By Ray Knapp
‘If you take time to review your life, I wouldn’t be surprised if in some way you almost, or did, get your name in those annals that people can find on the internet or even school history books. I’m writing this on Dr. Martin Luther King’s Federal Holiday 2018, and reflecting back to the 1960s when the start of the Civil Rights Movement began to blossom into nationwide civil disobedience by the Black Community and all kind of things, other than that were happening; the Cold War; the Space Race; landing a man on the moon, and protests against the Vietnam War. I would say that decade was topped off by the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis on April 4, 1968, and Neil Armstrong, being the first man to set foot on the moon on 20 July, 1969.
I was in the Navy; a first class Aerographer’s Mate (navy weather forecaster) in the early 60s when a Black Youth, James Meredith, tried to enroll at the University of Mississippi – and was first denied entry. But with the backing of Medgar Evers (Head of the state chapter of the NAACP) he was admitted in 1962. This wasn’t without a lot of controversy. 31,000 National Guardsmen were called up as uprisings against “Jim Crow” laws were springing up all across the land, but seemed to be centered around Sardis, Mississippi where the University of Mississippi is located.
My only part in this was briefing pilots flying Guardsmen in from various locations, some here in Tennessee. This was known by the military as “Operation Fast Roads.” I recall blowing one forecast. A pilot was bringing some National Guard Troops out of McGee Tyson, AFB in Knoxville and wanted to know my forecast as to when the fogged-in base in Millington, Tennessee would be above GCA minimums. (Minimum visibility to land) I gave a forecast of 10 a.m. – the weather didn’t reach those minimums until about noon. Anyway, once landed, the troops were bussed on down to the University of Mississippi.
Martin Luther King wasn’t the only Civil Rights Activist to be killed in the 60s. Medgar Evers was shot and killed on 12 June, 1963. James Meredith went on to become a Civil Rights Activist and was shot with a shotgun on 6 June 1966 while leading a march, called March Against Fear. He was first reported in the news as being killed, but went on to survive that shooting and after recuperation, continued to fight for segregation rights.
During the 60s the challenge by President Kennedy to land a man on the moon during that decade was picked up by his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson and NASA was an important thing in those days, and the astronauts were as popular as Rock Stars. Back then, one of the qualifications was to be (among many other things) a qualified jet-aircraft pilot. The astronauts had to get 4 hour of flight time in a month to maintain that qualification. Their usual flight was from their home base to NAS Memphis and from there on down to Houston, then back to Pensacola.
When they landed in Memphis, the Navy’s “On Duty” Forecaster gave them a face-to-face weather briefing, so I got to meet many of them; Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Gordon Cooper, Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, John Glen and Scott Carpenter to name a few. They couldn’t help but be aware of their status, as even members of the military would whisper to their friend, “That’s Scott Carpenter, Gus Grissom” – or whomever it happened to be. I recall giving John Glen a written weather briefing one time on a flight form we both had to sign. He was going to Houston. In a few minutes he returned to the weather office and said, “They want me to come straight back to Pensacola, here, you can have this briefing to Houston, you can give it to your grandkids.” Unfortunately, feeling I was as important as him, I threw it in the trash
The famous; then you and me, we’ve all done our part. We’ve had our brush with history.