Editor’s Note: Neil Armstrong (August 5, 1930 – August 25, 2012) was laid to rest yesterday, August 31, 2012. An American Astronaut, Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon. ICL Contributing Writer, Mark Armstrong looks back at his encounter with the American hero.
When I was between 11-14 years old I had an autograph collecting hobby. I loved to meet famous people, shake their hands and/or get their autographs. I knew it was all about being in the right place at the right time to get these autographs. In 1967, my parents accepted teaching assignments in Eugene, Oregon and moved me and my two younger brothers to a house one block from Hayward Field and the University of Oregon campus. Eugene was a political hot bed of activity during the late 1960’s. As a 12 year-old I listened to Huey Newton with the Black Panthers speak on campus, saw the ROTC building after it was bombed and watched presidential candidates come campaigning for president in 1968. I met, shook hands and got autographs from everyone from Senator Robert Kennedy, Senator Eugene McCarthy, Joan Baez, Bob Hope, O.J. Simpson (running in track at Hayward Field) and Bill Cosby amongst others.
By the time we left Eugene for Guam in the summer of 1969 (where my parents had accepted new teaching assignments) I was a 13-year old “expert” in the art of meeting famous people. As we flew across the Pacific to the tiny island of Guam, it didn’t seem likely to me that there would be as many celebrities to meet and get autographs from; turned out I was wrong. In the course of living on Guam for three years I had encounters with President Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Walter Cronkite and others. When I learned that the Apollo 11 astronauts would be coming to Guam for a short visit I was thrilled and set out to make sure I was in the right spot, at the right time, again.
On November 2, 1969 (I looked up all the dates and information about this trip on the internet of course) the three Apollo astronauts were nearing the end of a 24-city, round-the-world tour. Air Force One was loaned to them by President Nixon. The Boeing 707 jet was scheduled to touch down November 2, 1969 on Guam and allow those inside Air Force One a good night’s rest before flying out to Tokyo, Japan on November 3, 1969.
In fact from September 29th through November 5, 1969 the astronauts and their wives made landings in 24 worldwide cities with mostly overnight visits. At least 100 million people saw the space crew and as many as 25,000 shook their hands including Pope Paul VI.
The goodwill round-the-world flight was called “The Giant Leap”, took 37 days and ended with an overnight stay at the Nixon White House. Shortly thereafter Armstrong set off again, this time as a special guest on Bob Hope’s 1969 USO tour with stops in Germany, Italy, Turkey, Taiwan, and Guam (where I saw Neil Armstrong again at Anderson Air Force base and met Bob Hope).
To ensure that I was in the “right place at the right time” I arrived hours before Armstrong and his fellow astronauts were scheduled to land at the Guam International Airport. I purchased a large postcard at the airport gift shop and thought it would be cool to get all three astronauts to autograph it. Back in 1969 on Guam, at least, there was no real security at the airport. Not all like it is today. No security screens and you could wander anywhere in the small terminal and on the tarmac. The Guam airport had no concourses; passengers walked out into the humid tropical air on the tarmac and climbed stairs to board their planes. The airport also served as a Naval Air Station and the military provided the security for most of the facility. Even with these small security measures, as a seasoned autograph seeker at 13 years-old, I knew, from previous famous encounters, that a boy like me was never viewed as a threat, especially one with a pen and postcard in their hands.
As preparations for the Apollo 11 astronauts were finishing up on the tarmac, I parked myself just behind a single rope barrier and stood directly in front of a small stage. On the stage a podium was placed with space behind it for four chairs. This was the stage where all three astronauts were to speak. From where I stood behind the rope was about 20-25 yards from stairs to the stage and podium. I remember thinking at the time that my mission of getting pen and postcard into their hands was going to be difficult. Needed to be the right time and right place for sure, I thought.
Over the next few hours, thousands of people gathered behind and beside me, filling up the space between the rope barriers and the airport terminal. Late in the afternoon, the crowd began to gasp and point as we watched the majestic Boeing 707 Air Force One plane slowly circle the airport and then come into land. I am sure for most of us it was the first time seeing this plane and so the crowd was excited. Plus this was Guam, sometimes people would just come to the airport to see who might be aboard on the 4 or 5 daily flights to this remote airport. This was special…the men from the moon!
As Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins walked off the plane in the late afternoon sun they waved to a thunderous crowd amidst cheers and applause. To my surprise, though, instead of coming by the rope barriers to shake hands, the trio walked immediately to the small stage. When they sat down the crowd was still cheering. I figured that shaking hands and getting an autograph would be nearly impossible now since they did not walk by me or the crowd as I anticipated. In a flash I had a plan to get to meet them.
I just casually slipped under the rope barrier and walked up to the small stage. The three astronauts watched me walk up while the crowd was still cheering. I stood on the stage, and since Neil Armstrong was closest to me, I quickly said, “My last name is Armstrong too, could I please have your autograph?” (I had rehearsed this line while waiting for hours at the airport).
He smiled and signed it. “There you go,” Armstrong said as he handed it back to me. Just as I was about to ask Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins if they could sign my postcard, a military security guard in uniform came up the stairs and told me, “march down those steps and get back behind the ropes now.” I was slightly embarrassed and complied quickly. I had my autograph though!
I purchased a LIFE magazine, “To the Moon and Back” that was full of color photographs and stories about all three astronauts. I tucked the postcard with Armstrong’s autograph into it. The next day I brought the signed postcard to my eighth grade class at George Washington Junior High School to show to students and teachers. My shop teacher exclaimed, “I saw you up there on the stage and wondered what you were doing up there!” Others also told me over the ensuing days that they saw me up there too and wondered what I was doing.
Eventually I put the autograph and the LIFE magazine away in a small chest that had all my other autographs and treasures in it. We stayed on Guam for just two more years. After we left Guam Armstrong’s autograph and the other chest treasures were moved to six other states over the next 43 years. They have been kept in our basement in Bismarck now for the last 17 years.
When I heard of Armstrong’s passing it reminded me of course of that November, 1969 day at the airport on Guam. It also reminded me over the years of the number of times people ask me if I was related to Neil. When our family traveled around the world in 1972 and someone in either Nepal or Egypt or Greece or anybody from nearly anywhere asks how to spell or even pronounce my last name, I always reply, “Armstrong, like the guy who landed on the Moon” and they instantly understand. Sometimes I would even call him my “Uncle Neil” until people thought I was serious, and then I would laugh say, no, but I did get his autograph once.
Earlier this month I knew I was going to attend a work conference in Washington D.C. By earning frequent flier mileage with one of our debit cards we usually rack up enough miles for a couple of free trip each year. It is my custom to bring at least one or two of our ten kids with me on these trips. The room is already paid for, and if I stretch my per diem, we can usually spend a day or two seeing the sights of the different places I travel to each year for work.
As a homeschooling family we know the value of travel and seeing the world with our own eyes. Over the last 20 years I have taken five of our kids on four separate trips to DC. Washington DC is a terrific sight-seeing town. The National Air and Space Museum is always one of the highlights of these trips. This fall I wanted to bring the youngest three kids that still live at home with us and have never been to DC. When I discussed this with my wife Patti, she agreed that trying to purchase two more tickets to Washington D.C. was going to be financially tough for us. We agreed to pray about it and see what happens. A few days later, sadly in some respects, our prayers were answered.
On August 25, 2012 I was overnight kayaking on the Missouri river with our two youngest and my second oldest sons. On the second day of our kayak trip, I checked my IPhone and noticed our 16 year-old daughter Teresa posted on Facebook of Neil Armstrong’s passing. She wrote, “Goodbye uncle Neil Armstrong.”
While sitting in my kayak I instantly was taken back to that moment in time when I met him. I told the boys in the kayaks when we got back to Bismarck that I would show them the autograph and LIFE magazine I got back on Guam. Last Sunday I went into our basement and took a few minutes to find the postcard and LIFE magazine amidst all my treasures from my youth repacked in several plastic containers now.
The postcard was still tucked inside the LIFE magazine, the blue ink signature of Neil Armstrong still visible. After I showed it to the kids and told them the story, I decided it was time to sell and see what price it might bring. Having used eBay to purchase several dozen items over the 10 years, this would be my very first attempt to sell something. It would be nice, I thought, to get $1000 for the items. At least that would pay for the two tickets I needed for Washington. I made $1,000 my “Buy It Now” price.
A couple of hours after placing the ad, a woman in California emailed me that she paid the Buy It Now price. She wrote, “You are so lucky to have met Mr. Armstrong. I lived in Ohio for a while and wanted to go to the museum but never had a chance. What a legacy Neil has made for all of us. I hope they make a memorial so that future generations value what accomplishments can be achieved through our dreams. I am saddened he passed but he’ll have lots of company I guess. Can’t believe Sally Ride passed away recently too. Life is so precious. Many thanks again. Happy to have met you thru eBay.”
I called the kids and Patti and told them of our good fortune. Four of us would be going to Washington DC in October thanks to Neil Armstrong. I know that when we take those steps inside the National Air and Space Museum and see many of the Apollo artifacts, I will remember the kindness shown to me by the first man-on-the-moon that made our trip possible. We will also pray that we get to thank him again one day when we meet in Eternity. That was one small gesture by Neil Armstrong that we are eternally grateful for in our family. Thanks “Uncle Neil.”
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