I’d feel lucky enough to have shaken the hand of Captain Gene Cernan, who set foot on the moon in December of 1972, the last manned Moon shot. But I got to spend time with him twice, and, yes, at first all I could think about was, “My goodness, this guy has walked on the freaking Moon!” while trying not to smile like a school kid. But after awhile, we hit it off, and I felt comfortable correcting the Captain on his greatest claim. This is how it happened.
It was several years back and we were in Wichita in the dead of winter at a safety conference put on by Bombardier. Captain Cernan was the keynote speaker and I was a journalist specializing in atmospheric flight, but who was gaga about space flight. And there I was, sitting next to Gene Cernan at dinner.
What did we talk about? Well, mostly it was about flying – flying little airplanes, that is. Capt. Cernan owned and flew a beautiful Cessna 421 Golden Eagle. (If ever there were a suitable name for a ship to be flown by an astronaut, that was it.) I’d flown up too, in a smaller but speedy single-engine ship and we’d both landed at ICT in light snow and a ton of wind.
He loved flying. Loved everything about it. So we naturally got along, me, the son of a naval aviator and him, well, a pretty well known naval aviator. It turned out that I as gaga about flying and the machines we fly in as he was. It was as if we realized at one point in our respective childhoods that it was verging on miraculous that people could build machines and go flying, far above the world in them. We laughed, shared stories of where we flew and what places we liked and enjoyed a wonderful dinner with a room full of professional pilots, many of whom I’m sure wished they could have been seated next to Captain Cernan themselves. It never once occurred to me, however, to give up that seat, and I’m glad I didn’t.
Oh, and the part about correcting Captain Cernan . . . I mentioned that he is often referred to as the last person to walk on the moon and said that I think that’s wrong. He raised his eyebrows—if you’ve ever met him you know the expression—as if asking me to . . .go on . . and I said simply that I hope the more accurate description was the “most recent” person to walk on the moon and that I hope he’s not the last.
Even though we were indoors, he lifted his eyes heavenward with a wry smile, raised his glass to me and we toasted without another word.
Captain Cernan passed away a few days ago now at the too-young age of 82, too young for his skybound soul, I’ll tell you that. And when he died, he was still the most recent man to walk on the moon. And it looks as though it will be that way for a good while longer.
When we do, and if it’s while I’m still alive, though I wouldn’t bet on it, I will raise an eye to the heavens with a smile on my face and raise a glass, figurative or not, to a great American, a great space traveler and a great aviator who also happened to be one hell of a great dinner companion.