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.