SALT LAKE CITY — It was just the two of them sitting in the common room of a boarding house in downtown Denver. It was mid-July 1969. The evening news was on TV; all the talk was about Apollo 11.
The man in the black hat turned to Charlie Bunker.
“Do you think they’re really going to land on the moon?”
Charlie looked at his companion. They’d met a few days earlier when Charlie first checked in. The older man had long hair and his long-sleeved shirt had pins instead of buttons. He carried a little Bible with him everywhere.
“Are you a hippie?” Charlie had asked — a not irrelevant question in the summer of ’69 – and then added, “Or part of a different religion of some sort?”
The man said he was Amish. He had brought his wife to Denver because she had bad arthritis and while it was not OK with the church to see medical doctors, it was OK to go to a chiropractic hospital, of which there was one in Denver.
Watching television was another thing that wasn’t allowed, but the Amish man read his Bible in the same room as the TV, and, as Charlie noticed, he kept glancing up at the set.
“Yes,” said Charlie. “I’m sure they’re going to land on the moon. I work at a place where they make the rockets and things that helped them get there.”
* * *
For a physicist, Charlie Bunker was born right. He was 19 years old in May of 1961 when President John F. Kennedy challenged Congress, and all of America, that the United States “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
At the time, Charlie had just finished his freshman year of college at BYU. His major was physics. His original plan was to get his degree so he could go back home to Nevada — he was born and raised in Las Vegas — and work on the nuclear program at the Nevada Test Site.
But the space race launched by JFK changed all that. By the time Charlie graduated in 1966, married now and starting a family, demand for aerospace jobs was exceedingly high, and he was part of the supply.
He landed a job at the Hughes Corp. in Los Angeles for a starting salary of $8,000 a year. “We thought we were millionaires,” he says.
“I got the job of a lifetime. I started out kinda doing gopher work, but it was still exciting to me. The enthusiasm was infectious. Everybody wanted to get the job done. It really was more than a job.”
He worked on Surveyor, a NASA-funded program that sent several unmanned rockets to the moon to prove the feasibility of soft landings. The first one landed in 1966, just before Charlie arrived, the last in 1968, setting the stage for Apollo 11’s manned voyage a year later.
The success, and therefore end, of Surveyor is what got Charlie to the boarding house. He was looking for his next job, and the Denver-based aerospace company Martin Marietta was hiring.
He left his wife and children in L.A. to come for the interview and get started on the job. He thought he’d save a few bucks by sleeping in the back seat of his car, a Chevy Corvair. That lasted two nights. Then he found the boarding house, and the Amish fellow.
They got to know each other in the TV room — “he was real friendly,” says Charlie. Charlie wound up driving the man’s wife back and forth a few times from the chiropractic hospital — providing a sort of “English loophole” for the couple.
On Sunday night, July 20, 1969, at 8:56 p.m. Denver time, the space racer and the Amish gentleman were in their seats, watching together on television as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon.
“I was as proud of it as I could be to see that flag plop down on the moon; proud to be an American; proud we’d done what we said we’d do,” says Charlie.
And his Amish friend?
“He sat there shaking his head, trying to get his mind around it. He just couldn’t believe it.”
Charlie wound up working for Martin Marietta for nearly 40 years, until he retired in 2008. The last few years were in Utah. These days, at 77, he stays busy teaching a class in advanced composites at Salt Lake Community College.
This Saturday, as the world commemorates the 50th anniversary of Armstrong’s walk on the moon, Charlie will join in the celebration, remembering some of the best days of his life. And a certain Amish gentleman, who made it all the more memorable.