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Those "what were they thinking" headscratcher moments become more frequent the older I get.

Take the recent celebration of our nation's birthday on the National Mall that included a mundane showing of military strength through hardware. Granted it wasn't the first time our armed forces have been honored along with tanks displayed and so on. Such even occurred under President Barack Obama.

But the recent Independence Day celebrated was shy by just two weeks and two days of a major milestone in U.S. and world history. Like a dud firecracker gone "spfffft," it was a lost opportunity to co-celebrate the golden anniversary of brave men and talented engineers landing man on the moon.

On July 20, 1969, an estimated one-fifth of Earth's population viewed man's first step on the moon on television. In work-place evaluation terms, President Donald Trump and his minions could have turned a "meets expectations" celebration into "significantly exceeds" with a nationalistic reminiscence of that unforgettable event.

My recollection is unforgettable since I witnessed the event in remoteness some would compare to that of the moon itself. The astronauts stood in the Sea of Tranquility as I floated on Baptiste Collete Bayou at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

It was my second summer working for oilfield construction giant J. Ray McDermott that in 1947 built the first out-of-sight offshore steel drilling platform. McDermott became an industry leader constructing drilling platforms and laying pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico and worldwide. Working summers offshore was common among young men from Southeast Louisiana, in similar fashion to some of my Baylor University buddies who worked West Texas oilfields, though my waterside vistas were enviable compared to sparse Midland and Odessa horizons.

I was a barge clerk. Each project had at least one. The role was radio operator, keeper of the ship's log and payroll, and generally a "Radar O'Reilly" to the barge captain. In pipe-laying projects, the clerk maintained the tally of pipe laid and ensured anti-corrosion anode sections were inserted at correct intervals. So, in my case and in projects across the gulf, summer-hire college boys made sure multi-million-dollar pipelines didn't rust prematurely. What were they thinking?

Open sea barges are unusable in bayous. For this job, flat-decked material barges were welded together, welding and x-ray inspection stations were built and a portable office building -- literally a radio shack -- was fastened onto the spartan deck for my workplace. Without food and bunks on board, a quarterboat, the O'Tilley, was contracted and stationed some distance from the job.

The quarterboat held a dormitory below for two dozen men and, up on the main deck, a large dining room, showers and my stateroom and office connected to the captain's quarters. It was like a floating, two-level fishing lodge or church camp. On the particular Sunday afternoon of the moon landing, my presence at the job site was not needed. I remained aboard the quarterboat after the crewboat shuttled the men to work after lunch.

I finished some paperwork and walked down to the galley for coffee and conversation. The hefty Cajun cook was preparing chicken for Sunday night dinner. He pointed a flour-coated finger toward the TV on the shelf above the dining benches.

"You tole me befo' you studyin' broadcastin' at some fancy school over in Texas," he said, "so why don't you climb up 'dere and see what you can do wit' that no-good TV box. Those men are on the moon for Gawd's sake."

The black-and-white television was flickering with snowy images. I fiddled with the rabbit ears, stabilized the image and asked him for some foil from the galley. Wrapped in aluminum flags, the dipole antenna worked better. Switching channels back and forth from New Orleans to Biloxi, I settled on WDSU from New Orleans.

We both watched intently as I continued tweaking the antenna. The moment arrived. Though grainy from voyaging moon to Earth to crumpled Reynolds Wrap in a marsh, the images clearly depicted amazing history. Dappled sunlight reflected from muddy bayou waters as Commander Neil Armstrong stepped into moon dirt and made the famous and thereafter clarified declaration: "One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

The cook shook his head in wonderment, then returned to the galley. The radio crackled down the hall and I hurried to answer a call from the job site.

It was back to work as usual on a most unusual, unforgettable summer afternoon a hundred miles below New Orleans and a quarter of a million miles beneath the moon.

Commentary on 07/11/2019

Print Headline: A moon landing in a muddy bayou

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