Thomas Eldred, of Union Springs, knew man had walked on the moon when he saw astronauts. However, they weren't on TV, and they weren't Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
Eldred, who would serve as Cayuga County historian from 1975 to 2001, was a history teacher for the Union Springs Central School District in 1969. He spent that summer teaching in Ecuador.
On July 20, the day Armstrong and Aldrin became the first men ever to set foot on the lunar surface, Eldred and a group of about 20 took a train from Quito to Guayaquil, he said Thursday. The railroad, which he called "an engineering miracle," descends thousands of feet down the face of the Andes Mountains. The nearly perpendicular slope is also known as the Devil's Nose.
A little more than halfway through the trip, just past the town of Guamote, Eldred's car stalled when a universal joint was lost, he said. Several men labored to push the car down the track to a telephone pole, which the brakeman climbed to contact help. The crew was told to wait for the next train to push the car back to Guamote for repair, Eldred said.
When the car arrived at the town, Eldred continued, several children playing in a nearby field were surprised to see the "gringos" stranded. Then, the children disappeared.
They would later return — with emptied fish bowls around their heads. Eldred and his fellow passengers, who knew the Apollo 11 mission had launched, quickly deduced what the children were doing.
"They must be astronauts. So we must have landed," he recalled thinking. "It was pretty obvious."
The irony of mankind's "giant leap" taking place at the same time Eldred's train broke down wasn't lost on him, he said.
Still, Eldred and his fellow North American passengers felt "a little bit prouder of our country that day," he wrote in a column for The Citizen-Advertiser published on Aug. 1 of that year.
"It is quite interesting to see the reactions of a foreign nation to our space feats," he wrote. "The Ecuadorians gave us all kinds of praise because we represented our country to them."