My father turned 79 years old this week. As usual, we celebrated his birthday quietly. We went to a nice restaurant, no cake, no singing. He hates that. He hates the fuss. God forbid a slew of wait staff gather around the table singing some God-awful made-up song that the restaurant makes them sing. God forbid a room full of people applaud politely and smile in his direction. Nope, none of that. No attention. No adulation. Just hugs, kisses, presents and a nice dessert. That makes him happy.
The other thing that makes him happy is talking about the things he did has a young man and the things he accomplished in his career. This evening though, he was distracted by the death of Neil Armstrong. One of the first things out of his mouth was "We lost one of the good ones, Hon. I really admired him." That's when I ordered a drink and sat back and just listened.
My father's life and Mr. Armstrong's life paraleled one another in many ways. They were both born in Ohio. Mr. Armstrong in August of 1930 in Wapakoneta, Ohio. My father was born in August of 1933 in Columbus, Ohio. They grew up 88 miles apart. Their high school football teams played against each other. My father mused that more than likely they had been to some of the same games.
As a young man, Mr. Armstrong joined the Navy. He served in Korea as a jet pilot. My father also joined the Navy and served as a helicopter sonar operator. After his discharge from the Navy, my father pursued a career as an aerospace engineer. He began as a draftsman and eventually finished his degree, becoming an electrical and mechanical engineer. Mr. Armstrong also pursued a degree in engineering and achieved his Master's from U.S.C. He served as a test pilot and later entered the astronaut program. My Father worked at North American, one of the Southern California aerospace companies contracted to build the Apollo spacecraft.
The pride my father felt to be involved in something as important to this country as the Apollo program showed on his face like it was still 1969. He sat up straighter, his eyes shone brighter and he told the story of the moon landing like it was a new story that happened yesterday and I was just his little girl who never heard it before. No one else was at the table. It was just him and me. I was enthralled.
He went on to tell stories of how the astronauts frequently visited the facilities where the spacecraft was being built. He told me how impressed he was that they were not only pilots but fellow engineers. They took interest in everything that went into the construction and my father and his co-workers, in turn, knew that they had the lives of these men in thier hands. Every component, every switch, every dial had to work perfectly. He told me how good enough wasn't good enough. He described the enormous number of steps each component of the spacecraft had to follow as though it was a choreographed ballet - because in reality it was. From the rockets propelling them into space, to the Lem, to the rockets on the Lem, everything had to function in perfect harmony for the mission to be a success. As we all know, it was a success and Mr. Armstrong, Mr. Aldrin and Mr. Collins became American heroes.
Instead of basking in the bright light and cashing in on his fame, Mr. Armstrong went on to become a professor of engineering. He cared about guiding young people. A friend of mine has a son who became an Eagle Scout last year, Mr. Armstrong sent him a personal letter of congratulations. It was an inspirational moment for him, he will never forget it.
He didn't like the fuss. He didn't like the adulation. His family's statement after his death read: " For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink." I hope that we can all learn from his example.
Dad was right, we lost a good one. He was an American hero, admired by millions including me. I've also got to say that even though my Dad didn't go to the Moon, there are so many reasons why he's my hero. He deserves some fuss and some adulation but I know better.