CINCINNATI -- He is the most iconic figure from the space race yet nearly two years after his passing, he remains one of its least understood.
Neil Armstrong’s “One step…” mantra is echoing around the world as we mark the moment 45 years ago that man set foot on the moon. No time like the present for the aura of mysteriousness and detachment that grew up around Armstrong to be debunked.
In my experience, the best way to incur his disfavor was to ask about his space adventure. Questions about technology, mechanics, aeronautics, ballistics, neighbors, golf, farming? Not only fair game but things he’d eagerly talk about.
He was not a distant, dismissive man by any stretch. He had a great sense of humor and was a legendarily loyal friend. He just didn’t like to talk about what the world saw as his most noteworthy achievement.
It was to him, a mission. No more, no less. And not worth the tedium of recounting it one more time.
Paul Brown introduced me to Armstrong the summer of 1983, at a pre-season cookout hosted by their mutual friend Lars Hamel. An introduction by the Bengals founder, I’ve discovered over the years, was an imprimatur, a stamp of authenticity that rendered one trustworthy and honorable. And so it was that Armstrong always afforded me a courtesy and deference that was hard for a kid from Price Hill to grasp.
He graciously posed for pictures with people over the years. Case in point, the shot of Denise, Bill Dennison of 700 WLW and myself at a Reds-Mariners game in Seattle some years ago. He was the guest of his friend, Reds owner Bob Castellini, who I recall, he chided about the plodding pace of his private jet.
“Anything below Mach 1 is pokey,'' Armstrong quipped.
As for asking him to autograph the picture? You knew better than to ask. Armstrong was very scrupulous about anyone asking for signatures and such which he suspected would end up being sold. A barber once offered hair clippings for sale. Armstrong found a new barber.
The best he would do for even long-time friend Carl Wagner, who shared a Taft Broadcasting Board post with Armstrong was a warm inscription on a photo, accompanied by only his initials.
The last time I saw Neil was five days before the heart procedure that precipitated his death in August of 2012. I was on the way to visit a friend who lives two doors from the Armstrong’s. Neil was retrieving his mail as I cruised up to him in my VW convertible.
“Well look at this”, he proclaimed. He was curious about the age of my self-proclaimed “Price Hill Porsche."
“1979 — Old but it looks good from a distance,” I said.
Armstrong shot back: “I know the feeling.”
Both his grin and his reputation said he wasn’t talking about the moon.