HICKS COLUMN: Neil Armstrong a true American hero
I met Neil Armstrong once — sort of.
In May of 2000, Patriots Point hosted an event for the Golden Eagles — the Early and Pioneer Naval Aviators Association — on the Yorktown.
The group was inducting John Glenn into the Carrier Test Pilot Hall of Fame. It was a low-key affair with little or no publicity. I heard about it only because someone's kid worked on the boat that took the group out for a dinner cruise on Charleston Harbor.
So photographer Alan Hawes and I showed up for the ceremony the next evening. Sure enough, there was Glenn — an American hero, the first to orbit the Earth — still glowing from his 1998 space shuttle mission, shaking hands and posing for pictures. You couldn't miss him.
Armstrong, on the other hand, was living up to his reputation as the J.D. Salinger of the space program. He was sitting three rows from the back in a crowd of several hundred people, looking very much like my grandfather.
As usual, Armstrong was trying to remain anonymous. It says something about his respect for fellow Navy fliers that he would show up in public at all.
It was luck of the draw that Armstrong's crew got the first moon landing, or so the story goes. That seems serendipitous in hindsight, because Armstrong was the perfect candidate to become perhaps the biggest historical figure of the 20th century.
He was a consummate professional, and showed Ernest Hemingway's grace under pressure better than anyone who ever had to do it with the world watching — it's hard to imagine anyone else so calmly looking for a landing site on the moon with just seconds of fuel left.
Armstrong accepted and respected his role in history, and was careful not to besmirch his place in it. And that included not signing a bunch of cheap autographs.
Reporters rarely get starstruck. In this line of work, you meet presidents, senators, sports legends and even movie stars, and it's all in a day's work.
For me, this was very different. I have been a NASA junkie for years, and have used my job to get as close to those days as possible. I've interviewed Charlie Duke, the Carolina boy who was the 10th man to walk on the moon, and even Buzz Aldrin, the man who was in the Eagle with Armstrong.
That night I was carrying my first-edition copy of “First on the Moon,” and hoped to get it signed (a breach of journalistic protocol that for once I couldn't resist). As soon as the ceremony broke, I started moving toward Armstrong.
An old Navy flier beat me to the punch, asking Neil to sign his program.
“Sorry, I can't,” Armstrong said. He went on to explain that if he did it for one, he'd have to do it for everyone — and he just couldn't do that. He was extremely polite, but firm.
I'm fairly certain I asked him if he would like to say anything for the story I was writing. I seem to recall him saying something like he wasn't part of the story, he was just hanging out. I respected him far too much to push.
I like to think I shook his hand.
As we were leaving the Yorktown, I was walking down the steps next to Armstrong, and Hawes snapped a photo of us. I still have it, tucked into a book signed by Alan Shepard, the first American in space.
It's hard to believe Armstrong is gone. He was a reminder that giants walk among us, an icon who will endure for centuries. As Tom Hanks, playing astronaut Jim Lovell, said in the great movie about Apollo 13, “Christopher Columbus, Charles Lindbergh ... and Neil Armstrong.” Lovell said it in a playfully jealous sort of way because to him, Armstrong was just another guy around the office.
But he was more than that. Neil Armstrong made America — and the whole planet — proud, by landing on the moon and by his actions afterward. And the Earth is a little smaller without him.
But then, this isn't the first time he's left it.