Saturday, August 25, 2012

Neil Armstrong, 1930-2012

It was a rainy night in eastern Pennsylvania on July 20, 1969, and I was prone on the ground, next to some shrubbery, a poncho draped over my back and head, with my right arm resting on the stock of an M-60 machine gun. It was the last week of my ROTC summer camp at Indiantown Gap Military Reservation ("Say it loud and say it clear/ IG-MAR takes it in the ear" was one of the cleaner of our marching songs), and we were on the field exercise that capped our six week immersion in Army life. I was waiting for an "enemy" patrol I was supposed to ambush, but they never showed. I knew this was the night the Apollo 8 lunar lander was supposed to touch down, but I was far from any TV or radio, apart from my walkie-talkie, and couldn't even look up wistfully at the moon, which was hidden by clouds. It was a few days later that I first heard Neil Armstrong say,“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

As his New York Times obituary notes, after the round of public adulation and ticker tape parades, Neil Armstrong reverted to being what he always had been, a very private man. He retired from NASA, taught engineering classes at the University of Cincinnati for a time, then took up farming. In this respect he was unlike his fellow Ohioan and space pioneer John Glenn, who plunged into public life and became a U.S. Senator. Armstrong, Glenn, the Wright brothers: what is it about Ohio that engenders a desire to escape the surly bonds of earth?