It Was Only a Paper Moon Until 1969
It’s true. Neil Armstrong made me cry; but it wasn’t exactly his fault.
Most of this is my own recollection, but I consulted with my mom to get some of the background and prior events.
This came back across my mind a month or so back when a conversation came up – and I was asked about any celebrities I met. Due to the passing of Neil Armstrong, this story immediately came to mind…and hasn’t left. Bringing this up to a friend became the catalyst to me actually trying to formulate it into more than a mention of a youthful experience.
I suppose it would be a highlight of many people’s lives to have an opportunity to be one-on-one with this legendary man. Even more if the man in question came to the person’s house; such as what happened for me. Why isn’t it the highlight of my life? For one, I was only age four. The other reason is most likely because my encounter ended in tears. Not such a proud moment of mine, but maybe some would sympathize with me.
How much I was able to remember may be surprising, but many details were fuzzy…while some still are. As I read articles released shortly after his death (which saddened me, like many others, when I heard the news), it reminded me how much he shunned from the spotlight – and even seemed a recluse to some. It takes great courage to shake the limelight…especially if folks take notice of how “celebrity” is handled these days. Who wouldn’t have loved to eat some Wheaties with him on the cover – or join his outer space fan club? He was obviously too classy, or too humble for that. I would have welcomed it; as I sure millions of others, but it seems he figured it was better to make money doing his job rather than flaunting his accomplishments. I admire it: but maybe I would have learned of Wheaties sooner. [Honestly, I think I became aware of that cereal brand when Mary Lou Retton appeared on the box. Doubt I was the only one.]
Reading the articles about Neil Armstong’s life, and lifelong elusion of fame, made me wonder how in the world he ever ended up inside of my house. Thanks to my mom, some light was shed on the circumstances.
There was apparently some talk of having something relating to an air and space center in Scottsdale, Arizona. Rather than taking any decisive action, the city preferred to hem and haw over the issue rather than deciding to go for it. Ultimately, I think the city of Chandler was the one bold enough to finally go through with it – but don’t quote me on it. All I know is Scottsdale is not known for an air and space center.
Due to the issue of breaking ground on something regarding air and space, there was some sort of event or conventions where some astronauts were attending; in an attempt to persuade Scottsdale to build the place in question. I wasn’t in attendance, so I had to get that part of the story from my mom.
She told me (along with explaining the pretense) a mixture of astronauts were at this event to help champion the cause – keeping space exploration in the minds of youth. According to my mom, the more current astronauts were the ones getting most of the attention at that point. Neil Armstrong was more in the back – where barely anyone was congregating. I find it hard to believe, but that’s what I was told.
When my mom approached him, she said how great it was for him coming out to help rally the cause and expressed a wish that I should have come along to get the opportunity to meet the man. I probably could have come along; but the event was said to be skewed for an older crowd. She told Neil Armstrong even though I was four, I would have known him by name since I was heavily into space and what it encompassed. He might have found it hard to believe such a thing, but I’m not sure since I wasn’t there. On the other hand, he was a champion for getting the youth hooked on space to ensure the next generation of explorers for tomorrow.
[I’m rather sure I was four at the time – no older. I was still staying home all day, though I did start going to school at four…but that is an entirely different story.]
However it worked out, my mom would submit articles at times to places like the Scottsdale Progress or The Scottsdale Independent. I don’t know how it worked; since I was little (and the papers weren’t owned by conglomerates then).
My mom mentioned to Mr. Armstrong how there should have been a story about this event; and asked if he’d like to talk about the matter. He had to catch a flight the next day, but asked my mom where she lived; then said the house was on the way to the airport (which I can attest isn’t the case anymore).
Some of this part cloudy to me, but I think I remember my mom telling me someone might be coming over that day. Maybe I imagined it, but who knows. The more I write, the more I remember: at least the way I sort of remember things happening.
Eventually a car pulled up and a guy got out. I remember being able to see the light from car reflections coming through our front window, and bouncing onto the wall; or against the curtains. I had a habit of noticing when the “car lines” were slowing down; which meant me racing from the couch to the window to see if the car “was for us” as I put it youthfully back then.
The guy came into the house and I remember my mom introducing me. I think she asked if I knew who the person was. It was some guy I never met in my life, so I said I didn’t know. She went on to tell me it was Neil Armstrong. She didn’t coach me or anything; like in television shows when they stated the obvious for viewers: “Why if it isn’t Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon…” I know she said the name, and I do know it resonated with me…but I didn’t have that go-to bit of knowledge like now.
How did I react? “No you aren’t.” Maybe I addressed towards my mom how I didn’t think it was him. At any rate, I know my first words in his direction were of skepticism. Thankfully I didn’t offend him with my innocent denial, since it would have put me into a heap of trouble.
I’m rather sure I associated the man with having something to do in outer space. I never asked who he was. My thought process was silly as a kid anyway. I remember looking at him and recognizing the fact he seemed to wear clothes more like my grandpa did rather than however I thought an astronaut might have looked in an everyday situation. Most likely I figured he should have been wearing a space suit all the time. On top of that, I thought celebrities just lived in “tv land” for lack of a better term. It’s tough to explain the logic, but I figured being famous meant you just made appearances on television and that sort of thing. Using a similar rationale, I also remember thinking my kindergarten teacher would never do her grocery shopping at the same store my parents and grandparents used. Quirky, digby me.
He didn’t know I made my judgment based off his street clothes. Something inside me also knew it wasn’t right to say he looked too much like my grandpa in wardrobe to be some world-famous guy in my living room.
I sadly can’t say if this part happened or not, but I think he asked me if I knew the names of any other astronauts. Maybe he rattled off John Glenn and another few, but I can’t claim truth to that. There might have even been a point where my mom joked towards the man (with me as the brunt, of course) if he knew Luke Skywalker, but maybe that was something he said he was asked by a young relative of his. I may have been little, but I knew Neil Armstrong wasn’t cannon in the Star Wars Universe.
To put my suspicion at ease, he said there was a way to prove who he was. He asked me to come over towards him to see what he was wearing; on what I think was his jacket, but he let me get an up-close look at a pin he had on. The man explained it was a space pin only given out to the astronauts that went on the mission to the moon; so the only people who had it were him and the other astronauts who were aboard for that mission. Since my mom didn’t seem to have an issue with the story, I believed him – and at that point I figured nobody was trying to pull a joke on me. I wish I could explain why I was such a skeptical child, but alas.
Once I finally acquiesced to him being the real McCoy, he asked me if I knew why he was there. Answering honestly, I told him no. He said he came over to do an interview with my mom for the newspaper and then he had a plane to catch. I thought a plane would either wait on him or just land in our street or he would be flying it. I think I asked if he was flying the plane. I may have also asked him if he missed his plane why couldn’t the space shuttle pick him up (though I wish I could be certain). As far as the piloting statement, he said something about how he probably could fly a passenger type of aircraft like he was taking, but he was more used to flying fighter jets.
At some point around there my mom acknowledged how he was on such a short timetable. Right around that moment she also mentioned I was due for a nap. Like most kids, I was not fond of that part of the schedule. I guess I felt like I would be missing out on something…or the adults waited until I was asleep to have fun; or even say mean things about me behind my back. [I doubt I was paranoid as a kid, so that didn’t cross my mind – but I did have a healthy suspicion of adults, due to pranks pulled on me..or other reasons I can’t currently recall.]
Now it went from me not believing someone’s identity to not wanting to leave the company of this person. Maybe since I was supposed to be taking a nap, this gave me and indication he really was the real deal. I don’t think it was the nap talking, but it could have played a small part.
I promised to be good. I vividly recall saying at that point of time how I would just sit and listen, and not say anything if I could stay. My mom either wasn’t buying it or she didn’t want to look weak in front of an American legend. I intended to make good on promises how “I’ll be good” and so forth, but I suppose there’s no way to prove that now.
Despite my efforts, it was no dice with my mom. It was then when Neil Armstrong decided to intervene with one of the eternal parental struggles: debating nap time.
He asked me if I knew he did magic. Being the obvious naysayer I was, I told him he wasn’t a magician because he was an astronaut. Maybe it wasn’t such an eloquent statement, but I also know I was raised to have more tact than brattiness…at least when it came to being in public or in front of guests.
My faith still lacking in his magician skills; he asked me to give him one of my guys. I know I was playing with my “little people” as I they were called in my house. [That’s what my mom called them if I left them lying around.] They were made by Fisher-Price: small approximations of people consisting of a head and body, but no arms or feet. I’m not sure if Mr. Armstrong asked to see my favorite one, or if the request was for any of those toy people. At any rate, I knew I wasn’t going to give him my favorite toy. The skeptic in me, remember?
There was a character I wasn’t too big of a fan of. He was red (as in his cylindrical body) and wore a yellow cowboy hat. I wasn’t much into cowboys, plus I figured he looked like he could be a favorite of mine. Good enough!
He looked just like the one in the pic; only plastic.
I handed the little guy to Neil Armstrong, and he told me to watch closely. He took the plastic person into his hands and started rubbing his palms back and forth with his palms flattened. I wasn’t sure how many times he did it, he told me to look inside (as I recall) once he stopped rubbing his palms. As I leaned in, he slowly separated his hands. And there it happened… The guy in the cowboy hat was GONE. I forgot if the original Moonwalker said he was going to make the guy disappear or not, but I surely was astonished to learn the man was able to accomplish such a feat.
Still not totally sure, I had to see where the little guy could have gone. I got on the floor and looked around the man’s chair, but there was nothing. I think there was a small battle with my mom because I wanted the man of NASA to stand up in case he was hiding the guy he made disappear in front of me. I’m rather sure he actually did stand up for my benefit; letting my mom know it wasn’t a big deal.
After I failed to find the item, the man told me if I took my nap, then he’d be sure to make my figure reappear. I asked if I could watch him do it after he was done doing his interview, but I think my mom told me I took up enough valuable time and it was finally time for that nap. All my gambits exhausted; I pulled out the stops and used my last move… I cried about it.
It wasn’t a shining moment in my life, but I was out of options. Unfortunately, crying is the number one piece of evidence parents use to prove a kid needs a nap. Yeah: life isn’t often fair when a little kid.
With no other recourse, mom picked my four-year-old self up; carrying the still-crying me into my bedroom in the back of the house. I’m rather sure I was still trying to negotiate with her; even through my tantrum aquatic. Somehow I thought I saved face by my mom agreeing if I really went to sleep and took a short nap, then maybe I can come back out to see him — if he was still there when I woke up.
The preschool equivalent of hot diggity dog went through my head. Doubting if I even stopped sobbing, I know I quickly went to sleep. How? Because I remember waking up.
My eyes opened just a bit – and then my brain must have suddenly remembered. I suddenly awakened fully; and ended up causing me to look towards a table in my room – something catching my eye enough to draw me in that direction.
A red something. A red person of a something with a yellow cowboy hat on top of its spherical head. Uh oh!
I looked out my window, but didn’t see a vehicle in front of the house.
Bursting from my room, I ran down the hall; making my way into the living room. The chair wasn’t where it was when I went for my nap. The room was devoid of anyone besides myself.
Most likely, I found my mom in the kitchen at that point. I had to ask the obvious question; wondering where the astronaut was. Too bad she couldn’t just say he flew away in a rocket ship (kidding). She told me he had to leave, and that was the end of the matter; and my personal brush with aeronautical awesomeness himself.
Whatever mom’s real reply was, I’m sure I probably cried again or let it be known the scenario wasn’t fair. I wish I was more classy than that, but I was four after all.
Yes, it’s anticlimactic: but the story is true. No photographic proof. No autograph. At the same time, such a thing would only feel on my end [now] like an insult to a guy who avoided being anything related to fame, or lasting part of popular culture. Maybe it was a mature thing for a kid to refrain from – even if I didn’t understand the cult of celebrity at that age.
This story stayed in my mind constantly since I heard the news of Neil Armstrong’s death. I met other astronauts; though in a more public venue than the living room of the first house I lived in. I did get the autographs of at least a couple of them – Ron Evens and Sally Ride. I didn’t question them about who they were. Then again, I think they were next to photos of themselves in their space suits also. Neither of them ever let me see their pin.
Among other things…here is a short passage from a statement made by the Armstrong family:
“For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”
When news broke of his death and the articles came pouring in, I made sure to do what the Armstrong family requested in the above statement. I found the moon shortly past midnight, and gave the best sort of wink I could; while remembering the kind of person Neil Armstrong was: towards the world in general, and also towards me as a little kid. The moon; or the man representing it at that moment; didn’t wink back. He already had- when I was four.
Was this the pin I saw? Wish I could be certain.