Neil Armstrong, certainly the most recognizable name on the planet, was my American hero, someone I knew up close and personal. It wasn't more than a few months ago when I was in Pensacola for the opening of the National Flight Academy, and my friend Neil was there. Always the consummate gentleman despite his international status, he was kind, considerate, always friendly and never put on any airs.
I met and got to know Neil a number of years ago, and we often corresponded and communicated almost on a monthly basis. At Christmas time I would send Neil Florida oranges, and last year he asked that I not send them anymore because he didn't like receiving gifts. He was always on the giving side. He recently sent me my greatest gift — one of the Apollo 11 patches, the kind worn on his uniform. I have it framed in my office.
Two years when my wife and I visited the Cincinnati area, he asked us to have lunch with him. We met in Lebanon and spent three hours together — what an experience. My wife asked him how he came up with his famous quote, "That's one small step for man, one giant step for mankind," and he told her he thought of it on the way to the moon. But something that I have never seen in the printed page was when I asked what he was thinking when he was about to step onto the lunar surface, and he said, "I was thinking about not tripping."
It was the most exhilarating day of my life. How many people get to have lunch with the world's most famous person? It was an out-of-this-world experience — no pun intended.
In late July, a week or so before his birthday, we exchanged emails, as I wanted to make sure I wished him a happy birthday: "Many thanks, John, but I'm trying not to notice birthdays any more. I'll just stay where I am for a while. Have a good trip! Neil."
Here I was, wishing him good health, and but a few days after his birthday he had open heart surgery and now he has passed way. My American hero, dead at 82. What a loss; what a great man. I feel so fortunate to have known him.