Neil Armstrong is a boyhood hero of mine. He is one of my heroes not because he was the first man to walk on the moon, although that has something to do with it. He is my hero because he came from my hometown of St. Marys, Ohio.
In 1969, nothing was bigger and more exciting in the world than what NASA was doing. President John F. Kennedy said that we would put a man on the moon, and the man they picked was born in my hometown—to a 14-year-old kid like me, that was about as cool as it got.
I remember an English teacher, Zula McIntosh, talking about having Armstrong as a student at East Elementary before his family moved to nearby Wapakoneta, Ohio, following his fourth grade year. The doctor who delivered him into this world was an old friend to the family. According to local historians, his family was one of the first to settle in St. Marys, so his ties and roots were very strong in our little community of 8,000 residents. And this was the first man on the moon.
In a scene that was played out in nearly every household in the United States, my family was glued to the television when the Lunar Module made its final approach to the moon’s surface. The living room was dark, with just the light from the television illuminating our faces. We cheered when the LEM (Lunar Excursion Module) landed safely, and waited what seemed endless hours for the lunar module door to pop open. And then, there it was. The grainy photos that history has welcomed of Neil Armstrong making his way down the ladder, hopping off the bottom step onto the powdery surface, and exclaiming his immortal words—“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
My parents beamed with pride that a little kid from St. Marys could be the first human to step foot on the lunar surface. My brother and I dreamed of the possibilities of what we could accomplish as we watched history unfold in front of us in the best black and white that Vista Vision could offer.
It was a moment that time will not be erased from my memory. The entire town spoke of nothing else for months.
Later that year, on September 6, 1969, Wapakoneta celebrated Neil Armstrong Day, with a parade chock full of bands, politicians, and television and movie stars. Our scout troop (136) and all scout troops in the area were invited to participate. Armstrong was an Eagle Scout and was very involved in scouting, as was I on both accounts.
My father was an up-and-comer for the State of Ohio Department of Transportation and was invited by Ohio Governor James A. Rhodes to sit on stage while the dignitaries spoke. My mother wore her locally famous red outfit and hobnobbed with the likes of Bob Hope and Ed McMahon, who were on hand for the day.
The temperature was 90 degrees, and not a cloud in the sky got in the sun’s way. It was hot and humid; we all sweated profusely, the men in their suits and the ladies in their finest. Great excitement hung in the air that day in Wapakoneta. Before the parade, my father introduced my brother, also a scout, and me to the governor, who then turned to introduce us to Neil Armstrong. We shook hands—a hand that was recently on the moon—and then we parted ways.
The Purdue University Marching Band led the parade—Armstrong is a Boilermaker grad, you know—followed by the scouts, dignitaries, and then the man himself. A hero’s welcome home to Wapakoneta, even if those of us from St. Marys claimed him as our own.
Armstrong lived on East Spring Street in St. Marys, and I lived on West Spring Street. He attended Purdue, and then I attended Purdue. He was an Eagle Scout, and I am as well. He turned into an astronaut, but I became a writer, and so there end the similarities. But we were both from St. Marys. It is still amazing to me even today that one of mankind’s greatest achievements—putting a man on the moon—had its roots just a few blocks from where I grew up.
Neil Armstrong was a quiet man with deep resolve and a desire to hold true to his German upbringing of hard work, honesty and staying true to his roots. “Dream high” was the message delivered to my classmates and me. And in 1969, there was nothing higher than the moon.
>> MORE: See another Purdue alumnus’s take on the Aug. 27 memorial service for Neil Armstrong on campus.
Photo via Wikipedia