How to Step Away

 

We didn’t know him. We didn’t have to. We knew all we needed to know: his name was Neil Armstrong, he flew to the Moon, and he put a human print on the surface of another celestial body. The act was so audacious, so revelatory of mankind’s potential, that the usual machinery of pop-culture celebrity seemed abashed: this one gets a pass. This one stands apart. When you heard he died you may have struggled to call up the face, and all you got was a publicity photo of an ordinary fellow with a Rotarian grin. He was as remote and unreachable as the moon itself. That was okay with Neil; that was okay with everyone else, too. 

He’s remembered for one thing, but he had a life before, and a life afterwards. The latter is more fascinating. How does a man incorporate such an accomplishment into his life? When does he start defining himself by something else? He had the life we all have: birthdays, toothaches, haircuts, oil changes. But when he looked up at night he saw something in the sky that had shone down on humanity from cave-age to yesterday, and he knew his relationship with Luna would always be unique. No one else would ever be first. 

None of which matters when you’re on your hands and knees looking for your fingertip. 

One day on his farm in 1979 he jumped off the back of his truck – you know he didn’t think heh, one small leap, because this was the farm, this was work – and his ring caught on a wheel. Ripped off part of his finger. He found it, eventually. Packed it in ice, drove to the hospital, had it put back on. When you come down to it, the hand is something NASA might develop: multiple redundancy – but I’m reasonably sure he wasn’t thinking “I used that finger to guide the Eagle to a safe landing spot.” It was bleeding. It hurt.

He was just a man on a farm, and these things happen. 

Tales like that make him sound like the Celestial Cincinnatus: the hero who returned to his plow. But that’s what he was. He took a desk job at NASA, then taught engineering to college students. From a distance, it seems as if he understood perfectly that nothing in his life would equal that achievement. Nothing could. No one expected anything more. He could have debased his fame with a publicity tour or endorsements for Blast-Off Cola (That’s one big sip for a man, one giant gulp for thirstkind!), guest-starred on the $100,000 Pyramid, made a nice chunk and lived a life of conspicuous leisure – but he just stepped out of the spotlight at the earliest decent opportunity.

I heard a BBC report on his death, and I hoped they started with “Fly Me to the Moon.” or some other piece of grown-up music. What I heard used Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air,” an interminable piece of simpering hippy tripe sung in a helium voice, because it was 1969, man. The dawning of the Age of Aquarius, and all that. As if the world was suddenly united. As if people back home weren’t rolling their eyes and complaining about the cost. 

Sorry: they don’t get to claim Neil Armstrong. They don’t get to own the Moon Shot. The effort to put a man on the moon was everything the counterculture 60s repudiated: technology, military skill, national pride, American optimism, the sense that the Frontier has to be conquered so we can find a new one, and go there too. Neil Armstrong offered in jest to be the first man to walk on Mars, as well. Buzz Aldrin has been pushing a Mars jaunt for years. If the space program had kept up its pace and sent a team to Mars in the 90s, of course they wouldn’t have sent Neil and Buzz, but if they had, you can imagine Neil Armstrong holding the door for his co-pilot. I’ve had mine. You first.

He seemed like that sort of man.

There are 39 comments.

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  1. Colin B Lane Member

    I did know him. He was that sort of man.

    • #1
    • August 26, 2012, at 10:49 AM PDT
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  2. Profile Photo Member

    Wonderfully written. For all of his deserved and iconic fame, I don’t even know what he looked like, which is odd isn’t it?. What impresses me the most is that these guys were such amazing pilots – somehow as a kid I thought they just sat there inertly while ancient computers took them back and forth to their destination with little risk. How mistaken I was!

    • #2
    • August 26, 2012, at 10:53 AM PDT
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  3. Profile Photo Member

    Amazing Colin B Lane! if I was in his presence I would either babble like an idiot or just sit ineptly mute, don’t know which. What a great reminiscence 

    • #3
    • August 26, 2012, at 10:56 AM PDT
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  4. KC Mulville Inactive

    He was always careful to say that he wasn’t chosen to be the guy to land on the moon. It just worked out that way. When he was chosen to lead Apollo 11, they didn’t know which of the missions would actually do it.

    But that glosses over the fact that they chose a set of men, one of whom they knew would do it, and they included Armstrong in that list. The other commanders were heroes also, and probably would have performed as well. One of them, James Lovell, showed his heroism through even more difficult circumstances than Armstrong faced. 

    Armstrong was always careful to recognize, and rightfully so, all the other people on those teams; they deserved the same admiration he received. 

    Just because you’re part of a team doesn’t mean you’re any less honorable as an individual – and that’s a virtue that Armstrong demonstrated every day.

    • #4
    • August 26, 2012, at 10:57 AM PDT
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  5. Profile Photo Member

    Grandpa Hart knew Armstrong from either the Lions Club, the Farm Bureau, or both; I never met him but the impression Grandpa has given is that Armstrong was a fixture in western Ohio like so many other men & women who have led successful lives. He was just a fixture who oh, by the way, was the first human to set foot on the moon.

    I’ve been past the Armstrong Museum in Wapak more than a few times, and really need to make a point of visiting instead of just saying “hey, that’s the Armstrong museum” when heading north on I-75…

    • #5
    • August 26, 2012, at 10:59 AM PDT
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  6. Benjamin Glaser Member

    I had a Vietnam vet pass recently in my congregation. When I was talking to those who had served with/under him I heard things that brought me to tears hearing of his heroics and one particular incident how he had actively turned down a Congressional Medal of Honor so that someone else in his outfit would get it. It wasn’t a false modesty by any stretch, but just that same ethos that Mr. Lileks speaks so eloquently about in this post on Mr. Armstrong. This gentlemen, like Mr. Armstrong, came back to the farm and toiled quietly and honorably. 

    Thanks for this post Mr. Lileks. 

    • #6
    • August 26, 2012, at 11:10 AM PDT
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  7. Doctor Bass Monkey Inactive

    It is unimaginable to us in our present day where people are famous for nothing more than being on “reality” TV, but here is a man who had actually done something of import yet did not trade on that for fame. There’s a lesson there about valuing the things that are more important in life, and fame isn’t one of those things.

    • #7
    • August 26, 2012, at 11:27 AM PDT
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  8. Colin B Lane Member

    “Erik LarsenAmazing Colin B Lane! if I was in his presence I would either babble like an idiot or just sit ineptly mute, don’t know which. What a great reminiscence.”

    It’s funny you should say this. The first time I spent significant time with Neil was at a bar following a board of directors dinner. The dinner had taken place in my hometown, but the out-of-towner Neil Armstrong — in his mid 60s — was not recognizable to most people. As friends and business associates of mine stopped by my table to say hi to me, it was all I could do to refrain from yelling, “Do you know who the [bleep] this is?!? This is Neil [bleeping] Armstrong!!!”

    One more reminiscence. The first time Neil asked me a question in a board meeting, I noticed his voice was shaking slightly. It turns out that one of the greatest men in history got nervous when speaking in public.

    Greatness is great precisely because it is done by those who are so very human.

    • #8
    • August 26, 2012, at 11:35 AM PDT
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  9. Colin B Lane Member

    Urgh! Why is it that posting from an iPad or iPhone eliminates the paragraph spacing!?!?

    • #9
    • August 26, 2012, at 11:38 AM PDT
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  10. Crow's Nest Inactive

    Sorry: they don’t get to claim Neil Armstrong. They don’t get to own the Moon Shot. The effort to put a man on the moon was everything the counterculture 60s repudiated: technology, military skill, national pride, American optimism, the sense that the Frontier has to be conquered so we can find a new one, and go there too.

    Hopeful, but not blithe; Confident: not meek, but not without humility; Firm, with purpose and determination; Daring, ambitious, and unwilling to settle for second best.

    That was Neil Armstrong’s America. His passing reminds us that it needs some renewing.

    • #10
    • August 26, 2012, at 11:39 AM PDT
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  11. Boots on the Table Member

    Isn’t it amazing. the greatest seem to stand in the background, content to watch the world go by, spending their time taking care of those they love. Then when the world needs it, one of them steps forward…and the world is never the same again. Returning to their quiet existence without the need for fame and fortune, innately knowing what really matters.

    • #11
    • August 26, 2012, at 11:44 AM PDT
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  12. Kervinlee Member

    Wonderful tribute, James. Thanks a lot.

    • #12
    • August 27, 2012, at 1:01 AM PDT
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  13. Skyler Coolidge

    I’ve never met the man, but from everything I’ve read about him, he would never have said, “I’ve had my turn.” He would have evaluated the reason for one man to go before another and he would have decided based on the mission who would go first. He was not self-less, he was devoted to reason.

    • #13
    • August 27, 2012, at 1:22 AM PDT
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  14. Skyler Coolidge
    At The Rubicon: Neil was already a Navy test pilot 

    He was a civilian test pilot. He was at one time a pilot in the navy, but then he left the navy to complete his degree and then became a NACA test pilot.

    • #14
    • August 27, 2012, at 1:25 AM PDT
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  15. George Savage Contributor

    One day during the last millennium I was invited to speak to my son’s first grade class at the start of school. It was one of those charming what-do-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up events and I was asked to offer a few sage words in favor of the healing professions. While the class was getting settled, I spied a name card emblazoned with the last name “Armstrong” and mentioned to the lad at the desk the provenance of his famous last name.

    “Yeah, that’s my grandfather'” he said.

    I moved from wise adult dispensing wisdom to hopeless fanboy in a heartbeat.

    “So, he must tell you what it was like to actually walk on the moon?” I managed to choke out.

    Eyes rolling and with an air of bemused exasperation, ” Yeah, all the time.”

     Just another reminder that Toto and I were definitely not in Kansas anymore.

    • #15
    • August 27, 2012, at 1:30 AM PDT
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  16. David Williamson Inactive

    Pilots tend to be quiet, with a few well-chosen words.

    • #16
    • August 27, 2012, at 1:51 AM PDT
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  17. Profile Photo Member
    Colin B Lane: I did know him. He was that sort of man. · 3 hours ago

    Thanks for sharing. What a great story.

    It is fascinating how the space program was for those with short hair and their lifestyles and families did exemplify the American dream.

    I appreciated your point of music choice and how the Left try and pick up the death of Armstrong and impose their culture. You are correct, keep their hands off. Good to point out these differences in cultures between the Left and Right and the long term consequences – Mars Landing or OWS whiners who need to get a job on an oil field and grow up.

    • #17
    • August 27, 2012, at 1:59 AM PDT
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  18. drlorentz Member

    the Celestial Cincinnatus

    That’s a wonderful characterization of Neil Armstrong. Would that our politicians also emulated Cincinnatus.

    • #18
    • August 27, 2012, at 2:00 AM PDT
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  19. Joseph Stanko Member

    Wonderful tribute James!

    Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth by Andrew Smith is a fascinating biography of the 12 moonwalkers that focuses on what each did with their lives after walking on the moon. These were all driven, ambitious high achievers who achieved perhaps the most remarkable feat in human history, in the prime of their lives… then returned home to ordinary life. You can’t possibly top that accomplishment, so what next? And how did the experience change them, and how do you even begin to answer the question that everyone who meets you is bound to ask: “so, what was it really like to walk on the moon?”

    • #19
    • August 27, 2012, at 2:09 AM PDT
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  20. Mel Foil Inactive

    The requirements for Apollo 11 Commander were 1) Never panic, 2) know a lot of boring technical stuff, 3) know how to improvise when the various automated systems fail, and 4) Never panic.

    “Never panic” is for space. Anyplace else (surrounded by adoring fans for example) you’re allowed to panic, almost expected to panic.

    That was Neil Armstrong.

    • #20
    • August 27, 2012, at 2:41 AM PDT
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  21. Chris Johnson Inactive

    “Sorry: they don’t get to claim Neil Armstrong. They don’t get to own the Moon Shot. The effort to put a man on the moon was everything the counterculture 60s repudiated: technology, military skill, national pride, American optimism, the sense that the Frontier has to be conquered so we can find a new one, and go there too.”

    Steven Hayward had a relevant post in that same vein. I was too young to have remembered that aspect.

    • #21
    • August 27, 2012, at 3:42 AM PDT
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  22. MichaelC19fan Member

    Armstrong was a devout Christian. There was a documentary on Jeruslaem and there was an Israeli. He showed Armstrong around the place sometime after going to the moon. Armstrong asked him if the steps he was walking on the same ones Jesus would of walked. The Israeli answered yes and Armstrong made a comment about being on that spot in Jeruslam was more meaningful than walking on the moon.

    • #22
    • August 27, 2012, at 3:44 AM PDT
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  23. Colin B Lane Member
    MichaelC19fan: Armstrong was a devout Christian. There was a documentary on Jeruslaem and there was an Israeli. He showed Armstrong around the place sometime after going to the moon. Armstrong asked him if the steps he was walking on the same ones Jesus would of walked. The Israeli answered yes and Armstrong made a comment about being on that spot in Jeruslam was more meaningful than walking on the moon.

    He certainly had a healthy sense where his accomplishment fit in history. I’m not sure it was accurate. But it was healthy.

    • #23
    • August 27, 2012, at 4:37 AM PDT
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  24. Mollie Hemingway Contributor
    George Savage: One day during the last millennium I was invited to speak to my son’s first grade class at the start of school. It was one of those charming what-do-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up events and I was asked to offer a few sage words in favor of the healing professions. While the class was getting settled, I spied a name card emblazoned with the last name “Armstrong” and mentioned to the lad at the desk the provenance of his famous last name.

    “Yeah, that’s my grandfather'” he said.

    I moved from wise adult dispensing wisdom to hopeless fanboy in a heartbeat.

    “So, he must tell you what it was like to actually walk on the moon?” I managed to choke out.

    Eyes rolling and with an air of bemused exasperation, ” Yeah, all the time.”

     Just another reminder that Toto and I were definitely not in Kansas anymore. · 3 hours ago

    I love it! I was just telling my husband that I imagine being Neil Armstrong’s grandkid would be so awesome.

    • #24
    • August 27, 2012, at 4:48 AM PDT
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  25. Richard Rushfield Inactive

    Thats a beautiful reflection James. I truly feel as though something great has vanished from this world. Not just in his great accomplishments, but in every day he abided as the most famous man on the planet, abstaining utterly from the celebrity culture, he quietly set down a challenge for all to aspire to.

    My reflections I posted here: http://rushfieldbabylon.com/post/30229378585/there-have-been-two-great-epic-scale-adventures-of

    • #25
    • August 27, 2012, at 5:36 AM PDT
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  26. Miffed White Male Member
    Colin B Lane

    He certainly had a healthy sense where his accomplishment fit in history. I’m not sure it was accurate. But it was healthy.

    I think one of the things that drove Neil Armstring in his pursuit of anonymity was that he was acutely aware of the fact that his was not an individual “achievement” in the sense of an Edison, a Newton, or even a Columbus or Lindbergh. He was very clear at the time that he, Aldrin and Collins were merely the visible face of a team of tens of thousands of people who worked to land “a man” (Not “Neil Armstring”) on the moon. While Armstrong certainly brought some essential intangibles to the role he played, it was also true that it could have been “anyone”. 

    One of the most admirable things about him is that he did allow himself to be so anonymous is his later life. I don’t know how many people ego’s would allow them to do so. The incredible thing to me is that, no matter how long the human race survives, or where we go, he’ll always be the FIRST to set foot off our home planet.

    • #26
    • August 27, 2012, at 6:09 AM PDT
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  27. Miffed White Male Member
    Colin B Lane: “Erik LarsenAmazing Colin B Lane! if I was in his presence I would either babble like an idiot or just sit ineptly mute, don’t know which. What a great reminiscence.”

     As friends and business associates of mine stopped by my table to say hi to me, it was all I could do to refrain from yelling, “Do you know who the [bleep] this is?!? This is Neil [bleeping] Armstrong!!!”

    One of my first thoughts when I heard of his passing was “Damn, now I’ll never get the chance to meet him”.

     

    On the other hand, that’s probably a good thing – Like you, I’d fear I’d be a blithering idiot in his presence, 

    I also get the sense from the some the remembrances here that he could be a bit prickly. You should never meet your heroes – they are likely to disappoint.But your suppressed reaction to sitting with him in the diner rings true. Armstrong at one time was probably the most famous person in the world – it’s be like sitting at a table with the Pope and nobody knowing who he was.
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    • August 27, 2012, at 6:19 AM PDT
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  28. Spud O'Chez Inactive

    “He was always careful to say that he wasn’t chosen to be the guy to land on the moon. It just worked out that way”

    There were at least a dozen men qualified to be the first to step on the moon. Through some circumstance in and out of his control he was chosen. As weak mortals we like to dissect this momentous decision and try to determine “What made him so special to be chosen?” We get that chance every 4 years to select a chosen one.

    I wonder how the first man to walk on Mars will be selected? They’ll probably have voting on Twitter, maybe a contest on a show like “The X Factor” (Simon Cowell deciding who it would be? He’s rich enough.) and turn it into a popularity contest rather than using looking primarily at qualifications, though it may end up just having a few minority women drawing straws.

    • #28
    • August 27, 2012, at 6:49 AM PDT
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  29. George Merritt Inactive

    I learned of Neil Armstrong in a bunker at the northern end of Tay Ninh basecamp in the middle of a Vietnamese night. I was monitoring the Tay Ninh command circuit which included the control tower at the base air strip. Suddenly I heard “Oh wow, man, there is a man on the moon.” Somewhere in my mind I knew that the moon flight was under way but wasn’t very attentive. So, for me, any discussion of the moon mission is is conflated with Viet Nam and that hippie sounding “Oh wow, man…”

    It is amazing to me that we could have conducted that massive war and, oh by the way, simultaneously sent a man to the moon. What an amazing nation.

    RIP, Neil Armstrong.

    • #29
    • August 27, 2012, at 7:31 AM PDT
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  30. Profile Photo Member

    On a lighter note, I don’t know if anyone remembers this weird story that justifies Mr. Armstrong’s disinterest in being a celebrity: he had to find a new barber after learning Marx’s Barber Shop in London, Ohio had sold his hair clippings to some creep-0 from Connecticut.

    Armstrong threatened to sue, and got a donation to charity out of the mess – not bad, though I’d argue that collecting peoples’ hair as a hobby should earn you a solid punch in the nose.

    For old farmers who don’t waste a lot of time with “safety,” losing parts of fingers isn’t terribly uncommon. Hearing that your usual barber has sold clippings of your hair, on the other hand… that’s a little more specific to “old farmers who have been in outer space.”

    • #30
    • August 27, 2012, at 7:31 AM PDT
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