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Saturday, July 19, 2014

The trip of a lifetime: Sans the frills and creature comforts

Dean Shalhoup

It was the middle of summer – that magic, paradisiacal interlude pleasantly devoid of structure, homework and collared shirts – and a dozen Nashua boys had a no-frills road trip on their minds.

At age 9, Rob Sakey was the youngest of the lot, and among the memories he’s kept fresh in the 45 years since that hot July of 1969 is being photographed sitting on a car upon reaching the gang’s destination: Cape Kennedy, Fla. ...

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It was the middle of summer – that magic, paradisiacal interlude pleasantly devoid of structure, homework and collared shirts – and a dozen Nashua boys had a no-frills road trip on their minds.

At age 9, Rob Sakey was the youngest of the lot, and among the memories he’s kept fresh in the 45 years since that hot July of 1969 is being photographed sitting on a car upon reaching the gang’s destination: Cape Kennedy, Fla.

“Here I was, this nerd, the only one wearing shorts,” Sakey, now a husband, father and businessman living in Arlington, Mass., said this week with a laugh.

That ominous “nerd” feeling was short-lived, because Sakey and his pals were on a far more exciting mission than making fashion statements: They’d flown, then driven, south to witness the launch of Apollo 11 on what would go down in history as one of mankind’s greatest accomplishments.

The “moonshot” is what this unforgettable mission was often called in the multitude of breathless news reports that peaked 45 years ago Sunday when the Apollo 11 crew – Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. and Michael Collins – set their space capsule softly into moondust and made world history.

What the boys, who came from Nashua, Hollis and Hudson, had in common is that their parents were closely involved with the Nashua’s former Arts and Science Center, and one of them – the inimitable Meri Goyette – got thinking how cool it would be if some local kids could get a one-of-a-kind history lesson up close and personal.

The boys were members of “The Muses,” a center-sponsored youth group that Goyette led. So she recruited her husband, physician Charlie Goyette, and the late Joseph Sakey, Rob Sakey’s dad and the popular longtime city librarian, as chaperones for the journey. Then she called New Hampshire’s own famous astronaut, Derry’s Alan B. Shepard, and asked him where the group should go to get the best view of the launch.

“I have two real visuals of that trip,” said former Hollis resident Mike Goulder, now living in New Jersey. “One is the rocket taking off, and listening to the dolphins at night before falling asleep.”

The kids could hear the dolphins so well because their sleeping quarters were so close to where Flipper and his friends swam. Indeed, Goyette and Sakey – trusted, respected pillars of the community – eschewed the whole hotel thing for the comfortable sands of Cocoa Beach.

“We never bothered making reservations. We just figured we’d sleep on the beach or something,” said Goyette, long retired from a medical career in which he delivered thousands of Nashua baby boomers. “We found a nice place to bed down, right near the tarmac.”

If one thing is certain, such an expedition could never play out today. A dozen kids? You’ll need two dozen chaperones; a trunk full of phone and iPad chargers; many trunkfulls of clothes; hotel, car and dinner reservations; and probably notarized documents from each family’s attorney and insurance people.

And don’t forget a detailed itinerary of what the kids should be doing from the time they open their eyes in the morning until they shut them at night.

OK, I may exaggerate a little, but how cool must it have been for these kids to be trusted to keep themselves within reasonable behavior boundaries and to be tasked with making their own decisions on what to do next as they geared up for the big moment they came for.

Sakey laughs as he recalls his dad advising the kids: “Just act like you’re a guest,” referring to their visits to a nearby Holiday Inn to use the bathrooms and showers.

The trip surely left a huge impression on the youngest traveler. “I wrote about that trip in my college applications,” Sakey said, adding that he alternated writing about that and having a paid position – at age 16 – on the 1976 Jimmy Carter for President campaign, and the bonus that came with Carter’s victory: a ticket to his Inaugural Ball.

Dave Pastor, whose parents were tight with the Sakeys and the Woodruff family, was one of several 12-year-olds on the trip.

“The part I remember the most is being out on the beach, climbing up on the dunes and realizing that this was the coolest thing I’d ever seen in my life,” Pastor said this week from his office at Fletcher’s Appliance, a longtime Nashua retail outlet he took over from his late father, Bernard Pastor.

“It was probably a mile away, but we could see the plume of the rockets taking off, and in a few seconds came the roar.”

Meanwhile, Goulder, whose brother Scott was in the group, said his “awe” at listening to the dolphins at night was soon replaced by the growing excitement in anticipation of liftoff.

Even with their daylong stopover in Washington, D.C., on the return trip to tour a few more historic American sites, the kids were back home and in front of their TVs in plenty of time to hear astronaut Neil Armstrong’s famous words crackle over the air: “Houston … Tranquility Base here … the Eagle has landed.”

“Having been there to see (the astronauts) take off, knowing where they were going, then coming home and watching the landing on TV, it was absolutely amazing to me,” Goulder said. “When you’re a kid, whatever is on TV is on TV,” he added, referring to the era when “real life” and TV shows rarely, if ever, overlapped.

“I remember being simply amazed when I put together what I was watching (on TV) with what I’d experienced in Florida.”

A Boston Globe story, accompanied by a photo showing part of the group boarding their flight at Logan Airport, reported that the boys “carried sleeping bags, candy and a bit of money to ‘rough it’ on Cocoa Beach with thousands of other encamped moon zealots.”

In the article, an exuberant Keith Farr, 12, of Hollis, called the launch “the greatest scientific experience ever and we’re going to see it … a real live blast and I know it will be absolutely successful.”

It’s been said that no trip, no matter how wonderful, rewarding and successful, is immune from some kind of glitch or another. For “The Muses” and their chaperones, it came in the form of a broken-down car, one of two the group had rented.

It was the one driven by Joe Sakey that conked out, and his son remembers an overheated engine as the culprit.

“Dad had to walk to a farm to get water while we waited on the side of the road,” Rob Sakey recalled. “We missed the flight, had to take another one and got to Washington late that night.”

No cellphones, no AAA roadside assistance, no 24-hour mechanics to call. But they managed just fine, and the little glitch gave them one more travel story to tuck into their collective memories.

Ah, those were the days.

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Saturdays in The Telegraph. He can be reached at 594-6443 or dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Shalhoup on Twitter (@Telegraph_DeanS).