Neil Armstrong grew old and now he is gone. I’m not sure how that happens, but it does, n’est-ce pas?
It was my 14th birthday, the day the Eagle landed. We were in a campground outside Florence, Italy– my mother, my father, myself and a family friend had traveled to Italy aboard a freighter. Down in a hold of the freighter sat our 1964 VW Microbus stuffed with camping gear. And this evening, July 19, 1969, whilst the Lunar Module (LM) slipped away from the command module and descended silently to the lunar surface, we were camped out, surrounded by scores of people from all over Europe. Their vehicles sported bumper stickers: “E” for Espana. “GB” for Great Britain. “I” for Italia. “F” for France. Other initials, other countries. Our microbus did not sport any tag– we didn’t need one. People saw our Texas license plate and they heard us talk.
That evening, in the campground cafe area, on a small black and white TV, we saw images and we heard crackly voices, including Neil Armstrong saying matter-of-factly, “The Eagle has landed.” That’s when they started coming by– the other campers. People from “E” and “GB” and “I” and “F” and other countries, some in good English and not so good, and in other languages, congratulated us. You would have thought we landed the LM ourselves.
In 1969, Neil Armstrong was 39 years old. I was a 14 year old space geek. I devoured news stories and listened to the astronauts talk to capcom as though I were right there at their elbow. In my mind, for almost half a century, Neil has stayed 39, and the moon landing (we almost never say “the first landing”) is frozen in time. So today, it was sobering to hear that when he died he was 82.
In an odd way, I felt a bit sorry for Neil. I mean, can you imagine being the first man on the moon– then living the rest of your life? No one wants to ask about your trip to Alaska or the Grand Canyon— all they want to talk about is your time on the moon. I wonder how many ways Neil came up with to describe what it was like to walk on the moon. Did he come up with a little bounce step to simulate moonwalking? Did anyone ask him to do it like Michael Jackson did it? Neil Armstrong must have welcomed other things to talk about.
And in my younger years, I wondered why Neil never got the adulation given to Charles Lindbergh or even John Glenn. But nowadays, in my advanced youth, I think I understand the situation better. Going to the moon was a team effort– a massive team effort– not just the doings of one man. Neil was modest and unassuming, and damn good at his job– those qualities are probably why he was chosen to be the first man on the moon. NASA knew he would do his part and do it well, but his part was just one part of the entire project. It was a great day for Neil, yes, but not Neil alone. As he said himself, this was “a giant leap for mankind.”