I never met Neil Armstrong, but as a native Ohioan, I always felt I knew him at a different level than those who weren’t. I don’t have any particularly acute memories of his first steps on the lunar surface; I dozed until my mom shook me awake for the big moment, after which I dozed off again. I was at a friend’s house when the Eagle landed, and her father — her father, not her mother — shed a few tears.
“Maybe I paid for a few screws,” he said, wiping his eyes.
Alan, who lived closer to Wapakoneta, Armstrong’s northwest Ohio hometown, went with his family for the astronaut’s homecoming. Tens of thousands packed the streets of the northwest Ohio farm town for the big parade. He remembers drinking Mountain Dew rebranded as Moon Juice.
Later, after he’d retired from the space program, Armstrong returned to Ohio to live, teaching at the University of Cincinnati. He gave very few interviews (but some). He was that increasingly rare bird in American life — the truly self-effacing man. He knew his role in history, and participated in responsible scholarship to document and preserve the experience. He talked to serious journalists on significant anniversaries, cooperated with an authorized biography, but never, ever capered for an outsize share of the glory. What many are saying this weekend is true: The space program was one with many, many moving parts, and he was only one of them. His insistence that he not take more credit than was his due may seem strange to us now, at a time when so many publicity hounds bay for the spotlight, but once upon a time this was known as character.
About 10 years or so, I ran across a column about NASA written by an English journalist. It portrayed Armstrong as a bitter recluse, a grouchy crank whose tossed-off quip that he hoped someday his footprints on the lunar surface would be erased was evidence of something approaching mental illness. You’d think an Englishman would recognize modesty when he saw it, but by then we were well into the LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME LOOK LOOK AT MEEEEEE era, and maybe he just couldn’t imagine how a man could be satisfied with a college professor’s salary and pension when he could make zillions on the speaking circuit.
Later, I interviewed Armstrong’s biographer, James Hansen, a Fort Wayne native and Purdue graduate. He said he thought the astronaut chose him for the job because Hansen was essentially a science journalist, not a personality profiler, and Armstrong wanted to make sure the whole team of geeks got their due. I think he was right. (I haven’t read the book.)
Someone in my Facebook network posted a wry observance Sunday morning, noting that the story of the birth of Snooki’s baby was already No. 1 on Yahoo’s most-read news index, while Armstrong’s death was at #5. That says a lot, right there.
I asked Hansen to tell me something about the moon landing I might not already know. He said that in parts of the Muslim world, it is believed that Armstrong heard the Islamic call to prayer while on the lunar surface, and immediately upon returning to earth, sought out the proper religious authorities and converted to Islam. (It’s true. The rumor, that is.) Armstrong had to issue a statement a few years back. Apparently these Muslims believe he lived in Lebanon, which is true, but Lebanon, Ohio, near the former home of Kash’s Big Bargain Barn, not Kashi’s Falafel Palace.
Anyway, an amusing nugget that, if I’d ever met the man in person, I’d have liked to ask him about. However, the fact he would have just as soon keep mum about it is fine.
A good weekend around these parts. I spent some of it thinking about St. Lance the Imperfect; maybe that’ll be gelled by tomorrow.
In the meantime, have a great week. Not much bloggage to speak of, but thanks to Little Bird for finding the invisible bike helmet, which is either genius or a well-produced prank.
If you’re near Isaac, stay safe.