Ask about famous Mobilians and you’ll get the usual litany of athletes or musicians. What about a seat on a rocket shot to the moon? What does that get you?
The name Clifton C. Williams, Jr., elicits little response around here anymore, and it’s a shame. Williams was the Azalea City’s first honest-to-goodness NASA hero, a test pilot-turned-astronaut slated to be one of the first people on the moon, until an accident robbed him of his lunar ride.
Yet, just as impressive as this high-flying local was the woman he squired. Beth Williams possesses a fortitude that would make her late husband proud. Like him, she carved out her own seminal spot in the space program universe through excellence and diligence.
“Today we have over 200 people with offices in five countries,” CEO Williams said of Tech Trans International, providers of translation services for International Space Station partners. “I love this company and love the employees. We just celebrated our 20th year in business.”
Feet in the water, head in the sky
Clifton Williams, Jr. entered the world in Mobile on Sept. 26, 1932. Dubbed “C.C.” by friends, his childhood on Mohawk Street in Midtown was pretty average by most counts. He joined Boy Scouts, went on to Murphy High School then enrolled at Spring Hill College.
“He always had the goal to fly, even as a kid, he wanted to fly,” Beth Williams said.
Before long, C.C. transferred to Auburn University and aimed upward in every sense. He joined the Navy ROTC so when he graduated in 1954 with a Bachelor’s of Science in Mechanical Engineering, he became a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps by mid-August of that year.
According to his bio on the Johnson Space Center website, Williams excelled in flight school at Patuxent River, Md., becoming a member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots. Along with his membership in national mechanical honorary Pi Tau Sigma and national engineering society Tau Beta Pi, his future was obviously bright.
According to the nasa.gov site, C.C. was assigned duty as a test pilot for three years in the Carrier Suitability Branch of the Flight Test Division at Patuxent River. Steely nerves and a keen mind put him in the cockpit of the day’s hottest aircraft, including land-based and shipboard tests of the F8E, TF8A and A4E and automatic carrier landing system. Before it was over, he would advance to major in rank and amass 2,100 hours in jets.
The young hot shot was also about to make an impression that would change his life in other ways.
“We had friends who introduced us,” Beth Williams said. “It’s hard to remember what our first date was, but we probably went to the beach with friends. That would have been about in 1957.”
Beth was born Jane Elizabeth Lensche in New Bern, N. C., right upriver from Cherry Point Marine Air Base. In the 1950s, her skills as a water skier gave her an initial big adventure. One letter to the administration at Cypress Gardens, Fla. paid off with an offer for a tryout. As quickly as that, Beth was a water acrobat for the next two years.
Thanks to the stint Down South, Beth was used to male attention. But a pilot wasn’t your ordinary guy.
“I thought he was just great, just a regular Southern Gentleman,” she said. “He was the kind of guy that would light up a room when he walked in.”
Beth next aimed for the West Coast, living in San Francisco for five years while continuing her relationship with C.C. The skiing beauty and the flight jockey were still dating when he was tapped for the space program in October of 1963 alongside future household names like Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean and Michael Collins. The news was a hit back on Mohawk Street.
“Adjectives haven’t been written which can describe the feeling of pride Mrs. Williams and me hold,” C.C.’s father told press after the announcement.
In addition to being the biggest of the new astronauts at 6 feet and 175 pounds, C.C. was also the only bachelor. That changed in 1964 when he and Beth tied the knot and broke hearts nationwide with the announcement.
“That’s when we moved to Houston,” Beth said. “They were doing training here and in Florida, at the Cape (Kennedy Space Center).”C.C. became a backup pilot for the Gemini 10 mission and specialized in launch operations and crew safety. As the race to beat the Russians to the moon intensified, C.C. was named to the Apollo program and penciled in as a backup for Apollo 9 then as a primary on the Apollo 12 crew.
Other family members think he was originally circled for greater glory. The preceding flight, Apollo 11, carried Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the lunar surface where the former became the first human to step into its dust.
“Mind you, I know it wasn’t publicized, but I know (C.C) was originally selected to be on that flight,” his brother Dick Williams told a Press-Register reporter not long after his retirement in 2000. Dick was himself a retired bird colonel with the Army Reserve and owned Mobile-based civil engineering firm McCrory & Williams, Inc. He died in 2010.
“Deke Slayton was the chief of astronauts, and he scheduled these crews,” Dick said. “I’m told he was overruled because Congress wanted to keep the military presence at a minimum, and my brother was military. It was an international thing; they wanted to give it less of a military feel, which is understandable.”
As pilot of the lunar module, it would have likely been Williams and not Armstrong who initially kicked up the lunar regolith. Think of it: the first man on the moon could have been a Mobilian.
True to his wry nature, C.C. was fond of saying his initial words from the lunar surface would have been far shorter than Armstrong’s famed phrase about “steps” and “mankind.” In a nod to his alma mater, Williams quipped the sound heard from the foot of the lunar module would have been “War Eagle!” Was he serious?
“He would have liked that,” Beth chuckled. “I’ll believe that one.”
C.C.’s sense of humor cropped up at other times, like behind the yoke. When asked about an incident where the astronaut buzzed their Dickinson, Texas, neighborhood one afternoon, Beth laughed.
“Yeah, he was due to speak to a group of Boy Scouts that afternoon and that was his signal to me that he was on his way,” she said. “That’s what we did in the days before cell phones.”
The Williams house was filled with collegiality and good spirits. Their parties on Dickinson Bayou were well known through NASA ranks.
“Those were mainly for the astronauts,” Beth recalled. “We were all just real close.”
Regardless of whether Williams was bumped or not, one of the first four people on the moon would have been a Mobilian. C.C. eventually made it, but only in sad remembrance.
In January of 1967, Apollo 1 sat on a south Florida launch pad in rehearsal for its launch less than a month away. Almost too quickly to realize, an electrical spark ignited a fire that exploded in the highly oxygenated cockpit. Within seconds, the astronauts – Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee – burned alive as mission control personnel watched on closed circuit monitors.
“I knew all the Apollo astronauts. They were a very small close group at the time,” Beth said. “(The Apollo fire) stopped everything. To lose three close friends, that was really hard on the whole program. It was devastating in that it took several years to get back on flight status to get all the problems corrected.”
Space travel has always been risky. The Apollo technology was crude by modern standards.
“My cell phone has more capability than the computers on the Apollo 11 flight,” Beth said. “That’s why all those guys had to be able to use a slide rule and a sextant.”
Training accidents weren’t rare. Three astronauts had died in two separate accidents involving T38 jet planes in the years preceding Apollo 1. For the Williams family, that would be portentous.
In the fall of 1967, as Apollo recovered from the cockpit blaze, C.C. received bad news from Mobile. His father, superintendent of the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System (MAWSS), was losing his fight against Hodgkins disease.
The young astronaut would be flying back to Houston on Oct. 5. Beth was at home with their 9-month-old daughter Catherine while two-months pregnant with daughter Jane Dee. C.C. planned to land at Brookley Air Base, see Clifton Sr., then continue home to his growing family.
Near Tallahassee, Fla., C.C.’s T38 became erratic, lurching into a roll as the aileron controls jammed. C.C. broadcast a mayday and fought to maintain his 22,000-foot altitude.
He was locked into a nosedive, the earth rushing at him at 700 mph. C.C. ejected but at just below 1,500 feet above the ground. The speed and altitude made parachute deployment impossible.
C.C. Williams died in a field near the Florida-Georgia border. He was nine days past his 35th birthday.
Alan Bean replaced C.C. as LM pilot for Apollo 12. The mission insignia and crew patch was redesigned to include four stars, one for each man who made the flight plus another for Williams. They also took along Williams’ Marine Corps astronaut wings and left them on the moon in 1969.
Coincidentally, other mishaps plagued Apollo 12. The Saturn 5 rocket was struck twice by lightning during liftoff, once 36 seconds into flight and again 16 seconds later. Though damage occurred it didn’t prevent the mission. Then, Williams’ replacement Bean was struck in the head by a camera during splashdown. He suffered a concussion and cut above the eyebrow that required stitches.
Meanwhile in Mobile, Clifton, Sr. passed away months after his high-flying son. But the pride lived on.
Brother Dick would maintain he missed C.C. for the rest of his life. His mother Gertrude kept a scrapbook and dusted the collection of coffee cups C.C. sent from far-flung locales.
In Houston, Beth had little choice but to soldier on with a pair of girls to raise. She made sure their father and his family was always a presence.
“We went to Mobile at least twice a year,” Beth said. “We were very close to his mother and she would come to see us and we traveled together, took vacations together. We loved her dearly.”
Beth said the girls grew to know the Azalea City and the house on Mohawk Street. “They know the Dew Drop and it’s still their favorite hot dog,” she laughed.
School schedules kept them from making Mobile’s Mardi Gras but the astronaut’s family managed to catch something far more rare than a MoonPie.
“We did hit on a jubilee one day,” Beth said. “His aunt had a place over the bay and I told her whenever it happens just call me and I’ll get over here. We happened to be in town and she called and said, ‘It’s on’ and we shot over there as fast as we could and got there.”
The daughters went on to their own forms of service. One is a nurse in Houston. The other? Beth’s more tight-lipped about it.
“Let’s just say she works in Washington D.C.” she teased.
An unlikely phoenix
Unseen opportunity arose for Beth decades after C.C.’s death. A longtime neighbor with experience in translation services found Beth’s business acumen handy.
“She kept being moved around from contractor to contractor and finally came to me about starting a business together,” Beth said. “I agreed, we did an unsolicited proposal, bid it and won. We were five people; these were very small contracts.”
Thus was born Tech Trans International. But old themes emerged.
“Two months after we opened, my business partner was killed by a drunk driver so those four people stuck with me and we grew and grew,” Beth said. “Then NASA signed us on with the Russians and I needed a lot more people. The world started opening up, becoming more international, so I was just in the right place at the right time.”
Mobile has other astronauts. Murphy and Naval Academy grad Kay Hire not only followed Williams’ steps as a groundbreaking pilot and astronaut, but has often given the nearly forgotten predecessor attention. Hire also became the first person to observe Mardi Gras from orbit – MoonPies included – aboard the space shuttle in 2010.
“Kay is just a lovely person,” Beth said. “She’s very special.”
Recently, Mobilian Delia Ross has made the first-round cut for a trip to Mars with Mars One, a nonprofit, private venture set for launch in 2024. Whether she leaves terra firma has yet to be seen.
So what has his hometown done for C.C. Williams, a man close to being listed as one of the most important pioneers in Western Civilization? A sewage treatment plant on McDuffie Island bears the name Clifton C. Williams, but that was christened in 1987 in honor of the astronaut’s father.
“We started a small scholarship at Murphy for (C.C.),” Beth said. “He loved Murphy High School and I think that was some very good memories for him”
Beth also sees discrepancies between lip service for education and our actions. In a town where so many who strap on football helmets are given keys to the city while those under a flight helmet toil in obscurity, it’s easy to see the result.
“They talk about education and how important it is but I’m still not convinced a lot of that doesn’t have to do with the parents,” Beth said. “These kids have to have options. They have to know these people are out there and they have the ability to do this.”
For the ones who do know options, no ceiling is too high. Even the stratosphere is no barrier for leaving their identity in the firmament, higher than Hank Aaron or Jimmy Buffett even.
In 1971, Apollo 15 astronauts placed a plaque on the moon listing those who died in the space race. Right at the bottom is the name of a kid who turned his head upward and dreamed of leaving the ground, from the yard of a house on Mohawk Street.