This is about Neil Armstrong, but it’s also about me. And if you felt any connection to this gentle yet bold American hero during his lifetime, it’s about you, too.
Countless words have already been written about his Ohio childhood, his youth as a pilot, his astronaut days and his footprints on the moon. But these words are about what he did for the world, for America, and for me.
If the Apollo 11 mission sparked worldwide wonder, there was nothing like the exponential boost of that wonder seen through the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy.
The previous Christmas, the crew of Apollo 8 had orbited the moon, reading from the book of Genesis as the Earth rose above the lunar horizon. During that week, Neil Armstrong was told he would command the first moon landing, three missions and seven months later.
Oddly enough, that did not automatically mean he would be the first man to walk on the moon. There was a brief debate over whether Lunar Module pilot Buzz Aldrin might plant the historic first steps.
Once that was ironed out, every child, and every adult who had ever looked at the moon with spellbound awe began to wonder what it would be like to be the quiet 39-year-old pilot from Wapakoneta, Ohio, as he trained for the most significant journey since Columbus.
I finished sixth grade in June of 1969 and began counting the days for that mid-summer morning of July 16, as Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins rode their towering Saturn V rocket into the sunny Florida sky.
While that launch was in crisp late-sixties color on our Zenith living room TV, the pictures from the moon four days later were in ghostly black and white, and past my usual bedtime.
But the adrenaline from the moon landing that afternoon was still pumping through my adolescent veins. I may not have blinked for those two and a half hours, watching the blurry images of Armstrong and Aldrin bouncing around in the lunar gravity, one-sixth of Earth’s.
Reading the plaque behind their spacecraft ladder: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
The phone call patched in from Richard Nixon, who had been president for exactly six months. The planting of the American flag.
These images riveted me with such passion that I actually paid attention to the rest of the Apollo missions, lasting to man’s last lunar footprints in December 1972. Those feats amazed me then, and they amaze me now. For every year of my life, I have looked at the moon with gratitude for the twelve men who walked there.
The path of my adult life led me to a media career that has allowed me to interview presidents and cover history as it happens. But nothing can top October 17, 2008, as I was honored to MC a panel discussion and luncheon at the Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas. The occasion was the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the Apollo program, and a tribute to astronaut Walt Cunningham, the only surviving member of the project’s first successful mission.
The guest list widened my eyes like those days of youthful wonder: Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders, Apollo Flight Director Gene Krantz (so memorably portrayed by Ed Harris in Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13,” uttering the unforgettable “Failure is not an option.”), even Fort Worth’s own Alan Bean, who had walked on the moon on the Apollo 12 mission.
Then came the word of a late addition to the panel and luncheon guest list: Neil Armstrong.
I have not had many heroes among famous people. My parents were heroes to me. My wife is today. Military personnel, cops and firefighters are every day. Among famous individuals, I would list President Reagan, who shaped my views as a young adult, and President George W. Bush, who protected my country after 9/11. I had the usual list of sports figures I admired as a kid, but that is quite another matter.
If we all have lists of those who have captured our hearts and minds with what they have done, Neil Armstrong was at the top of mine. As he walked on the moon when I was 11, I marveled at the universe God had made. On that day in 2008, I marveled at the good fortune God granted me to be able to thank him in person.
During that panel discussion, it was all I could do to suppress turning the whole thing into the kind of fawning mess parodied in “The Chris Farley Show” on Saturday Night Live. “Hey, Neil, do you remember when you and Buzz landed, and you took communion and then you walked on the moon and unfurled the flag but it didn’t deploy all the way out so it kind of looks like it’s waving and you talked to Nixon and pounded core tubes into the surface with that hammer and how the lunar dust just wouldn’t come off your suits and all of that, remember that? That was AWESOME!!!!!”
My space geek adrenaline flowing at 1960s levels, I somehow navigated the program to a successful conclusion without annoying the participants with rekindled adolescent effusiveness. Neil Armstrong’s participation was guided by his wish to thank others who had preceded him and the countless workers who made it all possible.
It is that kind of instinct that defined the quiet, dignified man I met that day, the reluctant but iconic hero who passed away Saturday.
Do you know how many restaurants he could have opened? How many Chryslers he could have sold? How many starlets he could have dated? How many millions he could have made hawking products or just reminding us in a thousand speeches about his exploits?
But instead he went home. To Ohio. To teach engineering at the University of Cincinnati, and to enjoy a career in business. The understated life he led only adds to the magnitude of the footprints he left on the moon and on American, and human, history.
I have a picture of our handshake after the Dallas event. His other hand is placed over mine, capturing the exact moment he thanked me for conducting the discussion with some degree of competence. The first thing that occurred to me was the crazy disconnect that he should thank me for anything, after the lifetime of wonder and gratitude his achievements had given to me, to all of us.
The outpouring of attention to those things since his death would have spurred him to remind us that his walk on the moon was mere happenstance. It could have been anyone, he would say. What mattered was the team that put the effort together and the nation that made it happen.
But it was not anyone. It was Neil Armstrong, a hero who let others sing the songs of his heroism. He let others write and speak of those times, and so we have. We have remarked about his journey, the history he made, and the way he honored that history by living a life deserving of the admiration it has been such a joy to carry for him.
In his last years, he was not such a quiet hero. If prodded, he would lament, never scoldingly, about how we seem to have lost our sense of wonder about exploring what lies beyond our world.
I immerse myself in the concerns of this world and this moment for a living. But I am trying to tell my son, who is nine, about a time when we had plenty of problems, as a nation and a world, but we still found a place, in our hearts and our budgets, for the magnificent things space exploration may yield– not just Teflon and calculators, but tonic for the human spirit.
Armstrong’s family statement asked us to “give Neil a wink” next time we look into the sky to see the moon where he walked 43 summers ago. We should do more than that. We should remember what it felt like to unite as a human race to celebrate what mankind had done in reaching toward the stars. We should begin reaching again, never allowing ourselves to get so caught up in the hand-wringing concerns of today that we forget about what our tomorrows may hold.
Then we can say we will have truly thanked this great American, this great man, for what he did for us.
The Mark Davis Show airs from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. weekdays on KSKY (660 AM). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.