation, but in his day, he was as popular and well known as David Letterman or Jimmy Kimmel are today. To put it in a North Iowa context, it would be like Letterman or Kimmel appearing in Garner. In other words, it was a big deal.
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One of the organizers of the program had a friend who had a friend who was a friend of Hope. The comedian was appearing in a show in Chicago at the time. The friend of the friend contacted Hope, told him about the benefit, and asked if he would make an appearance and Hope agreed.
Sunday, July 20, was a brutally hot day in Sandwich with a cloudless sky and a relentless sun beating down on me and a couple thousand spectators. As I continually looked up into the sky to view the air show, I became “heat beat” and needed to find some shelter. The air strip had a little office. I made my way into it to get a little relief. At one end of the little room, a black-and-white television was on, and as I walked in, the astronauts were landing on the moon. There was a fellow with his back turned to me who was watching just as I was. Neither one of us said anything.
When the magical moment passed, Bob Hope turned around, slicked his hair back with his hands and said, “That’s really something, isn’t it kid?” Then he walked out of the shelter and did his bit for the fund raiser.
A week or two later, Hope attended a gala celebration honoring the astronauts. In a televised interview, he said he watched the moon landing in a town called Sandwich. The audience roared in laughter as if he had just made it up.
But I knew it was true.