“Now I’m a soldier. A lonely soldier. Away from home ... I’m Mr. Lonely.”
Bobby Vinton. 1962. On the Roses are Red album.
An album was a vinyl ... Wait. I’ve been distracted. Albums vs. cassettes vs. CDs vs. MP3s is next week. Today I am thinking about Mr. Lonely, which is what I called Michael Collins 50 years ago this weekend.
Consider Michael Collins. He will be 89 years old on Halloween. I think he’s going to trick-or-treat as an astronaut, which is what he was in 1969, at the age of 39. While Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were cavorting on the moon, dancing around and hitting golf balls and becoming household names throughout America and around the world, Michael Collins didn’t even get to visit the lunar surface. He orbited the moon waiting for the other two to rejoin him for the ride home. It was like asking a high school senior to drive his buddies to the prom, drop them off and ride around Atlanta until midnight to pick them back up. Except maybe safer.
A little background on Collins. He was born in Rome. No, he’s not a Georgian. Italy has one, too. But he’s not Italian. His daddy was in the Army, and Michael was born while his parents were stationed abroad. His childhood was spent knocking around military bases from Oklahoma to New York City. He, himself, graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point and then joined the Air Force. (The guy was pretty good. He retired as a general.)
But in October of 1962, after logging 3,000 hours in the air as a fighter pilot and test pilot, Collins was appointed by Deke Slaton into the Astronaut Corps. That was a big deal.
And after space flights in the Gemini Program and the Apollo Program, he sat atop that big Saturn V candle when they lit it at Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in July of 1969 and was off to the moon. Yes, we already talked about that this week. It’s worth mentioning twice.
Collins was the selfless servant who orbited the moon — 30 times — while his colleagues were on the lunar service. For 48 minutes of each orbit he was on the dark side of the moon. (Pink Floyd, 2018). During that time it was just him and his thoughts, out of touch with Mission Control in Houston as well as Armstrong and Aldrin. A soldier, indeed.
You talk about isolation! I get lonely in my hotel room when my lovely wife, Lisa, isn’t on a Huck’s Tour with me. I’m usually just a couple hundred miles from home. Try being utterly isolated from the world and all human contact at 289,000 miles.
When asked about his thoughts during this time, Collins replied that his primary emotion was exhilaration at the magnificence of what he and his crew were accomplishing. He also noted that he was so busy flying his space craft and doing his assigned tasks that he actually didn’t have a lot of time for reflection. You know the old adage. When you’re up to your ears in alligators you don’t have time to consider why they drained the swamp.
Collins did say that he was concerned that his fellow astronauts wouldn’t be able to leave the lunar surface and he would have to return to Earth alone. That would be worse than driving to St. Simons by yourself, for sure.
He wasn’t the only one concerned about that. President Richard Nixon had his staff prepared a letter to be read to the nation in case of such a contingency. That letter was never read, until released this week, as a historical treasure.
Thankfully, Nixon’s missive wasn’t needed, Michael Collins didn’t have to return to Earth alone, and Apollo 11 was a great success. God bless the USA.
And God bless Michael Collins, who sort of proved Mark Twain’s adage, “Thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but it’s the lightning that does all the work.” Put another way, “He also serves who only sits and waits— or flies around the moon in the getaway car.”