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POTOMAC PLACE

Astronaut Mike Collins -- The Moon before the Beach

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing this week most of us recall Neil Armstrong's memorable words as he stepped onto the Moon's surface: That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." It had been a long and suspenseful wait for that historic moment. Six hours earlier, Eagle, the lunar module had touched down on the Moon's Sea of Tranquility. All of us watching expected the astronauts to climb right out and get started on their tasks. Little did we realize that it would take time to complete the arduous preparations before they could venture into a hostile atmosphere of 200 degree temperatures totally devoid of oxygen.   

 

   Some of us cannot recall that, 19-minutes after Armstrong's historic steps, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin became the second person on the Moon or that Michael "Mike" Collins was the pilot of Columbia, the mother space vehicle or command module, that from its position hovering 60 miles above the moon dispatched the lunar module carrying Armstrong and Aldrin to its landing point.

 

   Those of us who witnessed it on our black and white television sets on Sunday evening, July 20, 1969, remember where we were and who we were with. My wife, Mary-Margaret, and I were in our Capitol Hill townhouse with a guest, Peter Aslanides, a friend from Georgetown Law School.

 

   Like many people, beginning with Apollo 11's launch four days earlier, we were literally riveted in place watching it all take place on CBS as the beloved and believable commentator and space enthusiast, Walter Cronkite, with assistance from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) experts, narrated and explained in a dramatic fashion the intricate maneuvers taking place before our eyes.

 

   The universe was seemingly smaller at that moment. It was at the height of the Vietnam War and the beginning of the Nixon-Agnew era. America, much as it is now, was a divided country, but this event brought the nation together. We shared a sense of national pride equal to that felt at the end of World War II. Those of us in America and throughout the world with knowledge of this momentous event went to sleep that night with a feeling of optimism that seemingly anything was achievable.

 

   The July 14, 2019 edition of The New York Times carried a revealing interview with Collins, now 88, in which he was asked what he would have done if he was unable to bring Armstrong and Aldrin home. "I was not going to commit suicide," Collins responded. "I was coming home by myself. And they knew that, I didn't have to discuss it with them, and they didn't have to discuss it with me. But it would not have been a good trip home." That same edition of The Times reprinted a statement prepared by William Safire for President Nixon to deliver in the event that Armstrong and Aldrin did not return.

 

   Collins also revealed in that interview he had earlier informed a NASA official that: "If everything goes exactly as planned, I'm out of here." It did go as planned, and he was out of there. Much to my amazement, days following the end of the astronauts three week quarantine as Mary-Margaret and I arrived at our Delaware beach house there was Mike Collins organizing his children and their beach gear outside of the house adjoining ours. Talk about a small world. We were almost as gob-smacked as we were when we watched the Moon landing. I also was impressed that this guy had enough faith and confidence in what NASA and its contractors had patched together to get  him to the Moon and back that he had rented a beach house for a prime week in August requiring a sizeable and non-refundable deposit. 

 

   We introduced ourselves and welcomed him back to earth. He laughed and thanked us. He asked us about the rules of Atlantic Watergate, our seaside development, places to eat, and things the children could do. His father, a retired Army general, had been posted in Washington at times, and Mike had attended the Saint Albans School in Washington. Though familiar with the area, he was not up-to-date on what to do and where to go. After we filled him in, he headed for the beach carrying some of his children's gear along with a shopping bag full of books.

 

   We had our frisky and unpredictable Old English Sheepdog, Tory, with us, and within the hour we were down at the beach. Tory loved to play in the surf, charging at the incoming waves, and jumping over them just as they crested. When Tory had enough, we anchored him with heavy rope tied to a steel stake with discs screwed deep into the sand to prevent him from running after other dogs and/or people. Collins was close by with a cautious eye on Tory as he rapidly read through a stack of paper-back books that he used to prop up his head in the sand. Everyone on the beach knew who he was, but for the entire week, people kept their distance, as they did with Tory, giving Mike and his family all the space they needed to enjoy their time together.

 

   I had talked to Collins a few times that week. He was at West Point during its football glory days that were abruptly ended during a 1951 cheating scandal. In my formative years, I had been an avid Army football fan. That scandal jolted my faith in the honor system at that venerable institution. We talked about the cheating scandal, and he let me know that it had also rocked his morale and that of his fellow cadets. He was a cool guy, quiet and laid back with a great sense of humor. One day, he and his children joined another family on a fishing boat. They caught quite a few Bluefish and Mike gave me a large one that I grilled that night.

 

   I saw Collins a few times in the years to follow when he was an Assistant Secretary of State and later when he headed up the Air and Space Museum. We talked about that enjoyable week at the beach, one in which he said that he and his wife, Pat, had begun to map out some of their future plans.

 

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The Preferred Seat Cover

 

Stewart Greene, one of the founders of the highly successful Madison Avenue advertising agency, Wells, Rich, & Greene, died this month at the age of 91. The commercials created by the firm were catchy and resulted in record sales of the products pitched, such as Alka-Seltzer, Samsonite Luggage, and Benson & Hedges cigarettes, among others.

 

   Perhaps the most successful campaign the firm launched was for Braniff Airlines. It involved a total remake of the airline's image, including the eye-catching redesign of the flight attendant uniforms by Emilio Pucci featuring blue, yellow, and red colors, the radical and snazzy interior design of its airplanes and the standout exterior colors of the planes. Each flight attendant wore a different colored uniform and the passenger seats were covered with different colored leather. The resulting ad campaign helped Braniff immensely. Its passenger growth was phonemical, resulting in increased flights, and considerable added revenue.  It was flying high, but unfortunately, Braniff, like other airlines, became the victim of the deregulation of the airline industry and record high jet fuel prices which made it uncompetitive, resulting in its ceasing operations on May 12, 1982. I was one of the many passengers affected that day. Fortunately, I was at Washington National Airport waiting for a flight to Austin, Texas, and was not stranded at an airport far away from home.

 

   Braniff's creative redesign and unique pizazz motivated some of its competitors, including TWA, American Airlines, and Delta to make themselves over. Among those who chose not to go that route was Eastern Airlines. Rickenbacker was reluctant to change his airline's stripes and strongly resisted efforts by his staff to do so. 

 

   Two people who recruited me to the cotton industry, General Everett R. Cook and his son Edward W. "Ned" Cook, were then serving as members of Eastern Airlines' board, headed by the famed World War I ace fighter pilot and Medal of Honor recipient, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker. General Cook, also a World War I ace, served with Rickenbacker, each commanding different flight squadrons.  

 

     At lunch in Cook Industries' dining room in its Memphis headquarters a week after both Ned and his father had attended an Eastern board meeting in New York City, Ned told a group of us about Rickenbacker's reaction to a redesign proposal. As Ned told it, as the board meeting was coming to a conclusion the double doors of the room opened and a team of employees rolled a platform into the room with three rows of airline seats affixed to it. Each seat was covered in one of the airline's colors of white, light blue, and dark blue or a combination of the three colors. When the public relations director finished his presentation pushing for the interior design makeover, Rickenbacker nodded his head a few times and said, "Young man, the only thing I want to see covering those seats are assholes," and the meeting adjourned.

 

   Eastern Airlines went out of business in 1991.

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