I met Neil Armstrong last year – almost, sort of. I was waiting tables at a fairly nice restaurant here in Cincinnati; it paid better than the teaching I was doing – a shame really that a waiter can earn more than a teacher in this country, but that’s a rant for another day. Anyway, a large party came in and took a table in the corner. The group appeared to be a large family – three men, all 50s or 60s, two or three women I assumed were their wives, and a fellow maybe 80 years of age who seemed to be the family patriarch. He took his place at the head of the table – which meant he faced the corner and it was almost impossible to get a direct view of his face.
There was something about the demeanor of the entire family that made those of us nearby suspect that somebody at the table must be famous – they were gracious but guarded, polite beyond fault, never talking down to the waiter, but punctuating every request with a please or a thank you, ordering modestly but well from the menu. It wasn’t my table, but I was close enough to help keep the water glasses full, remove a few empty plates.
With the Bengals and Reds playing their home games just a couple of miles away, I assumed that someone must be a sports personality, or perhaps a team owner or something like that. I’ve waited on current players a time or two – catcher Ryan Hannigan, second baseman Brandon Phillips, even the infamous wide receiver Chad Johnson a.k.a. Ochocinco. A couple of the 50-60 somethings looked so familiar – Johnny Bench? Who was that pitcher in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series? We couldn’t quite figure it out.
After the plates were cleared away, the check was delivered, and the patriarch folded it around his credit card and handed it to me. Several of us gathered around the register to take a peek at the name, see if it would give us a clue as to whom we had been waiting on for the past hour.
Working in the hospitality business throughout my 20s, I’ve chatted with a few celebrities over the years – Lyle Lovett, Bernadette Peters (gotta be my age to remember her), Lee Majors, more professional athletes than I can remember, maybe one or two others if I thought about it long enough. But knowing that Neil Armstrong was in the room left me speechless. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve visited 26 foreign countries, and lived abroad for over a decade – but this guy has been to the moon, for God’s sake! I wanted to shake his hand, say I really admired him – something, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. And today, reading the eulogies and articles that inevitably appear moments after someone famous has passed on, I remembered why.
I read a snippet of an interview in which Armstrong was saddened by the cutbacks in the space program. His reason? The fact that American space exploration had been so inspirational to students, had motivated so many children to do well in school.
I was definitely one of those kids. I was 5 years old when Neil Armstrong made history, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only tyke who decided at that moment that I was going to become an astronaut. My Mom, always the amateur psychologist, informed me that I’d have to make straight A’s when I started school in a few weeks – they didn’t let anyone become an astronaut if they didn’t have good grades. Her ruse worked – I made straight A’s almost every term for the next 10 years. And every toy I asked for – a chemistry set, a model of the human brain, etc. – had something to do with science.
Over the years, what I wanted to be when I grew up would change many times – marine biologist, opera singer, television evangelist – you name it. But Neil Armstrong made me want to be the best student in the class, made me want to stop at the library after school and read further about things we had talked about in class that day, let me see the wonder of scientific discovery. Although we moved around a lot when I was a child – I went to nine different schools in twelve years – I was always one of the top students. It was part of who I was as a kid, what gave me confidence – what helped to shape me into the person I am today.
Neil Armstrong made me want to be smart, something it seems so many students aren’t interested in today. They want to be rich, or famous, or if that’s not possible, at least have their own reality TV show. Why work so hard for an A when a C will get you by? Today’s heroes wear bling and have ‘tude. Anyone emulating Armstrong would definitely be a geek.
I thought I knew pretty much everything about this great American hero – that he was chosen to be the first man on the moon mostly because of his perceived lack of ego, that he didn’t give autographs or get publicly involved in politics, that he didn’t approve of the US being the world’s policeman, that he once sued a barber for selling a lock of his hair. But today I read something that made me like him even more.
On an application he made to lead a Boy Scout troop, he wrote in his religious affiliation as ‘Deist‘.
There seems to be a belief – perhaps a fear – commonly held by religious folks, that if our nation doesn’t get back to its ‘Christian roots’, that we’ll cease to do great things or that we’ll spiral into an immoral abyss. Men like Neil Armstrong – and Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, James Madison, and other famous agnostics – are evidence that this simply isn’t true. You can live an exemplary life without organized faith. Many of our great American heroes achieved what they did by casting off the ancient superstitions that have bound men’s minds for so long in order to further our grand experiment in democracy.
It seems appropriate that the moon appeared so huge and bright in the twilight sky last night.
If only America had more men like Neil Armstrong.
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