In the Suburbs: Traveling with Neil Armstrong
Fifty years ago on the 20th of July, 1969, I was sweating in the Chicago heat and driving to my Friend Steve’s house in Skokie, a northern suburb just outside Chicago. We were both teachers and he had just gotten back together with his wife after a brief separation during which he had bunked in at our place. He invited me over to watch the Cub’s game.
And as I was parking, I caught the news on the radio that the lunar module from the Apollo space ship was getting closer to the moon’s surface and astronaut Neil Armstrong was going to walk on the moon, possibly along with his co-astronaut, Buzz Aldrin.
According to a little research about this Apollo 11 mission, I learned that the Apollo 11 was “launched from Cape Kennedy on July 16, 1969, carrying Commander Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin into an initial Earth-orbit of 114 by 116 miles. An estimated 650 million people watched Armstrong’s televised image and heard his voice describe the event as he took “...one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
This moon mission was the fulfillment of a promise that the late President John F. Kennedy had made to the American people that the United States would put a man on the moon “before this decade is out.”
When Steve and his wife Sue buzzed me up to their second floor apartment, I found them engrossed in a Cubs’ game. In so many words, I blurted out, “Come on guys, this is 1969 and history is about to be made. Let’s switch the channel.”
After a little arm twisting, they caved in and changed to the lunar broadcast. It was absolutely incredible. On their little black and white television we watched Neil Armstrong first announce that “The Eagle has landed,” and then take that one small step for mankind.”first announce that “The Eagle Has Landed,” and then take that one small step for mankind.
As we watched history unfold, I thought that veteran newsman Walter Cronkite was going to burst into tears of joy. It was just that kind of moment, and I was getting pretty choked up myself. Seeing this event was absolutely thrilling.
And what was even more thrilling was that two years later, when I was working at Motorola in Illinois after the moon landing and my boss told me we would be going to a customer event in Houston on the corporate jet and making a side trip to Ohio to pick up a very special guest. My boss was a great kidder and when he told me we were taking the corporate jet and picking up Astronaut Neil Armstrong and bringing him to Houston as Motorola’s special guest for the event, I just laughed said something like, “Sure we are, Jerry.”
But my eyes nearly popped out just over an hour later when the jet taxied to a small terminal near Cleveland and Neil Armstrong walked across the tarmac to the plane. Once he’d removed his overcoat, he sat right across from Jerry and me, introduced himself and when Jerry asked Neil what the entire moon experience was like, he regaled us with first-hand, amazing stories about the Apollo 11 mission during the long flight to Houston. It was an awesome trip.
I felt like one of those gee gosh and golly teenagers, totally at a loss for what to say to this internationally renowned hero. But he put me completely at ease by asking about my background and about what I was doing for Motorola. He was actually impressed that a teacher had made the transition into the public relations field for a major corporation. He was a regular guy.
During the two-day event, I had several opportunities to squire Neil Armstrong around and that was equally amazing. And when we returned to Ohio to drop Neil off, we were all on a first-name basis. Of course, I’m sure that this new world famous celebrity probably forgot about us and the trip very quickly.
But I never forgot and shared the story with my wife and kids ad nauseum.
Over the past 50 years, I followed a lot of Neil Armstrong’s accomplishments and awards and, sadly, his death from complications of heart surgery in 2012 at 82. And I never forgot that special trip with Neil to the Motorola event in Houston.
That is why the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission and the walk on the moon was so much more special to me. As I watched the various coverage segments, I said to myself, “I actually met the first man to walk on the moon and he was a regular guy. How lucky was I to be in the right place at the right time?”
It was just sad that Neil Armstrong couldn’t be there 50 years later to bask again in the glory he so richly deserved.
Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org