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My friend, Neil Armstrong

Gary J. Caruso | Friday, September 7, 2012

What a befitting time – the eve of Notre Dame’s 125th football season home celebration, featuring the annual intrastate gridiron clash between the Fighting Irish and the Boilermakers – to remember and honor one of Purdue’s most famous and cherished sons, astronaut Neil Armstrong. Over the last two years of Armstrong’s life, I walked half a dozen small steps along his giant voyage. During those times, I witnessed both the private and public man from a behind-the-scenes vantage. Now that Armstrong is gone, those glimpses of him are among my most treasured memories.
 As with the rest of mankind, my knowledge of Armstrong began on a July night in 1969. It was the summer before the start of my freshman year at Notre Dame. I lay prone on my stomach on the living room floor in front of our television set, while my family eagerly watched Armstrong step onto the moon. It was such an historic milestone and scientifically fascinating accomplishment. For my generation, it seared a marker in our personal timelines, not unlike a Facebook page might display today. In fact, the landing instilled such a sense of national pride among the youth of that time that most of my college classmates displayed posters or photographs of the lunar landing on our dorm room walls. As a student, I never imagined meeting Armstrong, let alone one day actually earning his friendship or chauffeuring him around Washington.
My friend and fellow Notre Dame alumnus Mike Whalen ’74, organized morale visits with American celebrities by flying them to visit with our troops in Iraq. In 2010, Whalen hosted two such visits featuring astronauts included Armstrong. When I first met Armstrong in New York City, I accompanied him on a bus and at a speaking engagement on the U.S.S. Intrepid aircraft carrier museum. At first, it was difficult for me to think of fresh topics that may not bore or agitate him. Armstrong was a typical, humble, Midwestern guy, so I quickly learned how to open a dialogue with him about people we both knew.
Joe Walker, who attended public school with my mother in Washington, Penn., flew experimental flights with Armstrong when they both were civilian test pilots. After explaining how Walker was close to our family and how my mother always pointed out his daring accomplishments in the news to us, Armstrong shared his insights with me. Walker had been killed during one such sound barrier breaking mission. Armstrong had reminisced about Walker in a heartfelt way that one would convey about the loss of a brother.
Upon our arrival at the Intrepid, a public relations staffer for the museum suggested a change in Armstrong’s itinerary. Rather than just speaking to the audience of mostly children, the staffer innocently proposed, “Wouldn’t it be nice if the kids could ask Mr. Armstrong a few questions?” At that point, Armstrong’s voice quivered; his hand shook as he held his notes and he seemed uncomfortable in his skin. He had not agreed to take questions. After being hounded for more than four decades since he stepped onto the moon, he preferred not to answer what he had already said publicly. Who could blame him, the man who for so long had carried the weight of the cosmos on his shoulder of notoriety? He merely spoke as originally planned.
On our bus ride, I attempted humor with him which completely flopped. My college classmate, Steve Pallucca ’73, had been our generation’s John Belushi in both stature and comedy. He joked about how the lunar landing was staged in the Mojave Desert, so I repeated the claim and asked Armstrong how he assures those who doubt. As his face turned red, Armstrong’s voice became forceful and deliberate as he emphatically replied, “I can’t assure you of anything. They know where I landed. Someday they will return and see my footprints where I walked. I know what I did.”
With that faux-pas under my belt, I mentioned that I thought his parents had appeared on the television show, “I’ve Got a Secret.” Armstrong thought it was while he was on the moon, but I recalled it differently. When Armstrong arrived in Washington for his next morale trip, I had a CD of the show with his mother on the cover.
As I drove, I handed it to him and asked who the lady was on the cover. “That’s my mom,” he replied as he squeezed my hand in thanks. She had appeared the day he became an astronaut. The host asked what she would say if he was the first man on the moon. Without hesitation she meekly said, “I’d wish him luck and say, ‘God bless you.'”
To my friend Neil: Thank you, good luck and God bless you.
Gary J. Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director at the U.S. House of Representatives and in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.