First Man on the Moon (the author describes the life of, and a meeting with, Neil Armstrong)
First Man on the Moon
Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon, passed away on August 25, 2012.
During the early Cold War, Arthur C. Clarke wrote the first man who would walk on the Moon was probably already alive, perhaps in elementary school in the United States or Russia. Those born after 1950 cannot recall a time when “going to the Moon” was absolute fantasy for the great majority of the Earth’s population and a dream for – well, for dreamers. Most were scientists and science fiction writers. Clarke was both. He went on to posit that the dominant language on Earth by the close of the twentieth century, English or Russian, might be determined by the location of that elementary school.
Clarke was right about some things but not the age of the first man on the moon. Neil was born in 1930 and started Purdue at seventeen. He accepted a Department of Defense scholarship and was called to active duty by the Navy in 1949. Neil had flown 79 combat missions over Korea before Clarke published his elementary school student conjecture.
A fiction writer could not have described a more All-American background than Neil Armstrong’s: Midwesterner, flight certificate at age fifteen, Eagle Scout, turned down a scholarship to MIT to enroll at Purdue, test pilot for some of the most significant aircraft of the twentieth century. Oh, yeah, he was an Astronaut.
I learned of the first Gemini mission while in Marine Corps basic training in 1965. Neil saved Gemini 8 from a potentially catastrophic system failure.
On July 20th, 1969 Neil Armstrong did it. Rejected one landing spot and moved to a better, almost running out of fuel in the process. “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Put on the suit, opened the hatch, climbed down the steps. Credited “ . . for mankind” as his feet touched – and made footprints which, eroded only by charged particles of the solar wind and micrometeorites, will last for millennia.
On July 20th, 1969 John Tilford, back from Vietnam and saving money to return to Indiana University, was watching Neil and Buzz (and Walter Cronkite) on a black-and-white television in Willard Tilford’s farmhouse. Polly Ann Bruce, one of Willard’s Sunday school students, visited; ostensibly to swim in dad’s lake. She looked pretty good.
Langholm, Scotland – ancestral home of the Armstrong’s – proclaimed Neil “first freeman” in 1972. The Tilford’s hail from Langholm.
I telephoned the University of Cincinnati in the fall of 1974. Made the appointment. (I had never forgiven myself for not meeting Truman before his death in 1972.) Polly, one year old Aaron, and I met Professor Neil Armstrong in his office. He graciously came from behind his desk to greet us. After the hello’s I suddenly realized I had nothing meaningful to say. “Congratulations on being the first man on the Moon!” seemed too trite. Aaron started to squirm. Neil signed a page in Polly’s notebook. We said our goodbyes and left.
Millions of WWII baby-boomers were the right age to appreciate Neil. I grew up reading science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke in particular. I entered college at seventeen then came back from war to finish as he did. He was younger than our fathers but older than we were. Like us, he dreamed, fought, studied, and worked. But he accomplished so much more.
John Glenn observed “He [Neil] didn’t feel that he should be out huckstering himself.” Neil Armstrong, exemplifying dignity to the end, never cashed in on his singular fame. Look at the moon. See the Sea of Tranquility? His footprints remain.