Pages

2014-05-20

A human side to a giant

A Neil Armstrong Anecdote

I like my science fiction, so some years ago I made a strategic decision : one of the proven routes for a novice SF author to get known, and to get experience in writing, is to write short stories and get them published in a magazine. So I took out a subscription to Fantasy and Science Fiction - not necessarily the highest in the pantheon, but they were in danger of going under, so I thought - that's a decent punt.
I'm getting what I expected : some great stories, some poor ones, some tedious editorial (I do not need to read about yet another bloody werewolf-vampire romance!) and some great editorial. Though to be honest, I'm less than diligent about reading them when they arrive - I tend to chuck them into corner of the bookshelf and take them to the rig for bedtime reading.
So, I rip open an un-opened envelope on the plane to Gabon here ... and it's the Nov/Dec 2012 edition. Been laying on the bookshelf since just after we moved. Oops.
And there's a great little anecdote in the editorial about the (then recently deceased) first man on the Moon, Neil Armstrong.
Now, there's a lot of hagiography about the man. First Man on the Moon ; the Right Stuff ; fluffed his lines on the biggest outside broadcast in the history of humanity. But there's not a lot about the man himself - after he retired from NASA, he didn't do a lot of public stuff, retiring into the background. His second-in-command, Buzz Aldrin, has been more famous in recent decades, if only for punching out the lights of a Moon Landing Conspiracy whackjob. Way to go, Buzz! and give him one in the nuts from me!
But back to the Neil Armstrong anecdote. The editorial, as befits the last number for the year, looks back at major events of that year, including, unsurprisingly Neil Armstrong's death. Gordon van Gelder, the F&SF editor, then recounts the following anecdote of a more human Neil Armstrong, ascribing it to one Lucius Shepard, though it doesn't appear on Sheperd's website.
I kinda met Neil Armstrong once back in the late '70s. My brother-in-law and I ran a T-shirt company and we had a couple of lines we sold to museum shops and at science fiction cons and like that. We were coming back from a sales trip, driving through rural Ohio, when we spotted a sign advertising the Neil Armstrong Museum in some little town. What the hell, we said. Maybe we can dump some shirts, so when we got to the museum we sat down with the curator, who was also the buyer for the gift shop, and pitched the shirts. We had a kids' shirt that resembled the body of a NASA space suit and the guy bought about 7, 8 dozen of those, along with shirts that had maps of the moon and Mars, the big red spot on Jupiter, etc. I don't recall how the subject came up, but I asked the curator if Neil ever came around the museum and the curator said, "Oh, sure. He's here all the time. I think he's here now." I asked if we could meet him and he said that Neil wasn't big on meeting new people and besides, he was probably sleeping. "He likes to sleep in the lander," he said. "He spends a lot of time in there."
"The moon lander?" I asked.
"It's a replica," the curator said. "It's up in the Moon Room, on the second floor. You can go on up if you'd like. Maybe you'll see him."
We went up to the second floor. There was a walkway that ran across the building, a bridge of sorts, then a gap that separated us from the Moon Room, which was a display of a life-sized lander sitting on some pumice-like material, and in the distance some painted crater walls, lunar mountains, and a black sky with stars. It probably looked fairly real when the lights were off, but the lights were on full and it looked pretty fake.
We hung out for around five minutes and then gave up on the idea of seeing Neil.
We went back downstairs, finished some paperwork and had a cup of coffee with the curator. I said I thought it struck me as weird, Neil Armstrong sleeping in the moon lander. The curator said maybe so, he'd never given it much thought.
Before we left we ran back up to the Moon Room to try and catch sight of Neil...and there he was. He was standing on the ladder leading up to the hatch. A guy with buzz-cut hair was all I could make out. We waved at him and after a second or two he waved back. I had a feeling he'd been on the verge of leaving the lander, but after that one wave he ascended the ladder and closed the hatch behind him.
That's all there is. Not much of an encounter. I used to think I'd write a story about seeing him, but it never came to anything. I liked thinking about Armstrong sleeping in the lander, though, the kind of dreams he had there and all. It made him seem a lot more real than that BS one small step for mankind quote that someone wrote for him. And it makes his death go down smoother to imagine him curled up in that cramped space on his padded couch, on his way to somewhere no one else has ever been.
 Well, yeah. That's nice. Different to the run of the mill. I'm really going to have to make more of an effort to read things when they are new.
(There are some good stories in that number of F&SF. You can get a copy, or a subscription, from their orders page.)