“You know you’re from Levittown if…”
- You bought one of those mirrored keychains or picture frames at the Tri-County Flea Market when you were 16.
- Your parents let you play down the block, without worry, until the street lights came on, and the block was named after a bird or a flower or maybe started with the letter ‘S.’
- You had a parent, grandparent, aunt, or uncle employed at Grumman — maybe even one who worked on the Eagle, the lunar module that made history on the Apollo 11 flight that landed men on the moon for the first time on July 20, 1969.
My grandmother, Irene Sobey Gaden, worked at Grumman. She wasn’t an engineer or construction foreman or mathematician. She worked in the cafeteria there, first as a secretary, then later in the cafeteria itself, and eventually became one of the food service managers. For 35 years, beginning in 1958, she helped feed the Grumman workers every day. There were about 25,000 employees in total, according to Newsday, with about 9,000 working on the lunar module.
In a way, you could say my grandmother helped feed the Eagle.
“I remember them being very excited about the whole thing,” my Aunt Lynne recalled earlier today, the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing. She was 17 years old when the Eagle landed. Her mother brought home commemorative patches, but Aunt Lynne can’t recall what happened to them.
My mother, Jan, was 15 when American astronauts took their first steps on the moon thanks to Grumman’s L.E.M. She has amassed quite a collection of moon memorabilia, but that’s not really the point.
Mom recalled how, as little girls, “Whenever we asked what our mother did there, she told us her job was to paint the signature ‘Grumman ball’ on top of the Plant 2 building.”
I saw that iconic blue ball nearly every day of my youth. True, it was in Bethpage, but it might as well be another “you know you’re from Levittown if…” kind of mile-marker.
Mom also remembered how her mother’s job at Grumman sustained their family. Yes, their stepfather was a construction manager there for a time, but he was an alcoholic who never held a job for very long, and my grandmother eventually divorced him.
“She was a single mom with two daughters in the early ’60s, forced to get a job close to home,” Mom said.
RELATED READING: Newsday‘s complete tribute to the Apollo 11 LEM landing
I just spent the last 20 minutes searching online to see if any former Grumman cafeteria workers had shared their stories publicly. But when you search for terms like “Grumman cafeteria workers” or even “Grumman custodians” and “Apollo 11,” nothing really useful turns up. I felt dismayed at the lack of results.
Which is why it’s so important that we document our families’ histories. Behind the big events, like the Apollo 11 moon landing, are lots of people who get a lot of the credit, and deservedly so. But they received support behind the scenes, too, and I want to make sure that gets recognized.