Neil Armstrong turned 82 three weeks ago, on the day that the Curiosity Rover landed safely on Mars. Two days later he underwent surgery on blocked coronary arteries, the procedure led to complications and his death Saturday. One should hope that this modest hero can be remembered and respected by all, without reservation. Such simple hopes, once so easy to assume before “faked moon landing”, are as gone as our long boyhood summers.
When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon while Mike Collins guarded the fire in orbit, I was struggling to survive in the rugged mountains of the Philmont Scout Ranch near Cimarron, New Mexico. Just shy of my 14th birthday, and finding out I wasn’t as tough as all my merit badges would indicate, the normal Boy Scout bravado was tempered by daily 15 miles hikes carrying wet canvas tents and bulky cotton sleeping bags, subsisting on dehydrated food and iodine-tainted water. We arrived at the mountaintop French Henry Camp at dusk exhausted, dirty and hungry. It was long dark by the time we had made camp and ate our “space-age” dinner. As we were far in the back country, the youthful campsite leader was expected to be more resourceful than usual, and by pure fortune this one had a ham radio powered by a hand crank generator. We took turns spinning the crank, that lit up the transceiver, that received the relayed voices from two Earthlings walking on the moon, that crackled to a dark forest on the flank of Baldy Mountain.
Through the tall fir trees floated a three quarter moon, canted at a strange angle and making the concept of two men standing on it all the more outrageous. I remember standing with Earl Arrowood, one of the few scouts from my hometown, quarter Cherokee and my best friend, looking at the moon and hearing the static and crackle interrupted by Quindar tones. Philmont Ranch is the national scout camp, making a trip there a rare and prestigious event for a scout from any small town. That summer of ’69, after hosting strawberry pancake dinners and door-to-door appeals, Troop 24 was able to send four scouts. Since each 12-day expedition at Philmont required 10-12 scouts and two leaders, the county council threw together boys from other troops… mostly kids from Lower Bucks on the border of Philadelphia. We four certainly knew more about camping and dairy farms, while the majority has street smarts, longer knives and lots of sass. In full dress uniform, we rode a train to Chicago, then a Greyhound for 2 days non-stop to Philmont. A couple of days outfitting and orienteering, then we hit the trail.
When NASA began training astronauts, they had the best military pilots from each service to choose from. Neil Armstrong had already been at the tip of the spear, as an X-15 test pilot. Buzz Aldrin, mother’s maiden name Moon, was born in the same New Jersey town as my mother. Aldrin had flown 66 combat missions in the beautiful F-86 during the Korean War, then went to MIT and earned a Ph.D. in manned orbital rendezvous techniques years before a manned orbital rendezvous ever took place. Mike Collins was an Army brat born in Rome, he too flew F-86s and joined the Caterpillar Club when his cockpit caught fire over France. Ambition and talent brought these men together to train for the ultimate trip.
Our Philmont group had little in common with NASA’s crew choices. Back in Troop 24, our leaders were all WWII combat veterans, a SeaBee during Okinawa, a B-24 pilot with 30+ missions, an infantryman who smoked a pipe and said little. For leaders on the Greatest Adventure a Boy Scout Can Have, however, we were assigned an overweight middle manager, plus a 19 year-old looking forward to ROTC and Vietnam. After two days, the middle manager had twisted an ankle and taken to using a crutch we fashioned from a branch, while the ROTC lad was learning the word ‘fragging’ from the city kids. The only ones who could read a map were from Troop 24, but we were ignored as often as we were right. Each day the hike took longer, the tents and bags grew heavier and moldier, the despair mounted. I had a Kodak Instamatic camera with two rolls of film, but I do not remember taking a single photo in the back country.
For a young male teen in 1969, camping with my friends and following the space race were my favorite activities. I had seen every Mercury, Gemini and Apollo mission, watching the grainy, ghostly black & white images on our Philco television. The liftoff for Apollo 11 was set after we began preparing for Philmont, and Earl and I regretted that we’d miss the whole mission. We had made our choice and our destiny was to be deep in the forest for the landing. Now the great expeditions were underway, one meeting all the expectations of an anxiously watching world, the other considerably less so. At some point we may have heard Armstrong begin his moon walk and say “one small step for (beep) man”, the Quindar tones stepping on the article, inadvertently changing Armstrong’s simple measure of one person to a grandiose statement of humanity’s triumph. History was made and immediately misinterpreted.
Neil Armstrong was an Eagle Scout, as was well publicized in Boys’ Life magazine. Back on July 20th 1969, as we looked at the bright moon through the trees, he planted an American flag near the lunar lander. Armstrong made it though hard work, determination, natural talent, training and luck. I’m not going to pretend I drew inspiration at that moon moment to complete an otherwise disappointing trip; I was too tired for anything but sleep. No rocket would speed us home, our only way back was by our two feet, humping unglamorous backpacks half our weight. However, over the next days the thought that a freckled redheaded Boy Scout had walked on moon did sink in, the sun came out, the city kids asked us to hold the map, and the limping, lagging leader grabbed a Jeep ride back to Base Camp. Soon enough we too reached the end of the trail, where Earl and I sat down and ate a galleon of strawberry ice cream as we watched buses unload the next earnest trailblazers. The Apollo 11 astronauts were enjoying steaks inside their Airstream quarantine trailer and contemplating their new lives as adored heros.
After the moon landing, Neil Armstrong steadily avoided publicity, did not pimp his image for cash, and successfully denied news organizations those awful file reels of an aging astronaut being interviewed about how Tang tastes and crapping in zero G. Armstrong, however, remained an active promoter of the Boy Scouts the rest of his life, in one of the very few ways he showed a public persona. He was not deterred from being an inspiration by the agendas of others and I suspect he was as offended as I am by anyone who described the Boy Scouts as a hate organization. Of course, I will never know, for the one characteristic that defined Armstrong was modesty to the point of mystery. After Philmont, I was relieved it was over, sad that I had expected so much more, and uncertain how I would face another challenge. What did the first person to walk on the moon teach us? Neil Armstrong’s quiet, unassuming and enigmatic life since Apollo 11 is a lesson on how we may measure our own lives against the vastness of everything else. Per aspera ad astra.
Pete Goldie holds a Ph.D. and 2 other graduate degrees from “old East Coast universities.”
“I merely wish it known that I am a licensed ceramic tile & natural stone contractor and everything I write about space science is not only freely available but eagerly disseminated by federal government agencies through the judicious expenditure of income tax revenue.”