The streets of downtown Solvang will fill with spectators dressed in red, white and blue to celebrate the city's annual Independence Day parade, featuring multicolored floats, cars, horses, motorcycles, two special guests — and their moon buggy.
Leading the charge down Solvang's Mission Drive will be 2019 honorary grand marshals Rutledge A. “Putty” Mills and his bride of 56 years, Carol, riding inside of the famous Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) prototype — or Moon Buggy.
Mills, 96, a decorated World War II U.S. Army veteran who participated in last year's parade seated inside the same LRV training model that he built a lifetime ago, said Solvang Rotary member Allan Jones delivered the good news to him recently.
"He said it was my turn," Mills said laughing, adding that his wife, a dedicated homemaker and mother to four daughters, said she too would be glad to go along for the ride.
The theme of this year's parade is "We the People" and according to Jones, who will represent the Solvang Rotary as the parade announcer for the 24th year, the Mills fit the definition of how Americans can achieve previously unthinkable things, such as putting a man on the moon.
"For a young man of 96, he is an inspiration for all Americans that you can do great things in life," Jones said of Putty Mills.
Mills' military action in Europe during WWII included the Battle of Bulge and a deployment to the Philippines earned him a French Legion of Honor, American, European-African-Middle Eastern and Asiatic campaign medals, the World War II Victory medal and Good Conduct medal.
Post-war, Mills worked as an engineer for the U.S. Department of the Interior when, just before Apollo 11 made the first moon landing, NASA put out a request for proposals to design and build the Lunar Roving Vehicle that would allow astronauts to extend their moon explorations.
Boeing won the prime contract, according to Mills, and General Motors Defense Research Laboratories in Santa Barbara was left to finish the wheels, motors and suspension.
Eventually NASA would need more than just the four flight models built — three of which are currently on the moon, according to Mills. They required a training model to be built for testing and measuring important human factors.
Mills says after a lengthy process, out of the 1,500 people who applied to build the training unit, he was chosen.
"I was in the thick of it," he said, further adding that what he most regrets is missing the opportunity to go to space due to an age limit imposed by NASA. "You couldn't be more than 40 at that time and I was already 41."
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One of the two moon buggies — the other is held at a museum in Flagstaff — designed by Mills for $1,900 versus the $10 million that Boeing put the cost at for building, will again be featured in this year's parade.
"I was really surprised when I heard the news," said Carol Mills, 83, a self-professed bibliophile. Playfully gesturing to her husband, she added, "He never tells me anything."
When not at home refurbishing vehicles or being featured in a parade, the Santa Ynez couple can be found enjoying a pancake and scrambled egg breakfast at Longhorn Coffee Shop each morning in their beloved hometown.
For more information about the parade or to obtain parade entry forms, visit https://www.solvangrotary.com/.
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Lisa André covers Valley Life for Santa Ynez Valley News.
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