Monday, 30 December 2019

The Ramblings Of A Silly Old Man - CHAPTER SIX


Being a silly OLD man, the emphasis on the word OLD, I have live through some events which have gone down in modern history as iconic moments in time There are a series of short moments which did not change the course of history as did the two world wars or the bombing of Hiroshima but there is something about each which holds the individual to where they were when they heard the news. There have been a lot of such times in my life so this chapter is going to be a long ramble, a very long ramble indeed. Shall we have a lottery on the number of words I will write ?

Where were you when you heard the news that President John F Kennedy, the 35th President of The United States had been assassinated. Friday 22nd November 1963 ?  You may not have graced this world with your presence on that date, not yet born,  but you will have heard of John John Fitzgerald Kennedy and know of his death. Your knowledge will be wrapped in the myths surrounding the events of Friday 22nd November 1963 and the days following. As I take you through my recollection of events I invite you to close your eyes to become the just turned thirteen year old I was at the time. Come and join me as I learned of the assassination of John F Kennedy.

It was a black and white world. Television was black and while. Newspapers were black and white obviously but without the colour images we know today. Cameras took black and white photographs, only those with loads of cash in their pockets could afford colour film. For me school was black and white, totally boring. Even our pet dog had a black coat while next door's cat was white.

It had been a black and white boring day at school but at least it was Friday. Friday afternoon, double Science with Mr Wall aka Brick. Brick Wall couldn't teach an interesting lesson if he lived to be one hundred years old. Given he had just celebrated his one hundred and second birthday, double science on Friday 22nd November 1963 had no hope.

One good thing, Friday evening was Boys' Brigade. Boys' Brigade ?  Almost defunct today it was a uniformed youth organisation similar to the Boy Scouts. Similar but The Boys' Brigade was semi-religious and we all marched up and down like toy soldiers. It was at that Friday evening meeting of The Boys' Brigade I heard President Kennedy was dead.  My friends and I were devastated.

Britain was monochrome, America so we thought was technicolour and President Kennedy was destined to export American Technicolour to the western world. Naivety, naivety big time. America in the 1060's was a grotty place, not a nice country to live in. However, so many naive teenagers dreamed of emigrating to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean and taking up citizenship. Teenage folly !

A year before he was killed President Kennedy took the world to the edge of nuclear holocaust. History may have created the myth that he was the saviour of the world but that credit belongs to Nikita Khrushchev, leader of The Soviet Union.

The Russians had placed nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, aiming them at American cities. It was all part of the game history has called The Cold War. I doubt the Russians would ever have fired them but that was now what we in the Western World thought.

Kennedy's way of thinking to resolve the game was to threaten firing nuclear missiles before the Russians did. He made a very clear threat to The Soviet Union. For several days the world held its breath, nuclear annihilation was inevitable. Parents kept their children at home, not sending them to school. A nuclear war was not considered by the headmaster of my school as an acceptable reason to bunk off.

Nikita Khrushchev backed down and removed his country's weapons of annihilation from Cuba. It was Nikita Khrushchev who backed off and saved the world, not John F Kennedy.

Kennedy was married to the beautiful, iconic Jackie but she was not enough for the president who had an affair with film megastar Marilyn Monro as did his younger brother Robert. Some would say those affairs were behind Marilyn's suicide, we will never know.

Slavery was abolished in America in 1863, one hundred years earlier. While Americans, so many of them, continued to treat Black Americans as lower forms of life. Segregation was common. Human rights ?  What human rights ? America certainly was a black and white society - literally !  Kennedy may have tried to change things but he did not try hard enough.

The foundation stones for the Vietnam War were put down in the mid 1950's but Kennedy did not block the road.

So it was at the Friday Parade of 1st Sutton Coldfield Boys' Brigade that I learned of the death of the 35th President of The United States. Were Kennedy still alive as I am writing this account he would be one hundred and two years old.  Donald Trump at seventy-three years of age, by the way, is the 45th president.

So who killed President Kennedy ?  Not Lee Harvey Oswald, that's for sure. Were he still alive he would be eighty years of age but he was killed by Jack Ruby two days after Kennedy, how convenient.  Myth generated by the American Secret Service would have you believe that Oswald was the assassin but NO WAY. The Soviet Union had no part, I am certain of that. If you ask me I believe the American Secret Service accidentally killed their president.

Somebody certainly did fire shots from the Texas Book Depository, that may or may not have been Lee Harvey Oswald, but he missed. A secret service bodyguard in the presidential motorcade grabbed his weapon but in his panic he accidentally fired while bringing the gun to focus on where the shots had come from. It was the bullet from that gun that brought the life of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of The United States of America, to its end.

Question. Who was the last American President to be shot ?  Kennedy's brother Robert. No, he was a presidential candidate, he had not yet been elected. The answer is the 40th president of the US Ronald Regan who served in office for eight years from January 1981 to January 1989.  On 30th March 1981 John Hickley fired a shot at Regan who was injured but not killed.

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and safely returning him to the Earth............. Words of Kennedy.

It was not only New York Airport which took the name of the 35th president but also Cape Canaveral in Florida from where space rockets were launched. It became Cape Kennedy or Kennedy Launch Control.

So where were you when man first walked on the moon ?  Sunday 20th July 1969, were you alive then ? Let me invite you to enter into my memories and make them your own.

I have said in other chapters of this ramble that I grew up in a monochrome world and indeed I did but teenage sanity was preserved by two things, the pop music scene and space travel. Within both exciting things were happening an a daily basis. There was a time when young boys dreamed of becoming train drivers, myth says we lads dreamed of being spacemen but not so as we belied when we reached adulthood space travel would be as common and easy as riding a bike. What went wrong  ?

If you are not as ancient in years as I am then I guess I need to remind you there were two totally different ideological super powers. The USA - United States Of America with its satellite allies such as Great Britain. The USSR - United of Soviet Socialist Republics. Between them  they set up The Space Race, a competition to rival The Olympic Games, The Football World Cup and The Eurovision Song Contest all rolled into one. Russia quickly established itself as the leader and favourite to win.

Russia put the first tiny unmanned space craft into Earth orbit with Sputnik One, that was 4th October 1957. It orbited the Earth a staggering 1,440 times before its batteries died and fell back to Earth. America eventually upped the game with Telstar launched on 10th July 1962. We lads used to tune our parent's valve powered radio sets to pick up static and pretend it was signals from Telstar. In honour of Telstar the English group The Tornadoes released a single on 17th August 1962. It made number one in the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. I don't think people in The Soviet Union listened.

Russia was the first to put a living creature into space in November 1957 with the dog Laika. On 28th May 1959 America sent a monkey into space. Hang on a be patient will you, I've got a lot more rambling to go through before we reach Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong dancing the twist on the surface of the moon.

In another chapter I will ramble about arrogance, a character trait I have possessed since birth. My arrogance was in the spring of 1961 was put up against the arrogance of a man old enough to be my grandfather. I was ten years old, he was seventy years old.

You silly little boy, man will never fly in space.

You stupid old man, I silently replied. How dare you call me a little boy ?  I am ten years old, double figures, I am not a little boy and besides I am right.

Right I was ! Russia always kept its space race activities secret until the mission reached the point of success. Of course I was right, I am always right. What is the point of arrogance if you are not always right.

Russian Astronaut Juri Gagarin, No - the Russians called its spacemen Cosmonauts, Russian Cosmonaut Juri Gagarin orbited the Earth in spaceship Vostock One to become the first man in space. There were a lot of red faces in The United States Of America including the new President John F Kennedy while in the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev led the red smiles of his nation. Gagarin was in space for 1 hour 48 minutes on 12th April 1961.

I guess we lads wanted America to win the space race but we were definitely not backing the favourite. America's response to Juri Gagarin was to put Alan Shepard into space in May 1961 but his craft was not sophisticated enough to orbit the Earth, all it did was to up and then down again. Hi was a single seater space craft was a Mercury capsule named after Mercury the god spied. Not speedy enough to get into orbit. Russia smiled again.

I believe this nation should commit itself and so on and so forth. While all of America believed in Kennedy's dream, across the world belief was not so strong.  Would it ever come true ?

Alan Shepard's Mercury space ship was designed for one person. If America was to have a man walk on the Moon he was not going to be able to fly that distance on his own. Exit Mercury, bring on Gemini, a two seater spaceship named after the Babylonian god of the underworld.

June 1963 another first for The Soviet Union, Valentina Tereshkova became the world's first female asto - I mean cosmonaut. America was not in the least bit bothered, space was a man's world with no space for the female sex.  Valentina Tereshkova is still with us today aged eighty-two.

Bring on Apollo, this time the spaceship took the name from Apollo god of the sun, I thought Kennedy said to put a man on the Moon !  America was now in the lead for the space race but what it did not realise was Soviet Russia was slowly bowing out of the race. It was all secret back then but now we know Nikita Khrushchev  was becoming increasingly concerned that the money being spent on the futility of heading to the moon would be better spent on Earth in the lives of the ordinary people. That's communism for you. Capitalism ? In capitalism who are the ordinary people ?

Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins in the command module Columbia on the top of the giant Saturn 4B rocket took off at 2.23pm (7.32pm UK) on 16th July 1969...Thirty seconds and counting. Astronauts report it feels good. T minus 25 seconds. Twenty seconds  T-minus15 seconds, guidance is internal. 12, 11, 10, 9 ... ignition sequence start ... 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0 ... All engines running. Liftoff! We have a liftoff ... 32 minutes past the hour, liftoff on Apollo 11. Tower clear.............

I left school in the summer of 1967 and at the time of the launch I had just successfully completer my two year initial training course as a manager at Lewis's Department Store in the city centre of Birmingham. Not as high as the trio on Apollo 11 but I was flying high in my career and well on the way to becoming a retail magnate. That did not actually happen but that's another ramble.

In those days shops had sensible opening hours. Monday to Friday 9am to 5.30pm with late opening on Thursday to 5.30pm. On a Saturday the store closed at 5 o'clock and did not open at all on a Sunday. 16th July 1969 was a Wednesday, my day off that week,  so I was able to watch the launch of Apollo 11 live.The landing on the Moon on Sunday 20th July 1969 the store was closed.

I had my Dad's Grundig wheel to wheel tape recorder with the microphone wedged to the loud speaker of that black and white GEC television.  There was a time when that recording would have been valuable but not today when modern technology makes everything available via the internet and at the click of a mouse.

Let me click that mouse.

Aldrin: Altitude-velocity light. 3 1/2 down, 220 feet, 13 forward … forward. Coming down nicely. 200 feet, 4 1/2 down. 5 1/2 down. 5 1/2 down, 9 forward. That's good. 120 feet. 100 feet, 3 1/2 down, 9 forward. Five percent. Okay. 75 feet. There's looking good. Down a half, 6 forward.

Mission control: 60 seconds of fuel remaining.

Aldrin: Lights on ... Down 2 1/2. Forward. Forward. Good. 40 feet, down 2 1/2. Kicking up some dust. 30 feet, 2 1/2 down. Faint shadow. 4 forward. 4 forward. Drifting to the right a little. Okay. Down a half.

Mission Control: 30 seconds of fuel remaining.

Armstrong: Forward drift ?

Aldrin: Yes. Okay. Contact light. OK, engine stop.

Armstrong: Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.

Mission Control: Roger, Tranquillity. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot.

The flight plan was then for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to sleep before opening the hatch and slipping out on to the moon. Doh !  Who planned that ?  I milestone in the history of mankind and the astronauts were expected to go to bed. Doh !

Houston Texas. Mission Control, is four hours behind Britain. Most people in England watching live on their flickering black and white televisions went to bed intending to get up and watch the moon walk live once the astronauts had had a kip.

Richard Strauss composed Thus Sprak Zarathustra in 1896. The BBC used this as the music to introduce its reports on the Apollo Space Programme.

I did not go to bed, I did not go to sleep. Neither did Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.  Mission Control saw sense so advanced the time of the Moon walk. There were no Lunar Sheep to count so they did not sleep a wink. I watched everything live and recorded it on the now antique Grundig tape recorder.

The television picture was faint and not very clear but I could see Neil Armstrong descending the ladder from the LEM - Lunar Excursion Module, more commonly referred to as the Lunar Module.

I do not recall Neil Armstrong saying That's one small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind. He did say it but few, outside, the media actually remember hearing it live.

Back at work in Lewis's Department Store the next day the talk among both staff and customers was of mankind and the Moon. How long before Mars ? How long before the store's travel agency stated booking space tours ?  We all thought it would happen but now in the third decade of the twenty-first century we are  no closer than we were in that summer of 1969.

Apollo 12 came and went the following November, nobody can remember the three crew members. The astronauts broke the camera so shutting out the world from much of the action on the surface of the moon. Had the camera not been broken would there have been much public interest ?  Hard to say. Apollo 11 won the space race, Apollo 12 could never have equalled Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.

Then came Apollo 13. The world's attention was totally captured. Houston we have a problem. The world watched and prayed, I watched and prayed. Launched on Saturday 11th April 1970, I had put Lewis's Department Store and a career as a retail magnate behind me. I was an unqualified assistant teacher in a boys preparatory school. Under my direction, I was in charge of morning assemblies, the boys watched and prayed then prayed in thanks when the three astronauts, Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise returned safely to Earth.

And that was that. 

I am thinking which event to ramble through next, it occurs to me there has not been an iconic moment in recent times. Not for a couple and more decades. Where were you when you heard that Elvis Presley, The King of Rock and Roll, had died ? Wednesday 16th August 1977. You may not have been born but, of course, every single person here reading my words will know who Elvis Presley was and will have heard his music.

I was on a beach in Cornwall. someone heard the news on a transistor radio. It quickly spread right round the beach.

The man who died was not the King of Rock and Roll. Aged forty-two he looked much older. He was an unwell man who died of a heart attack while sitting on the toilet. No he did not die from drugs, he was not addicted to drugs but he was too dependant on prescription medication.

We do not remember him as the fat, overweight old man, an old man yet aged only forty-two years. We remember him as the hip swinging King of Rock and Roll. It's better that way. 

John Lennon, murdered in cold blood, that what assassination is, murdered on Friday 12th December 1980 in New York. He should have stayed in Liverpool, asking for trouble relocating to New York.

As a teenager I was not a Beatles fan, only in recent years have I come to appreciate the music of the Fab Four and the pure genius of John Lennon. I went to an all boys school, it was girls who screamed in Beatlemania. It was not so cool for boys to get excited.

I was in the hall of Leon School were, as a senior member of staff, I was overseeing the team of teenager DJ's who ran the lunchtime disco. It was there I heard the news of John Lennon's murder. For the rest of the lunch hour we played only Beatles music.

9/11 - Why do Americans always write their dates backwards ?  Tuesday 11th September 2001. I was visiting my parents when somebody telephones to say the twin towers of The World Trade Centre in New York had been bombed and collapsed. Impossible, I had been to New York and had seen the Twin Towers they were too big to be brought to the ground by a bomb but wasn't a bomb was it. A bomb that killed 2,996 people.

It was a bomb that brought down Pan Am Flight 103 on Wednesday 21st December 1988 over Lockerbie in Scotland.  I was in a shopping centre when I heard the news.

I had flown to San Francisco in charge of a party of teenagers from Leon School. We flew on Pan Am 747 Clipper Juan Trippe. The purser on the flight wrote to the headmaster of Leon School saying what a delight it had been to have Leon School on her aircraft. She was the purser on Pan Am Flight 103.

Bombs. Back to when I was a management trainee at Lewis's Department Store in Birmingham. I have not consumed alcohol since I was twenty-six but all those years ago, aged sixteen, underage drinking was fun. A pint or three at lunch time followed by a Polo Mint was great.

the favourite pup of my friends and I was The Hole In The Wall. We had used The Mulberry Bush but it was not that great. The Tavern In The Town was good but too packed so we preferred  The Hole In The Wall.  The Tavern In The Town was in a cellar beneath the shops in New Street. Sadly the IRA chose well selecting The Tavern In the Town as part of its bombing campaign on Thursday 21st November 1974. I was a newly qualified teacher living in Milton Keynes. Turning on the television I heard the news. I was pleased I no longer worked in Birmingham and had not been drinking in The Tavern In The Town.

One more where was I than I'll ramble into a different subject. I did warn you this was going to be a long chapter.

Sunday 31st August 1997 I had gone doen to the kitchen to make a cup of tea for my wife Maureen who was still in bed. I turned on the radio. As I listened my mind was asking itself who was the news reader talking about ? Who had died ?  It had to be someone important, someone high profile but who ?  And then, eventually, the news reader said her name - Princess Dianna. The country went utterly crazy in mourning. Five days Mother Teresa died but the media hardly noticed.

As with all of the nation, indeed the world, I watched Dianna's funeral live on television. As with millions of others I sent a letter of condolence to her brother Earl Spencer. It was just two weeks later I received a black edged card thanking me for my letter.

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