We are shaped by so many things beyond our control — our parents, our environment, our socio-economic status and, certainly, to some degree the times in which we are raised.
In a world that daily seems on the verge of chaos, it sometimes seems peculiar to be optimistic. And, yet, for the most part that is how I would describe myself. Sure, I have my moments of despair (usually after seeing a commercial for Here Comes Honey Boo Boo) but, by and large, I’m a firm believer in a better tomorrow.
And while I can absolutely attribute that feeling of optimism to my parents (loving), environment (stable) and socio-economic status (middle class), no question the historical events of my youth played a significant factor. One, in particular, well above the rest.
Neil Armstrong’s fateful first step on the moon.
Now, let us remember that 1969 was not exactly the happiest of days in the United States. The Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the aftermath of the King and Kennedy assassinations ... it was maelstrom of unrest.
But that glorious moment in July, well, it was simply transcendent. A crystalline monument to man’s better impulses. It was, quite literally, out of this world!
With Neil Armstrong’s passing on August 25, there has been an unavoidable void left behind. A gulf as wide and dark as the space between the earth and moon itself.
The Apollo Program (like the Mercury and Gemini programs that came before) was a constant, daily reminder that we could do better. That we could strive for the impossible and will it into being through hard work and sacrifice.
And the whole world gathered to watch.
Try to think. When was the last time you watched the nightly news and felt good afterward? Felt uplifted and optimistic about the future and filled with wonder and excitement. Sadly, for many people (like my children), the answer is never. But for us decrepit old dinosaurs, we remember it well. And we long for it desperately again. Ache for it.
What’s truly amazing to consider when looking back on the extraordinary life of Neil Armstrong, is that it’s entirely possible that walking on the moon was just the beginning of what he had to teach us. His walk through the chalky dust of the moon made him a hero, but the way he behaved after returning from his journey made him a legend.
I earlier referenced Honey Boo Boo not just for an easy joke (although, come on, have you seen these people?) but to illustrate what this generation is constantly assaulted with. The Kardashians and Lohans and Hiltons and, yes, Honey Freakin’ Boo Boos. People who have done nothing, offer nothing and yet we exalt them, follow them, throw money at them. A society where people will do absolutely anything for a shot at fame (or infamy). Where being humble is a punch line. Where intelligent, rationale conversation will get you cancelled in a day in favor of a new show filled with vapid, plastic housewives slapping each other.
For a generation such as this, it’s probably impossible for them to comprehend what Armstrong did, and how he behaved, when he was once again captured in earth’s gravity. Here he was, the most famous man on the planet, and he could have done anything. Endorsements. Television deals. Scandalous, irresponsible behavior for which the adoring public would gladly have forgiven him. The public’s adulation could have lined his pockets forever.
But, the man who showed unshakable nerves when Gemini 8 went into high-speed gyrations (nearly causing the crew to black out) and the man whose veins dripped ice when he landed the lunar module on the moon with only 30 seconds of fuel remaining, was heroic in more ways than one. He was a hero for bravely and calmly helping usher mankind into a new era and he was perhaps even more a hero for insisting we not idolize him for it.
When asked later in life why he shied away from being labeled a hero, his stoic response with this: “We all like to be recognized not for one piece of fireworks but for the ledger of our daily work.” In other words, one act of greatness does not necessarily make you great. But living a noble and dignified life in its entirety does.
Armstrong was also acutely aware (and discussed it often) that his trip to the moon was the work of multitudes of other people. He may have been the man to take that soft, slow-motion descent to the moon’s surface but he was very well aware that he was standing on the shoulders of thousands of other people’s efforts and hard work. And he really didn’t think it fair that the spotlight should shine so heavily upon him, just one piece of a glorious machine. Just a guy, he felt, who was doing his job.
We live in a culture filled with athletes who demand we worship them because they can catch a ball, and rappers dripping in almost comical self-importance (and diamonds!) hoping to distract us from the fact that they have no real discernible talent, and reality ‘stars’ who ... well, you get the idea. All of these fools are paraded in front of us 24/7, and the one person who actually deserves our accolades, is uncomfortable with the attention.
So how best to honor such a man? Simple. By blatantly ignoring his wishes when it comes to celebrity worship. Neal Armstrong was a man who did not want to be considered a hero. And I couldn’t respect him more for that. But — here’s the thing — he was a hero! And we should be shouting his accomplishments from the rooftops. As well as his fellow travelers Aldrin and Collins and the scores of grand thinkers at NASA who made the whole thing possible.
When Armstrong passed away, I awaited in-depth retrospectives on his life, emotional outpourings of what he meant to the world. Instead, his passing was met with ... indifference. Yes, it was reported in the news but certainly not with the breathless immediacy of Whitney Houston’s death or even Lindsay Lohan’s latest traffic accident. Some short mentions on the cable news networks and then on to the next scandal. I scoured the magazine racks the week after his death, and ONE magazine had it on their front cover. It was in the top corner, a small photo, far outstripped by the magazine’s main story — Prince Harry caught naked in Las Vegas.
Now, I’m not nearly naive enough to believe our celebrity culture will ever stop idolizing people who clearly do not deserve adulation, but is it too much to ask that along with the athletes, actors and rock stars, we also save some hero worship for the scientists, educators, explorers and philanthropists who seriously work toward moving us out of the dark ages of ignorance and bigotry and toward a better tomorrow.
So, yes, July 20th should be a national holiday. A day in which young people are encouraged to think about the future. Think about their place in the world. And, most importantly, think about how they are going to make this planet better for us all. It will be a day for dreams — dreams that some day may become reality. Just like the once-crazy notion that man would walk upon our faraway lunar neighbor, smiling down at us from the night sky.
People like Neil Armstrong don’t want recognition for their greatness but it’s up to us to make certain that they get it. For, thanks to him and the dreamers at NASA, my generation was forged in an age of wonder. For us, the skies were not the limit.