ONE SMALL STEP FORTY-TWO YEARS AGO
By Arthur V. Evans
I grew up on the southwestern fringes of the Mojave Desert in Southern California, just a stone’s throw from the land of The Right Stuff. My summers were punctuated by weeklong family camping trips to the mountains and the coast. Dad preferred the rugged lushness of the Sierra Nevada, especially along the waterways that spilled off its eastern slopes down to the desert environs of the Owens Valley below. Mom loved the beach, so we would spend another week camped out at Morro Bay or Pismo Beach, both located along California’s Central Coast.
In July of 1969, we spent a week in the Oceano Campground at Pismo Beach State Park, which just happens to be a well-known overwintering site for monarch butterflies. I can still smell the heavy canvas of our baby blue and olive-drab tents heated by the sun as it burned through the last bits of morning fog. I spent every possible moment exploring the freshwater lagoon, coastal dunes, and beach in search of insects and other invertebrates. California ctenucha moths, Ctenucha rubroscapus flitted about the flowers and grasses sprouting up on the dunes. Several diurnal and non-bioluminescent fireflies, Ellychnia californica, rested on the flowers growing among the stinging nettles that lined the shore of the lagoon. Red admirals, western tiger swallowtails, and a dizzying array of dragonflies flew hither and yon, all seemingly daring me to capture them. And I did just that with my recently acquired homemade insect net fashioned from a broom handle, a heavy wire coat hanger, and a net bag made of cheesecloth.
In those days I kept my insect collection in sturdy cardboard cigar boxes. King Edward Imperials housed my butterflies and moths, while the dragonflies were stored in a White Owl box. A Roi-Tan Panatelas box protected my true bugs, cicadas, grasshoppers, and katydids. All of my beetles were neatly arranged in a box that once held Swisher Sweets and the Dutch Masters box served as a catchall for everything else. I can still smell that pungent aroma of tobacco mingled with mothballs!
Earlier that week, on the morning of 16 July, Apollo 11 had set off on its historic flight to put men on the moon and return them safely to Earth. The astronaut’s first steps on the lunar surface, interspersed with simulations, would be televised early on the evening of Sunday, 20 July. Fortunately, I would have access to a television by then because that was the day we would return home.
The promise of seeing and collecting still more insects AND watching men on the moon on television was pretty heady stuff for a 12 year-old! The night was shaping up to be hot and uncharacteristically humid and promised an excellent night for insect activity. I turned on the mercury vapor street light mounted on the garage wall. Dad had installed the bright blue light partly to illuminate the front of the house, and partly to attract insects for me. I quickly discovered that it was a beacon for nocturnal insects!
My plan for the evening was to dash from the light to the television and back to watch both spectacles unfold. It wasn’t even dark yet when Neil Armstrong opened the hatch of the Lunar Module and slowly descended down the ladder to utter those now-famous words, all captured on fuzzy black and white, yet still quite memorable video. Throughout the evening, between bouts of nighttime bugs, I watched in awe as Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin bounced across the lunar surface to collect samples and conduct experiments. Just a few years later, I had the opportunity to meet Buzz Aldrin and get his autograph after he gave a lecture on his lunar experience at the annual Kern-Antelope Historical Society banquet held in Rosamond, California.
As night descended, thousands of insects of all sorts swarmed to the bright bluish light, zooming around it as if they, too, were satellites orbiting a heavenly body. My eyes, ears, and nose were simultaneously assaulted by the flappings and scratchings of chitinous wings and appendages. Undeterred, I dove into the swarm from time-to-time to scoop up select specimens off the rough stucco wall. Some of the more notable insects that I saw that night included many white-line sphinx moths, several California prionus, and a raft of 10-lined June beetles.
For those who did not experience the Apollo 11 mission as it took place, it is difficult to imagine the nearly global excitement generated by the landing of men on the moon. I was lucky enough see this epic event on television. I still get a little verklempt when I watch the video some 42 years later and will forever remember that warm summer night all those many years ago and its promise and deliverance of new and exciting things here on Earth and beyond.
References on California insects
Evans, A.V. and J.N. Hogue, 2004. Introduction to California Beetles. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
Evans, A.V. and J.N. Hogue, 2006. Field Guide to Beetles of California. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
Hogue, C.L. 1993. Insects of the Los Angeles Basin. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles, CA.
Powell, J.A. and P.A. Opler, 2009. Moths of Western North America. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
Powell, J.A. and C.L. Hogue, 1979. California Insects. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
For more information on Apollo 11 and its mission see: