Editor’s note: This column was originally published Oct. 30, 1998 by former Charlotte Observer columnist Tommy Tomlinson.
It was the strangest sight, all those people on the beach and no one looking at the ocean.
It was Thursday afternoon and everyone on Cocoa Beach faced north, to the Kennedy Space Center six miles up the coast, where in just a few minutes John Glenn would blast off again 36 years after his first trip into space.
Luther Morris and Gene Brown waited there on the beach behind the Wakulla Hotel, Gene quietly peering through binoculars, Luther making conversation with a few of the thousands of people who lined the beach.
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“Ah, that breeze feels good,” Gene said. “It’s a perfect day.”
Luther and Gene have been friends for half a century, two men who did business together and partied together and nearly crashed a plane together and lived to tell it all.
Back in 1962 they watched from this beach as Glenn rocketed into space, becoming the first American to go into orbit. Now they were back, having driven 550 miles from Charlotte the day before, here to watch Glenn take off in the space shuttle.
Luther had bought a hand-held TV at Radio Shack on Thursday morning, and now people crowded behind him to watch the countdown.
Luther is the kind of guy who tends to draw attention. The night before at Shoney’s he sat at a front table and recited a series of dirty limericks.
“I’ve never been one to be bashful, “ he said. “You end up meeting a lot of good people this way.”
Now he was wearing swim trunks and a Hawaiian shirt and a white Shriners hat, balancing the TV on one leg and a camcorder on the other.
One of the strangers he was talking to turned out to be the daughter of the woman who owned the Wakulla Motel, and soon a couple of maintenance men brought out a stack of chairs for Luther and Gene and the folks lingering around the edges.
The countdown clock stopped a couple of times, and everyone chatted away the minutes as kids played in the foam at the edge of the surf.
But then the clock started at T minus 30 seconds. Ready to go.
Luther shifted in his chair, set the TV down, held the camcorder to his eye.
Gene straightened up, took a deep breath.
No sound now but the waves, and a woman’s voice on the radio, finishing the countdown.
Three . . . two . . . one . . . .
You couldn’t see anything at first. Then, to the north, angling away from the beach: a silver bullet chased by a volcano of flame.
“Wow,” Luther said. “That is a hell of a fire.”
The flame burned bright orange, not whitish like you see on TV. A streak of smoke trailed behind the space shuttle like the hour hand of a giant clock striking 2.
People grabbed binoculars and cameras and shielded their eyes, anything to get a better look as the rocket sliced the sky in half.
Then, nearly a full minute later, here came the sound: a rumble like a dozen avalanches, the sound of God clearing his throat.
The space shuttle cut loose its rocket boosters - ending the most dangerous part of the launch - and everyone on the beach cheered. The smoke trailed off and for a minute or two the shuttle was alone in the sky, a tiny silver speck, a daytime star.
Then it was gone.
Luther got up and walked a few steps across the sand to where his old buddy Gene was standing. Luther is 78 years old now, Gene is 83, and they had talked the day before about not having too many more of these trips to enjoy.
“Gene, how’d you like it?”
“That was something else. I sure am glad we came.”
And pretty soon they headed off the beach, searching for a screwdriver to drink, and a soft spot to sit down, and someone to listen as they told their stories.
Now they had a new story to tell.