Childhood heroes frequently have a profound influence upon the course of our lives. As one who grew up in the space age, astronauts and explorers have always seemed somewhat larger than life. Tenacious, goal-oriented dreamers enduring hardships and overcoming obstacles hold a special fascination. Most died long ago, often in what some might consider heroic ways. Many died quietly in their beds after an honorable life, rather than on “the field of battle.”
It was with personal sadness I learned of the recent death of Neil Armstrong. I remember coming home one warm July evening in the summer of 1969 after working a shift at the hospital and watching a fuzzy black & white television image of Armstrong taking “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” I suspect most of those of us who were alive and old enough to remember the event can recall exactly where we were on that momentous occasion. We all realized we were witnessing something very special and that human history could forevermore be divided into two broad epochs, before and after man set foot on another celestial body. Neil Armstrong was not just taking that step for himself, but for the rest of us as well.
Although a civilian at the time of his moonwalk, Armstrong was a former Naval Aviator and had flown combat missions during the Korean War. Attending college on a Navy scholarship, he eventually received his degree in aerospace engineering. He remained in the reserves until shortly before his selection as an Apollo astronaut. As a test pilot he also few the North American X-15, the world’s fastest rocket-powered aircraft, on a number of occasions. A modest individual, Armstrong never tried to profit commercially from his fame. In many ways he was much like his own childhood hero, Charles Lindberg.
Had anyone ever bother to ask me, “Who would you choose to shake hands with of anyone alive in the world?”, my answer would have been Neil Armstrong. Therefore, you can imagine my surprise when four decades later, that dream came true. While assigned as the U.S. 5thFleet/U.S. Naval Forces Central Command Surgeon in Bahrain in 2010, I learned the “Legends of Aerospace” were scheduled to visit American forces in the Middle East as part of a USO tour. The group included not only Neil Armstrong (first man to walk on the moon), but also James Lovell (Apollo 13), and Eugene Cernan (the last man to walk on the moon). It was my good fortune not only to be able to meet Neil Armstrong, but to act as his escort during the evening’s festivities. This included about 2 ½ hours, which coincidently is the same amount of time Armstrong spent walking on the moon, of one on one time driving to and from the event. I found him to be a friendly, sincere, and modest conversationalist. He can across as a pretty regular guy. He and his fellow astronauts thoroughly enjoyed the evening. For those in attendance, it was indeed a night to remember and one I will treasure until my dying day.
It is sad when our heroes pass away. But death is part of living; as we grow older these events occur with greater frequency. Perhaps my thoughts are best expressed by the cartoon that appeared in the Columbus Dispatch newspaper.