Neil Armstrong and me
Posted August 27, 2012
In the summer of '69, when Bryan Adams was playing his "first real six string" that he got "from the Five-and-Dime," Bob and Nola Armstrong and their kids were filled with ancestral pride. We were thinking about that Scottish knight of olde that rescued his King who had been knocked off his horse in battle. He was dubbed "Armstrong" due to his strength in lifting the king to his own saddle and speeding away from danger, or so goes the short story that came with the family crest. Another Armstrong from Ohio (I was born in Cleveland) named Neil could claim that same family story – and that's why we were so giddy.
Neil was about to do something even greater than that old knight. Every Armstrong on earth had their eyes on that white disc in the night sky where Neil would be the first human to plant his boot on its soil.
This isn't a behind the scenes story of my covering the event for WRAL-TV. However, even at the young of age of 10, I was employed in the news business. I was responsible for 52 papers that bore the Raleigh Times mast head on route D-13. The copper band-bound stack of papers arrived at the main entrance to Fallon Park every afternoon around 4 p.m., except Sundays. The paper truck usually left me a few extra copies in case one was torn or landed in a puddle in a subscriber's yard. On Saturday, July 19, and everyday of that following week, I kept the extra copies because Neil Armstrong and his crew were about to make the headlines each day with the most incredible "giant leap for mankind" ever.
The Raleigh Times covered the local angle of the moon shot. One Saturday story titled "State Declines Nixon's Holiday Hint – No Apollo-Partying Here." The beloved Republican President may have hoped that the warring political parties could unite behind the moon shot, but Democratic Governor Bob Scott was not about to follow Nixon's lead allowing state workers a paid holiday for the occasion. "We're going to be Simon Legree," said C.T. West, the governor's press secretary. "It will be business as usual for us."
Perhaps people were bracing themselves for a potential disaster. The stakes were high and the risk was great. In another RT story, "Moonwatch to Pre-empt Sleep," an anonymous World War II veteran and businessman said, "This whole moon shot may be letting us in for a terrible let-down. Everything depends on its success, the stock market, our world prestige, even President Nixon's coming Red countries trip." An N.C. State student said, "Don't you know it is the most important thing to happen in our generation?" – or potentially the biggest let down. An N.C. State professor said, "It seems to be a race to beat the Russians, but I'll surely watch it." A "militant couple" complained, "We're opposed to the whole idea. We agree with the UNC theologian who said, 'Feed the hungry first.'" Little did they realize that the instant orange drink "Tang" would not have been possible without space exploration.
Now this just happened to be the weekend that Mom and Dad planned to haul their six children to Kerr Lake for a two night camping trip. For me, camping trip equaled "no TV" – and on this special day, no Walter Cronkite, no wall to wall moon shot coverage, no Neil Armstrong and his big moment.
Dad surprised us all with a tiny portable black and white TV complete with a power cord juiced by the big Ford Econoline's cigarette lighter. The reception wasn't great, especially the actual Apollo camera footage. It wasn't until I started working at WRAL-TV nine years later that I could appreciate the technical feat of transmitting video from Moon to Earth. We still have occasional problems sending a microwave signal from parts of downtown Raleigh to our station tower.
Despite the snowy video and my Dad's careful monitoring of the vertical hold knob, we could make out the image of a man in a bulky suit ON THE MOON! And that man was an ARMSTRONG! I'm sure the Aldrins and the Collins on Earth were equally proud, but our guy was the COMMANDER! Our guy took manual control of the lunar module with only about 20 seconds of fuel left as he steered clear of a BOULDER FIELD! (I don't use all CAPS and exclamation points often, but this event deserved a lot of them!)
Back at home on Monday we watched coverage of Neil and Buzz walking and bouncing around and eating moon cheese on a Ritz cracker. They only spent 21 hours and 30 minutes on the Moon. Imagine winning a trip to Rome or Jerusalem and you have to leave before the first day is over. We took it for granted that the craft would blast off the Moon's surface without a hitch and that it would link up with Michael Collins who was piloting the orbiter. We were more nervous about the flaming re-entry and splashdown, but not to worry – our heroes were home.
Eight years later, I actually met Neil Armstrong – or at least I stood within spitting distance of him. I didn't test the spitting thing. As a member of WRAL-TV's Explorer Post 5, I was working the radio/press room at the 1977 National Explorer President's Congress in Washington D.C. I taped interviews with other Explorers who won awards or were elected to national office in the co-ed scouting program. We sent short reports back to their hometown radio stations. Neil Armstrong, an Eagle Scout (like me), visited the event and stood in the radio/press room with a throng of admirers surrounding him. I wanted to force my way through and connect with my distant cousin and say something like "Hey, MY last name is Armstrong TOO!" Thankfully, I didn't. There were other geeky things I thought I might have said, but I wisely kept my mouth shut. I was so passive, I didn't even shake his hand. I just took in the moment and thought about how one day I would write a blog like this one to let everyone know that Neil and I were buds.
Those are the memories that came back to me this past Saturday when I learned the somewhat reclusive 82-year-old Neil Armstrong had died. He was the Christopher Columbus of our time. Even the recent unmanned Mars rover landing pales in comparison to Apollo 11's triumph. Fortunately, Armstrong lived to see NASA's latest amazing unmanned rover landing on Mars. Sadly, he lived to see the end of NASA "manned" space missions.