The Day Astronaut Neil Armstrong "Landed" in Wapakoneta
By Judy Deeter
This is a post card that I found among my mom’s things after her death a few years ago. It shows a parade in Wapakoneta for Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong on September 6, 1969. Just a few weeks earlier on July 20, 1969, the Wapakoneta-native had stepped on to the surface of the moon—the first person to ever do so. The card’s picture shows the parade in Wapakoneta that welcomed Armstrong back to his boyhood hometown. So many excited people were there to greet him. I know; I was one of them.
The post card photograph presents a view of the downtown area of Wapakoneta. I watched the parade from a place closer to where it began. I am not sure now of exactly where I stood. I went to the parade with my childhood friend Betsy. She drove us there from Allen County, where we both lived. I remember that we parked her car and then walked several blocks to find a good spot to watch the parade.
Wapakoneta was filled with so many people that day! They came from everywhere to catch of glimpse of Armstrong. The estimated size of the crowd ranges from 60,000 to more than 80,000. Though the 1960s had been a turbulent time in America, particularly protests against the war in Vietnam and the assassinations of President John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the space program seemed to bring us all together. There was a wonderful sense of peace and happiness along the parade route. I think the weather was pretty nice that day too.
Several national celebrities were featured in the parade: Bob Hope, television personality Ed McMahon, and Dr. Albert Sabin, who had invented the vaccine for polio. The Purdue University marching band played music. (Armstrong went to college at Purdue.) I also seem to remember the parade crowd was delighted by a group of Shriners who drove miniature cars.
I tried to take pictures of the celebrities as they passed by, but also wanted to see them without the camera in front of my eyes. I captured a good picture of Dr. Sabin but only got shots of the back of the heads of Neil Armstrong and Bob Hope. I don’t think I took a picture of Ed McMahon. I do not know where the photographs are now.
Today, when people go to a parade, they bring their lawn chairs and sit along the route. As I recall, people at Armstrong’s parade stood. I don’t think the folding lawn chair was in wide use at that time. One can see in the post card picture that almost everyone is standing. I do remember as a child that our family had red, metal lawn chairs that could not be folded. They certainly could not have been brought to a parade.
In celebration of Armstrong’s feat, the Fisher Cheese Company in Wapakoneta made Moon Cheeze that came in a box shaped liked the state of Ohio. (The word for cheese was spelled with a “z” instead of an “s”.) Some people said it was really just cheddar cheese in a nice box. Whatever it was, consumers loved it. Company employees worked overtime to make enough of it.
Our family also got free drinking glasses with a picture of the moon landing painted on the sides at a local gas station. In those days, gas stations often gave away gifts with a fill-up of gas or purchase of a minimum number of gallons.
Articles that I have read about the moon landing and Armstrong’s homecoming are a bit more scientific and historic than my memories. Much of the interest I had back then came from my paternal grandmother.
Grandma was always fascinated by the sky, particularly on clear summer nights. During the day, we looked for cloud formations that looked like people or animals; at night for the big dipper or little dipper. She always announced when an airplane went overhead by saying, “There goes an airplane.”
To grandma and the people in our area, it was particularly special that Armstrong had once lived in Wapakoneta. He was one of us. He had not only traveled to the moon, he had traveled our streets and roads. We had seen and been to some of the same earthly places. He was not just an astronaut that had gone to the moon; he was a neighbor who had gone there.
People from grandma’s generation had literally grown up with the history of aviation. She was born in August of 1897. Grandma and her contemporary friends had childhood memories of the flight of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk in 1903 and the start of aviation. She remembered that Lindbergh had crossed the Atlantic the same year she married grandpa. Now she had seen a man on the moon. I remember her saying, “I am so glad I lived long enough to see a man on the moon.” Actually, she just made it. She passed away in 1970.
Her stories and thoughts will always be part of my memory of Neil Armstrong and the moon landing.