Mike Poole is a part-time system administrator, part-time bookkeeper, full-time heavy box toter working in the backwoods of South Carolina. He spends his free time reading science fiction and trying to get this Facebook monkey off his back.
I don’t remember whose post I saw first. There were several, all saying basically the same thing. It was a lazy Saturday and I’d decided to put off the weekly mowing until Sunday, opting for a nap instead. I woke up late afternoon, grabbed a cup of coffee, and logged into Facebook for a quick meme fix. Instead, I got the news that Neil Armstrong was dead. I got as far as the first headline, then I started to cry and I just sat there and cried for a while.
I guess I should feel embarrassed and keep that to myself, a grown man sitting alone at his desk, crying like a little baby about the death of someone far away. It’s not like I knew him, not really, anyway. I never saw him in person or got to shake his hand. All I knew of him was the same PR published over and over throughout the years with ever decreasing regularity, a Wikipedia entry waiting for its final update. He was decades out of the public eye, famous for something many no longer think important enough to fuss over, some think never really happened, and even he felt was inappropriately focused on him. And yet, I don’t feel embarrassed at all. Not even just a little.
I turned thirteen just the month before. The landing was big news that evening, but the walk would be after bedtime. My parents allowed me to stay up and watch if I promised to keep quiet. They went to bed. I wasn’t sure how they could do that. Adults–go figure. The space program was a big deal for Americans. We have lots of pictures of excited crowds to prove it. But my little world, that didn’t stretch much further than down the street a ways, seemed mostly indifferent to it, water cooler talk at best. I couldn’t get enough. I went from Dick and Jane almost directly to Kip Russell and Susan Calvin. For me science fiction was a road map and NASA was laying the asphalt. The space program was happening right before my very eyes. How lucky could a thirteen-year old science fiction fan be?
In my bedroom was an ancient TV, the family’s first. I got it when my mother won a modern set in a drawing at the local Piggly Wiggly. It had a small black and white picture tube mounted in a box the size of a refrigerator. I shut my door, turned off the light, and lay at the foot of my bed watching with the sound turned low. I’m not blessed with the kind of memory some people have. I can’t recall every detail of everything I’ve ever done or where I was when this or that happened, but there are exceptions. The memory of that night is still pretty clear, although it’s broken now into snapshots, more like flipping through a photo album instead of watching a movie. The picture on the tube was grainy and I kept having to tweak the horizontal hold. Armstrong had opened the hatch, they said, but it seemed like nothing was happening. I think that might be when a lifelong nail biting habit began, but I’m not sure. Then my bedroom door opened.
Scared the crap out of me. It was my mother, in her nightgown, hair up in curlers. She leaned in and whispered, “Have they done it yet?” Just then the live feed started. Mom shut the door behind her and sat beside me on the bed. Together we sat in the gray light of that old TV and watched as Armstrong came down the ladder, whispering to each other, pointing out his foot or helmet to each other as they became recognizable through the snowy picture. Finally, he reached the footpad and then, just like that, he stepped onto the moon. Just like that. What I remember most clearly about that night was, at that moment, turning away from the TV. I was actually turning away from Mom, though. I didn’t want her to see me cry.
When Armstrong became the first human to stand on another world, I was swept up in a whirl of emotion that I could not fully comprehend, and my reaction to it was to cry. We cry at all kinds of things, when we are happy or sad or hurt or angry or helpless. Crying is an emotional release, but also a sign of surrender as we give ourselves over to those emotions. We don’t like to surrender. It stinks of defeat and so we often try to hide it, choking back the tears and putting on a brave face. And frankly, in 1969 thirteen-year-old boys weren’t supposed to cry, especially not in front of their mothers. So I turned away and surreptitiously wiped my eyes hoping it had all gone unnoticed. Looking back, she could not possibly have not noticed, but like many a good mother before and since, she never gave any indication that she did. (Thanks, Mom.)
At the time I didn’t understand why I reacted that way, but I gave it plenty of thought later. Lots of over-thinking aside, I was simply so overjoyed that I couldn’t handle it. I had read so many stories about it happening, spent so many childhood hours staring at the sky, wondering what was out there, dreaming of cities in space, colonies on Mars, rockets to anywhere. The books I read weren’t escapism. They were homework. There was never any doubt in my mind that we would go to the stars. The question was only when.
And then we went to the moon. We really walked on the moon. The freaking moon. I watched it happen. Holy shit! I watched it happen! I watched Neil Armstrong become the first human being to step on another world. Live, on TV, in my bedroom. He was peeling the future off the pages of my books and spreading it out before me. Science fiction becomes fact, just like they promised. As the name, as the man irrevocably bound to that moment, you can’t blame a thirteen-year old for idolizing him.
But Armstrong didn’t like being called a hero. He avoided publicity and slipped out of the limelight as quickly as he politely could. Over the years, he seldom gave interviews, rarely appeared in public, and always maintained that he was just an engineer doing his job. Neil didn’t build that spaceship and dead reckon it to a lunar landing, nor did he go alone. He was both humble and correct in stating that the Apollo program was the cumulative effort of thousands of men and women working together toward a common goal. As I matured, I came to appreciate that aspect of his character and my respect for him gained more substance than just the adoration of a child. In a culture that thrives on celebrity and arrogance, he was reluctantly the former and never once the latter. It wasn’t destiny that put him on that footpad. It was professionalism, reputation, and work ethic.
This time around I knew exactly why I was crying. Whether he wanted it or not, he was my hero, something I’m pretty sure I share with many people across the world, not just Americans. For a lifetime I’ve carried a great admiration for the man and the kind of ideal he exemplified. And I’ve never forgotten that night and that moment of overwhelming joy. I am in his debt for the gift of unadulterated optimism that filled me then and that I have yet to experience again. I know, he was just doing his job. It could have been somebody else. But it wasn’t. It was him, and I mourn the loss of the man and of my hero and I do so without turning away.
No matter how many people and organizations played a part in the success of Apollo 11, no matter what events led to setting the goal in the first place and kept it rolling forward throughout that decade, they all led to the one moment on that footpad, the one moment when someone had to take that step. It wasn’t false modesty that made Neil deny his heroism. It was the genuine belief that he was no one special, that he was just a man doing his job, that this act belonged not to him, but to all the people who made it happen, as well as to all of us watching from home. What Neil didn’t understand or refused to accept was that those are the among the things that are most admirable in us when we are at our best. We couldn’t have picked a finer individual to represent us there.