Between the Lines: RIP Neil Armstrong

After four decades, one's memory of a particular night can be a bit, well, suspect.

It's why I wish at least one of my brothers was here right now, so I could compare "notes," so to speak, and see if what I recall about one special night seems to jive with them.

I do know my grandparents, who lived in Rapid City, had arrived the day before to spend a few days with my family on the farm near Humboldt.

Normally, during those times when my grandparents were around, we'd all clean up after the evening's chores were done, eat dinner together in the kitchen, and my grandparents and Mom and Dad would stay at the table and talk about boring, grown-up stuff.

My brothers and I would excuse ourselves and go about our normal routine. Maybe we'd watch TV, or play catch outside, or take one last bike ride before the sun went down.

This night was different. This night, we ate quickly. I remember feeling a bit nervous, but I can't remember if others around the table seemed as anxious or excited as me.

This night, we all stayed at the kitchen table until each of us was done eating. We calmly collected ourselves, walked into the living room, found a place of comfort (pretty sure my brothers and I planted ourselves onthe floor because there were a total of nine people in our house at the time) and we clicked on our small black and white television.

And waited.

An American astronaut was about to step on the moon.

I fit the definition of  "space nerd" growing up. My earliest memories as a kid include watching Walter Cronkite's televised reports as he, with great enthusiasm, described the scene each time we sent a man into space during the Mercury program.

And I watched as NASA evolved into something rather wonderful. Larger Gemini spacecraft that carried two men into orbit on top of larger rockets eventually replaced the tiny Mercury capsules. Naturally, the Apollo program followed that, as our manned space program continued to advance.

I thought I was fully aware of everything that was about to happen on July 20, 1969. I had pored over every news story about the pending moonwalk; I had tried to listen to every televised newscast describing what was planned for that night.

My jaw dropped a bit when Cronkite began describing the first ghostly images that appeared on our television screen. I had reasoned that we would simply have to listen to the exchanges between Mission Control and Neil Armstrong as he climbed down the ladder of the lunar module; TV images wouldn't appear until much later, when the two astronauts were established on the moon's surface and could set up a bulky camera. Or so I thought.

The fact that engineers somehow designed a system so that an external television camera could be mounted to the spacecraft, survive a trip to the moon, be turned on from either the inside the lunar module or (who knows?) perhaps by an engineer in Houston, and be powerful enough to beam images to earth was, in itself, an amazing feat. At least to me.

It's a wonder we didn't all experience sensory overload. So much history occurred simultaneously.

July 20, 1969 is likely the only night that four adults and five kids crowded around a television set in our farmhouse and stared, in silent awe, at the grainy images before them.

We were just nine of billions of people around the world who had tuned in to watch the stuff of science fiction become real. It was, I remember, so real and so unbelievable, all at the same time.

Armstrong, whose footsteps still remain undisturbed on the moon's surface, died Saturday, Aug. 25. His funeral was Aug. 31.

I was 13 when he stepped onto the moon's surface. I was old enough to understand just how difficult the Apollo 11 mission was – and how daring.

That night, I watched the anointing of the next great American hero. I feel fortunate that my life experience includes that moment.

It's such a rare feat.

Years later, I read a story about Armstrong's life, and the path he chose to follow after making history. He gained fame as a pilot and astronaut, but he was an engineer, and wound up teaching for eight years in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati.

Back in 1969, I reasoned that Armstrong could probably do anything he wanted after making history – and that he would be awarded greatly because of his fame and accomplishments.

His subsequent shunning of the limelight only deepens my regard for him today, as he is laid to rest at a private funeral service.  

Four decades after leaving his footprints all over the moon's surface, the only thing that seems out of step about this man is that he had no capacity whatever for self-promotion. That means a lot in an era where too often, in most fields of endeavor we substitute personal puffery for achievement, or at any rate require it as a necessary component of success.

RIP Neil Armstrong.

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