In December of 1971, my former wife and I traveled to Acapulco, Mexico, for a two-week vacation at the internationally famous Las Brisas Resort. Little did we know that we were about to meet and spend our vacation with a couple who were ... out of this world.
There were people from every corner of the world at Las Brisas. During the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, Las Brisas was “the” jet-setters prime destination because of the privacy and understated security that was built into the resort. On the other hand, guests could sign up and join in the round-the-clock activities and festivities. The parties never stopped.
One evening, soon after our arrival, we went to a very casual “get acquainted” cocktail party and struck up a conversation with another American couple. The instant rapport my wife and I had with this couple was quite interesting and unusual for the time. It was 1971 and we looked every bit the part, whereas our new friends, Charlie and Dotty, were the total antithesis.
I had long hair, a mustache and wore bell-bottom pants. Charlie was clean shaven, had a brush-cut and wore a pullover shirt with a little alligator emblem on it. My wife had long hair, beads around her neck and wore a tie-dyed blouse. Dotty had short cropped hair and wore a simple little sun dress. We certainly looked like mismatched couples. Opposites must attract!
The four of us spent every afternoon sun bathing, fishing, scuba diving, whale watching, sight seeing and ate dinner together almost every night.
I remember one evening in particular. We all met for dinner after a long day of spear fishing. Charlie was the only one to actually spear a fish large enough to feed four hungry people. That afternoon, we had dropped off the 30-inch red snapper with the hotel chef and agreed to have it prepared Vera Cruz style, baked in a melange of tomatoes, green peppers, onions, green olives and plenty of garlic and olive oil. We all applauded the chef as he triumphantly presented the perfectly prepared fish. It was very delicious! At the end of the sumptuous meal, everyone applauded Charlie’s spear fishing capabilities.
It was over desert that we actually got beyond superficial vacation chatter. I had begun to notice Charlie was quite good at everything he attempted. His methodical approach to every situation and his supererogation was far beyond what one would expect from the average person. His knowledge of astronomy, geology, oceanography and meteorology was obvious in his conversation but not blatant. I had come to the conclusion that Charlie was a very, very unusual man.
That evening, I actually found out who this unique man was. Charlie Duke was about to become one of the original 12 Astronauts that walked on the surface of the moon. Brigadier General Charles Duke was to serve as Lunar Module pilot of Apollo 16, the first scientific expedition to inspect, survey and sample materials and surface features in the Descartes Region of the rugged lunar highlands.
Well! You can imagine my surprise and delight that I was lucky to have my life cross paths with one of the most privileged human beings of the 20th Century ... a man who was about to walk on the moon!
I had been closely following the events at NASA because my uncle Julian had been a NASA scientist for years and my cousin Leon had been part of the team that controlled the computer that landed the lunar module of Apollo 11 on the moon.
We spent the rest of the evening talking about Charlie’s upcoming trip to the moon which would take place in April of 1972. By coincidence, there was a big full moon that night as we were having dinner on an outdoor deck. As we all looked up at the full moon hanging over us, Charlie gave everyone a tour of the moon and pointed to exactly where he and his fellow Astronaut John Young would land. Charlie knew the surface of the moon as well as I knew where I lived on the earth.
Charlie graciously extended to us a personal invitation to come to the Kennedy Space Center and watch him blast off the moon, and Dottie promised to reserve a place for us next to her in the VIP viewing section.
What I remember most about the two weeks I spent with Charlie and Dotty was that they were the most “down to earth” regular people one could ever meet. Neither of them had an ego about their place in the history of mankind.
Charlie’s vacation at Las Brisas was the last “time off” he would get before he would begin preparing full time for his historic flight to the moon.
Countdown to the launch
As Charlie and Dotty promised, a few weeks before the launch date, an important looking package arrived from NASA. We were officially invited to join Dotty Duke to view the launch of Apollo 16 from a special VIP area. Along with the invitation came a packet of elegantly prepared information about Charlie’s trip to the moon, along with name tags, a pre-launch schedule of parties and assorted memorabilia.
When we arrived at the guest center, Dotty welcomed us with hugs. We spent the next few hours reminiscing about our Acapulco vacation. Everyone had already heard about us and the 30-inch red snapper Charlie had speared and the grand time the four of us had at Las Brisas.
The special events set up by NASA for relatives and friends of the astronauts were first class. The guest center had scheduled tours of the Kennedy Space Center, in-depth pre-launch briefings and catered parties.
Sunday, April 16, 1972
At 9 a.m. that morning, we all climbed aboard special busses that took us out to the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building) viewing site, the very closest point of observation to PAD A of Launch Complex 39, where a special area had been set aside for the Charlie Duke cheering section. We all nervously waited and closely listened to the PA system as detailed, minute by minute explanations of all the pre-launch preparations were announced.
Dotty became very nervous as launch time drew near. We all gathered around, encouraging her with positive affirmations and reminding her that Charlie’s trip; to the moon would result in many historic discoveries.
None of us seemed ready when, suddenly, the voice of mission control blasted over the PA system ...
T minus 10 seconds ... 9 ... 8 ... we have ignition... 7... 6 ... 5 ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... 1 ... and lift off of Apollo 16 ... man’s sixth flight to the moon!
A few seconds after the rocket’s massive engines ignited with a bright white flash, an enormous cloud of white smoke billowed into the air around the launch pad. The huge rocket seemed to quiver in place for a few seconds ... then slowly ... ever so slowly ... as if time had slowed down ... it began to majestically ascend up through the white cloud, past the gantry and off into the clear blue sky. The sounds of rocket engines, because of our unusually close proximity, were so loud that I could feel the rumble in my chest and the air cracking around my ears. It was an experience I shall never forget.
The following account is what Charlie said he was thinking as we watched the launch of Apollo 16 ...
“T minus 60 seconds ... the closer I got to lift-off, the faster my heart beat.
T minus 20 seconds ... T minus 10 seconds ... we were really going to go!
Thump! The spacecraft shook as the huge 30-inch valves opened to feed fuel into each of the five main engines.
T minus 8 seconds ... Ignition! We have ignition, radioed the launch director.
I heard a muffled roar from below as the huge engines gulped down fuel at 4,500 gallons per second. As the engines built up thrust for lift-off, I felt tremendous vibrations as the rocket began to shake. I was startled. Why was the rocket shaking so hard? I wondered anxiously. What in the world is happening? There’s something wrong with this thing ... ”
Well, there was nothing wrong with the rocket. Charlie’s launch and trip to the moon and back went off without a glitch. The next time I saw Charlie, he was on TV ... from the moon!
While he was on the lunar surface, I would go outside at night and look up to the exact spot Charlie had indicated during our personal full moon tour that night in Acapulco.
I would yell up, “Hey Charlie,” then wave at the moon ... and I think I could just barely make out Charlie waving back at me.
What a fantastic experience it was to have met and befriended Charles Duke ... a true hero of the 20th Century.
Stan Saran has been an artist living on Marco Island for the past 22 years. This story is part of his memoir he’s been writing for the past 10 years.