|Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin at the Sea of Tranquility. Photo by Neil Armstrong|
I've often tried to skirt around my answer when someone asked me about the moon landing. You see, I was eighteen and a few months earlier had been convicted of possessing a small amount of marijuana—at a time when this was considered a serious crime and well worth destroying someone's life over. (Now recreational marijuana possession and use is perfectly legal in California.) I'd never previously been arrested for anything, and yet here I was, serving a 5-month sentence in a maximum-security county jail facility. I was in a classic cell-block with two tiers of cells—P Tank above and O Tank below—with a bullet-proof-glass-enclosed catwalk where the guards would randomly walk past, at any hour of day or night. The prisoners in P Tank were usually in transit to other places. They'd stay a few days then get transferred to a branch jail or to the honor farm. In O Tank, we were more permanent. The county jail authorities didn't like to send druggies to the farm or to let them participate in any kind of work-release program. In O Tank, the days went slowly. We didn't have television or even playing cards to entertain ourselves.
But a few weeks after I began my sentence, a curious thing happened. The guards gathered all the inmates from O Tank, marched us upstairs, and we crammed into the cells of P Tank, where the prisoners had a television in every cell. Together we watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land the first spacecraft on the moon. I've never heard of anything like that happening before or since at a jail. I suppose someone made a decision that this was too historic an occasion not to share with us, and for that I'm grateful.
Many years later I was at an Explorers Club banquet in New York City, receiving a conservation award, when I met Buzz Aldrin. We had a nice conversation, but I never told him I'd been watching the moon walk from a jail cell on that historic day, half a century ago. I wrote about these and other experiences in my memoir, Falcon Fever (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008).
With Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin (right); astronaut (and first American woman to walk on the moon) Kathryn Sullivan (left); and famed marine biologist Sylvia Earle at the Explorers Club Awards Banquet, New York City. Photo by Bobby Harrison