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Monday
Aug272012

The Strong One

Mine is the first generation in human history born into a world in which man had walked upon the moon.  We take it for granted:  “Well. Of course this happened.  They got there and came back and that’s the way it was supposed to go, isn’t it?” It was a gift to us so well and carefully wrapped that some sink themselves into a mudhole of questions as to whether it ever happened at all. 

The rest of the world seemed determined to paper over Neil Armstrong's personality and identity with the title he held, and no wonder.  Those who were alive and conscious at the time define the moment as a window into their lives when he and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the Sea of Tranquility.  The entire planet threw itself in contrast to what two other human beings were doing at the moment, one which remained detail-perfect for the whole stretch of their lives, even after it was long past:  "I was laying on the living room carpet with my brothers and sisters, holding my model rocket." "I was gathered around a radio at a military base."  "I was at a bar."

The man for the job was apparently custom-built to be the first on the moon.  He had a test pilot’s assertiveness and competence without the usual accompanying cocky walk.  He was comfortable before a microphone, but did not grab it out of turn.  He was humble without wringing his hands. 

Neil Armstrong flew the Bell X-1B and X-15 and made a habit of landing on the 862 pitching, rolling feet of runway known as an aircraft carrier.  He  came into the NASA family as a member of--in Tom Wolfe patios-- “The Next Nine.”  They were the second draft class of astronauts, part of the expansion team, and considered by many as the greatest massing of pilots, engineers, and flight testers ever assembled.  Armstrong’s heroics were enough to grant him Hall of Fame status before he ever set foot in Eagle:  The lethal, unchecked spinning of Gemini 8The last-millisecond punchout in the “flying bedstead” Apollo trainer (do click on the link, if you haven’t seen the video; the only thing that makes it watchable is the knowledge that the film ends with images of Armstrong dangling cheerfully from a parachute. )

And when he took command of Eagle, having calmly established himself as… calm, he set it down on fumes, in a rocky field on a celestial body entirely separate from Earth.  And having done this with less than 30 seconds of fuel in the tanks, he clicked the call button to Mission Control and said, Yeah, okay, we’re here.  There was no shrieking, callouts to whatever horrid moment of pop culture was taking place at the moment, or stretching out with muscles bulging before the nearest available camera.  He landed and then he said that he landed.  His job was to set Eagle down, walk around a bit, and bring his men and a few rocks back.   So he did it.

The Apollo 11 crew is a fascinating study in created-family contrasts.  All highly accomplished men, Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins took on sibling roles once NASA herded them into the very small cabin of a very small spacecraft:  Armstrong was the studious, serious, responsible eldest brother.  Collins, the middle child, the forgotten one floating and orbiting as his crewmates bounded across the surface, held the camera and developed an easygoing sense of humor about the whole thing.  And Buzz Aldrin, the baby... well... he’s Buzz Aldrin.  The intense lobbying for the role as first man out.  The drinking.  The acting gigs.  The suing.  The punching.  (I am particularly fond of the punching.)

What with Buzz Aldrin being Buzz Aldrin and Collins propelling himself to a well-deserved reputation as the artistic soul of Apollo 11 (he drew his own charming illustrations for his tremendous book, Carrying the Fire, which is among best entries in the rather specialized genre of space literature), Neil Armstrong developed an unfair reputation as the J.D. Salinger of the astronaut corps.  He wasn’t. He was merely a man who refused to reap the easily gaudy rewards of being pretty much one of the most famous men in the history of men.  Well aware that his accomplishment wasn't possible without the work and sacrifice of countless others, he backed away from grasping their credit.

No parades, no galas, no reality shows.  But Armstrong did lecture, agreed to occasional interviews, and defended the space program he helped to build.  When I was briefly in the same room with the entire Apollo 11 crew at a National Air and Space Museum event in 2009, he was the only one of the three to make consistent eye contact with the great non-moonwalking unwashed.   Of his speech there, I wrote:  “Neil Armstrong had a title for his presentation, and every word in the title started with the same letter, and he had complete paragraphs and a thesis statement and everything.  I am thinking he did not cite Wikipedia as a source.  He seemed like a naturally shy person who also knows how to speak to a crowd, and he generated within me great waves of protectionism.” 

He wasn’t avoiding the world; he was avoiding Neil Armstrong, Inc.  Given the fact that a person stands at the highway exit for his hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio, wearing a spacesuit and waving an enormous sign advertising a museum about the famous son, I can’t really say that I blame him.

How do you follow the act of being the first human in all of history to set foot on the Moon?  You make your life about even more than being the first human in all of history to set foot on the Moon.

It is a good thing that America is a nation in which the great can rise from humble origins, then quietly descend back to those origins if they so choose.  Neil Armstrong might have taken a step for mankind and planted an American flag, but he grew up in Ohio, did his job in Korea and on the Moon, and when he was done with that he… went right back to Ohio. 

Armstrong wasn’t a prop of the state and he wasn’t a dancing NASA pony.  And so this English major grew up about half an hour away from where the modern Christopher Columbus settled after a few years teaching at the University of Cincinnati.  He ate in the local restaurants; he didn’t have People.  You didn’t have to sidle into a hallway and cast your eyes to the ground when Neil Armstrong walked by.  And perhaps this is his final gift to NASA, to humanity:  The fame which he sometimes saw as a burden was shouldered with enormous dignity.  He was a sterling caretaker of his title and the reputation of the nation which sent him to claim it.  When Hollywood came calling, he slammed down the phone and picked up a piece of chalk.

There is a single authorized biography of Neil Armstrong:  First Man, by James Hansen.  It reads like a textbook, and the history minor in me heartily recommends it while the writing major shies away.  In  attempting to wrap his keyboard around the enormity of his task, Hansen incudes such information as how much ammunition Armstrong’s squadron unloaded in Korea, what his great-uncle did for a living, and what his salary was in 1979.  It is too much, too much.  But when it comes to chronicling the life of the single human held up as the representatives to all humans, it’s a natural tendency to examine him from every possible mite-sized vector:  Was he like the rest of us, even as he was unlike the rest of us in his memories of strolling on another world?

The Earth is weeping for the man on the moon.  But in his act of standing where so few others have, he stood for all of us.

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