February 29, 2008

Though I was later to appear on “Firing line,” write for his magazine,and find myself embroiled in his public diplomacy, my first meeting with Bill Buckley was by far my warmest. It was the morning of the Apollo 11 moon launch, and the July temperature and humidity at Cape Canaveral were both approaching 100 as the Saturn V smoked cryogenically on launch pad 39, seventeen thousand feet away at the end of a placid barge canal.

Which was as close as even photographers were allowed, in the event of a four kiloton misunderstanding. The countdown was delayed for hours, and   driven by some Plimptonesque pyrotechnic attraction, Bill availed himself of the final hold to venture from the air conditioned TV pavilion to get a few thousand feet closer to deploy his Leica for the launch itself.  Like some few others, I had wrangled credentials from Conde’- Nast to view Apollo, and offered him a magnified squint at the distant scene through the artillery sized telephoto I had aimed.

Two things stick in memory. The previous day, a business-suited Czech journalist had up and died of heat stroke while taking the NASA safari through its 20,000 acre reserve, but Bill was wearing his inevitable necktie, albeit on a gossamer pongee shirt. The other was his response to a TV crew after the rocket’s seismic ascent on an ear-shattering pillar of flame ,  like a video of 9-11 run backwards .  We were all still literally shaken- the shock waves had set the canal seething—when the TV guy stuck a microphone at his face and barked:

  “Mr. Buckley, have you anything to say about watching the first men depart for another world?”

He half turned to the man, raising his eyebrows in mock amazement at the question, and just shook his head.


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