Monday, August 27, 2012
This post was going to be a rant about Lance Armstrong and how hard it is for parents when someone your child regards as a hero turns out to be a jerk or a cheat (or both). But just as I was working myself up into a proper state of indignation, word came out that Neil Armstrong had died. My indignation fled, to be replaced with a warm feeling of gratitude and admiration, and musing thoughts about what real heroes really are.
Neil Armstrong was a hero. Because he and his fellow moon astronauts made it back from their missions safely, its easy to forget how many things had to work perfectly for that to happen, including Mr Armstrong taking over the controls and manually flying the lunar lander when the computer couldn't find a good spot to set down. And when he set foot on the moon he called attention not to what he had done (one small step for man) but what we had done (one giant leap for mankind).
All this is burned into my memory because on a summer night in 1969 my father woke my siblings and myself up at 1am to watch this happen. It was,he said on of the most important moments in history, and we had the chance to it live, as it was happening. He said we needed to remember it, and as you see I did. I still have a book he bought me with the history of the space program, culminating in the Apollo 11 mission.
I find I have 3 kinds of heroes. One is a creative hero, someone I admire for the quality of work they put out over a lifetime, and for the effects this work has upon others: people like Jim Henson, John Lennon or Joseph Campbell.
Another kind of hero is one I call a character hero, there is a heroic quality is in the way they live their lives. Often they are people who have overcome obstacles (Helen Keller, King George VI) or advocated for peace (the Dali Lama). Sometimes a person can start something on a small scale that winds up changing the world (Eunice Kennedy Shriver). All of them reach beyond their own individual needs to look to the needs of others.
Then there are what I think of as Achievement heroes, someone is who is faster, better or first. Although I can admire such achievements, to think of someone as a hero I want to see what they do with the rest of their lives as well. For example, one of my heroes has always been Sir Edmund Hillary, ever since I read his account of the Conquest of Everest when I was a child. It wasn't only the achievement itself, it was how he wrote about it, right down to not saying whether it was himself, or Tenzing Norgay, his guide, who reached the summit first, because it was their achievement. As I got older I admired him even more for leveraging his fame to advocate for conservation causes and for the people of Nepal.
Armstrong took a different approach to fame--he walked away. Trained as an engineer before he went into the service, and then to NASA (he was an Eagle Scout too, by the way, you Knew I'd slip that in) he went to the University of Cincinnati and taught aerospace engineering. He seldom did interviews or made speeches, but just went about his business, which is what he maintained he was doing on the moon too. His job.
His family has asked that if people wish to remember him, they take a walk on a clear night and look at the moon and think of him. A hero doing his job.
This morning as I was waiting at the bus stop I observed this beautiful Harvest Moon and did think of Neil Armstrong. I suspect it will be awhile before I look at one and not think of him.