There comes a time in life when it is blatantly ridiculous to claim to be 39 or even 49. A glance at the mortality tables confirms that you are in that place where a claim to middle age, even at its extremities, is becoming tenuous and you are about to explode with rage when the wee lassie reading the news refers to someone in their 60s as ‘elderly’.
It usually creeps up on you unnoticed but sometimes there is a sudden reinforcement of mortality. It happened to me this week. If you are a child of the fifties or even the sixties you get used to the icons and the famous and the artists who wrote the soundtrack to your youth starting to disappear in accelerating numbers. Sometimes it is family.
This Friday I attended the funeral of my brother, one of my three brothers. In truth he was one of two step brothers but as we became one family while I was still very young the distinction didn’t really matter. Next to myself he was the youngest. As young men we socialised together and he led me, not unwillingly, into many an ‘adventure’. He settled in Manchester and I gradually saw less and less of him. He suffered a stroke while in his early 50s and retired to his home in Spain. I hadn’t seen him for some years and it came as a shock when I got the news of his death. He had been back in Manchester visiting his sons when he had a bad fall and never recovered from the head injuries he sustained. He wasn’t a religious man and he had a humanist funeral. We left the crematorium to the strains of David Bowie’s Starman.
Less than 24 hours later came the news that we had lost the greatest of starmen, Neil Armstrong. His passing will bring the memories of those heady days of the space race flooding back for so many. If it was the Beatles et al, who played the musical score to our youth it was the spacemen who lit up the screen. I followed it all avidly from the moment Yuri Gargarin became the first man in space. I remember when Kennedy made his famous speech pledging that America would send a man to the moon and return him safely to Earth before the decade was out. That was in 1962, less than 60 years since the Wright brothers made their first faltering flight and barely a year since the US had sent their own first man, Alan Shepard, into space. Yet incredibly only 7 years later the dream was realised.
Of course the space race was as much about west versus east, capitalism versus communism and a determination to ensure that if there was going to be nukes in space they were going to be our nukes. None of that mattered to me or most people and I suspect the astronauts. It was about the wonder of it, the exploration, the incredible technology, doing things that had never been done before, the sheer adventure of it all. No generation since has had anything to compare, to inspire, to engage the whole world or simply to wonder at.
I didn’t actually see the moon landing, I was on holiday in Millport and we didn’t run to a telly. I saw the recording the next day in the Nixi café. The reason Armstrong is special to me is because I met him.
The circumstances were rather unusual . In 1988, nearly 20 years after the moon landing, I was working for a company with global reach that organised a world conference every 4 years. I attended their conference in Bangkok. The theme for the conference, come jolly, was stars for the 1990s. The conference stage was all done up like the flight deck of Star Trek’s USS Enterprise. At that time it was the biggest business convention ever held in Thailand and we got incredible treatment. Everything was of the best and no expense was spared. So impressive were the preparations for a banquet we were having at a local cultural centre that when the Crown Prince of Thailand saw it on a private visit earlier in the day he insisted his family got an invite.
We knew that there was going to be a special guest on the last day of the conference and we were seriously speculating that it might be William Shatner (Captain Kirk) or Leonard Nimoy (Mr Spock) from the Star Trek series. Well at the end the music swelled, smoke rose from the set and the voice of the master of ceremonies announced ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the first man on the moon…’ and the place just erupted when Neil Armstrong walked onto the stage.
I couldn’t believe it, there he was, one of the great heroes of my youth. He made a speech in his kind of all American gee shucks kind of way. I remember him saying about Apollo as they lifted off ‘boy you’ve really gone and done it this time’. After his speech he left the stage and that I thought was the end of it. I later found out that he had come back out after the hall emptied and some people had got to speak to him. I was gutted I had missed that.
That evening we were having a final huge banquet and the ballroom was all done up to look like the solar system and there was top line cabaret. Being a lowly nerd I was with my wife and my colleagues and their wife’s at a table quite far from the front but I could see Neil Armstrong and his wife seated with the company high heid yins. I asked one of our regional directors if it would be ok to approach Armstrong. I was told no way and the brass would take a very dim view. Well I sat there simmering and after a vodka or two I thought damn the consequences this is an opportunity I’ll never have again. So I set off for the front and as I approached the table I could feel high heid yin eyes boring into me and any potential for future advancement, which to be fair was limited, vanished into, well, outer space.
I introduced myself to Armstrong and chatted about the space program. He was charming, diffident and I thought very happy to talk about a subject close to his heart. He was obviously a modest man yet he also exuded an air of ease and confidence. All this garnered from a meeting barely two minutes long and only really obvious to me now as I think back. An event photographer appeared from nowhere and took pictures. Sadly I never saw those photos but I do have an autographed menu from that night.
He never cashed in, and never wanted to, on his fame. He could have been a multi millionaire but he chose instead to become a college professor. I wonder now in this day and age if he could have coped with the exposure or even if he would have been chosen for the role. Fortunately, in his day different qualities mattered. He is without doubt the most famous person I or anyone else could meet, yet if you stopped ten people in the street and asked them to list the ten most famous people on the planet it is quite likely he wouldn’t appear on a single list such was the relevant obscurity he chose for himself. But in a thousand years when all the celebrities that fill our newspapers today and all the purile politicians that squawk in our parliaments are forgotten everyone on the planet will know who Neil Armstrong was and what he achieved.
But this is a political blog so what can we say about his politics? Well very little. Unlike other astronauts he rebuffed the approaches of both parties in the US, though we do know that, perhaps surprisingly for a military man, he didn’t favour America’s role as the world’s policeman.
He is of course one of us. The clue is in the name. His ancestors came from the Borders and Armstrong was a freeman of Langholm. We can’t know what his feelings might have been about Scottish independence but perhaps we can draw some strength from his life and his character. He flew 78 missions in the Korean war and completed more than 900 flights as a test pilot. He came close to death on a number of occasions. His courage is not in doubt, his engineers’ ability combined with a cool logical mind and the razor sharp reflexes of a fighter pilot made him a natural for the astronaut program. Like the independence movement he faced huge obstacles, known and unknown challenges. He faced them all with courage, stretched out and grasped the prize. We cannot claim Armstrong as a nationalist only as a Scot. So it his personal qualities we can draw inspiration from.
But let’s end not on a political note but with an extract from the plaque he and Buzz Aldrin left on the moon, ‘we came in peace for all mankind’.
Thanks for the screen play, thanks for the inspiration, thanks for the memories. Neil Armstrong 1930 – 2012. Hero of the world.