VIOLA, NEIL, AND ME
Fifty years ago this week Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. Shortly after the Apollo 11 mission safely returned to earth I went down to Wapakoneta, Ohio, Armstrong's hometown, to do a story that changed my professional life. A few years ago I recounted the experience in a blog. Incidentally, that guy with the camera around his neck to the right of Bob Hope in the photograph at Armstrong's homecoming, is the twenty-year-old reporter in question...
Here is what I wrote:
Before I met Neil Armstrong’s mother, I bought a new suit.
It was gray with blue pin stripes. I looked like a twenty-year-old banker in it. A pimply twenty-year-old banker.
I thought of that suit again yesterday when the news came of the death of the first man on the moon at the age of eighty-two. I thought of Neil Armstrong’s mom and how much she helped a young reporter a long, long time ago.
In the days following Armstrong’s July 20, 1969 moonwalk, I was sitting at my desk in the Windsor Star newsroom, reading about the event that had transfixed the world. At the same time, I was desperately trying to figure out how I could survive my job as the world’s worst obituary writer–a job I was doing so badly I was certain I was about to be fired.
Reading that Armstrong was from a Ohio town named Wapakoneta, I vaguely wondered how far that was from Windsor, with its proximity to Detroit and Michigan and the American heartland. Out of curiosity, I got hold of a map and discovered that Wapakoneta was only about two and a half hours away, straight down I-75.
I approached the city editor. How about a story on the hometown of America’s first man on the moon? The editor thought I was crazy. Then I dropped my ace: Wapakoneta was a morning’s drive down the road. I got the assignment.
That’s what prompted me to run out and buy the suit. I knew that Armstrong’s mother and father still resided in Wapakoneta. For some reason, I could not imagine showing up on their doorstep in my usual badly fitting blue blazer, accompanied by a wrinkled neck tie not properly knotted. I needed that suit.
Appropriately dressed, photographer Bill Bishop and I arrived in Wapakoneta a few days later. Given the fact that a local son had just walked on the moon, I expected the place to be teeming with reporters and tourists.
Instead, it was quiet and seemingly deserted. No reporters. No tourists. Just a small town of only nine thousand on a lazy summer afternoon, the light catching tree-lined streets full of stately homes fronted by well-tended lawns.
In the wake of Armstrong’s landing, there would be much speculation–Richard Nixon was then president, remember–that NASA had created the first man on the moon camera-ready for the American public, complete with the perfectly groomed small town upbringing. Well, Wapakoneta certainly fit the conspiracy theory. It was traditional Middle America, Norman Rockwell, by way of Frank Capra’s Bedford Falls in It’s A Wonderful Life. You would not have been surprised to see Jimmy Stewart amble down the street.
Everyone was very friendly and very white. At a moment of great racial upheaval in the United States–Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated the year before– you could hardly fail to notice there was not a black face to be seen. One resident later confided, “And that’s another great thing about the town, there are no blacks.”
We stopped at the local drug store where Neil had worked part-time as a teenager, and where he was fondly, even lovingly, remembered. They put us on to Neil’s mother, Viola. A phone call was made: A couple of Canadians were in town who would like to speak to her. To my surprised delight, she invited us to drop around.
Even Neil Armstrong’s mother looked like she had been sent over from Central Casting after being snapped off the set of an Andy Hardy movie. She was the ideal hero’s mom: a slim woman wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a print dress, immediately welcoming. “I like your suit,” she said to me when we shook hands.
Viola had a friend for life.
We sat outside in the backyard where Neil had grown up and talked about life in Wapakoneta, what Neil had been like as a child (pretty much perfect), and what her life was like now that Neil had become so famous (not much had changed as far as she was concerned).
As much as I liked Viola, I couldn’t shake the feeling that all of this was way too good to be true. Still, if Neil’s mother had been manufactured as part of an effort to create the perfect Middle American hero for the first moon landing, they had done a fine job. Bill and I departed Viola’s yard amid warm embraces and an invitation to come back for Neil’s homecoming.
When Bill and I returned a few weeks later, the small town had been transformed. Now the place filled with crowds of tourists, reporters, and cameras (fifty thousand were said to have been present). Neil was coming home after being celebrated with a ticker tape parade in New York City.
But this was the local folks pulling out all the stops for their hometown hero. All the major American newspapers were there along with the three television networks, not to mention that icon of all things American, Bob Hope himself, accompanied by his wife, Dolores.
Whereas previously Bill and I had been greeted as something like visiting celebrities, this time I felt lost in the media crowd. Wapakoneta suddenly seemed a long way from Windsor.
Nonetheless, we showed up at the local fairgrounds where many of the festivities were to take place. There, surrounded by dozens of reporters, was Viola Armstrong.
I was standing in the midst of the pack when she turned and saw me. Immediately, her face lit up. Viola promptly waded through the crush of reporters, and joyfully embraced me. Everyone looked on in astonishment: Who the hell was this guy?
I said something about how much had changed since the last time we met. Viola nodded wearily. She said she had really enjoyed our time together that sunny afternoon in her yard. “Where’s your suit?” she asked. “I really liked that suit.”
Viola didn’t know it, but she saved my career that summer. After the Wapakoneta story, I didn’t get fired, and I didn’t have to write many more obituaries.
And, oh, yes, after all that, I finally got to meet Neil Armstrong. Viola introduced us. She wanted her son to meet “this nice Canadian.”
She didn’t mention the suit.
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