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Knowing Neil Armstrong, A Reluctant American Hero

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When Neil Armstrong died last month, I sent an email of condolence to my mother. They were friends in Cincinnati, their homes just a few driveways down from one another. Armstrong had served on a board with my stepfather, and their social circles overlapped. “He was very modest and unassuming,” my mother said. “Very private. And very informal. He loved cookouts. He had a wonderful sense of humor and a real twinkle.”

When James R. Hansen's authorized biography of Armstrong, "First Man," came out in 2005, Mom asked if I wanted her to send me a copy. I said sure, and please ask him to sign it. That was impossible, she told me. He no longer signed autographs, even for friends. People had begun selling them on the internet, and forging them, so he simply stopped. Even his barber had tried to profit from Armstrong’s fame, selling clips of his hair to a collector for $3000. When Armstrong found out, he threatened legal action, and made the barber give the money to a charity of Armstrong’s choosing.

He was certainly the right man to have made that “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” in that he never tarnished the memory of that momentous achievement.

Financially, Armstrong could have capitalized immeasurably on being the first man to walk on the moon, but he never did. He never wrote an autobiography. And although he had countless offers to be a spokesman for major corporations like Chrysler, he turned them all down. He never pursued a career in politics, like his good friend John Glenn, the first American in space. After the Apollo 11 flight, Armstrong returned to earth and moved back home, where he taught aeronautical engineering at the University of Cincinnati and lived as normal a life as possible.

He was a reluctant hero, but an authentic one. And he was certainly the right man to have made that “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” in that he never tarnished the memory of that momentous achievement. He was the most visible link in the chain, but thousands had to do their jobs to perfection for the mission to succeed.

And that was reflected in the first words he spoke from the surface of the moon: one of the most memorable lines in human history: pithy, wise, absolutely perfect for the moment. Armstrong’s was the small step. The achievement, which was the work of many, was the giant leap.

His death got me wondering what American heroes remain. There are plenty of policemen, firemen, soldiers, and good Samaritans whose actions qualify, but whose reach isn’t on a global scale. Athletes used to be thought of as heroes—Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Johnny U — but sportswriters like me, once complicit in the myth-making, now make it our mission to expose their feet of clay. (Another Armstrong, Lance, a hero to many, was recently brought down to earth. A great cyclist who raised a lot of money to fight cancer was exposed as a liar and a cheat.)

So to whom do we look for inspiration and pride? Who’s left? No politicians… none living, anyway. No military men I can think of. John Glenn? Probably. Nelson Mandela? Definitely. Muhammad Ali? I think so. But the list is short.

And, with Armstrong’s death, growing shorter. I asked my mother if she ever asked him about that trip to the moon. Sort of, she said. One time. He and his wife, Carol, were over for dinner one summer night, and it happened to be a full moon. They walked out onto the patio. “Oh, Neil,” Mom said, raising her eyes to the night sky. “How does it make you feel when you look up there at that moon?”

He smiled at her, showing that twinkle. “It makes me want to squeeze you,” he said.

Home from the heavens, he was a man who was happiest here on earth--deeply, deeply content. “The reward of a thing well done,” Emerson wrote in his essay, Self Reliance, “is to have done it.”

This program aired on September 5, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

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