Monday, August 09, 2004

Fame and the Man on the Moon

After a recent conference in Minnesota, I settled into my seat on a commuter jet flying from Chicago back home to Cincinnati. As I did, I looked up to see Neil Armstrong.

Our eyes briefly locked. He perceived that I recognized him. I sensed him bracing himself to be fawned over for perhaps the three-billionth time since he became the first human being to walk on the Moon. But, much as I would love to talk with Armstrong, I let him pass. Even after the flight, by the baggage carousel, when it would have been easier, I didn’t approach him. I never even considered doing so. I respect him too much for that.

Neil Armstrong always wanted to be successful. But I don’t think he ever wanted to be famous. Unfortunately for him, fame came with success.

But after he’d taken one giant leap into history, Armstrong wanted to live a normal life. He didn’t become a recluse, although some accused him of that. He simply took a job teaching engineering at the University of Cincinnati and knuckled down to perform well.

Fame is a weird thing, though. People assume that the famous owe us boundless access. If they deny us that access or seem to slight us by their diffidence, we can be disappointed or hostile.

Fifteen years ago, I was part of a two-person conflict mediation team brokering peace at a congregation in Moulton, Ohio, near Armstrong’s hometown of Wapakoneta. One evening, we made our final recommendations to the congregation and later, there was a fellowship time over coffee, punch, and cookies.

One woman had a burr in her saddle and it had nothing to do with the congregation’s woes. She was angry at Neil Armstrong. I guess she felt the need to discuss it with a pastor. Being the only one present, I became her ad hoc counselor.

The previous night, she’d attended a funeral visitation for one of Armstrong’s relatives in Wapakoneta. Armstrong had been there and when she approached him, he hadn’t recognized or remembered her.

Offended, she asked me, “What do you suppose happens to a person when they get famous that they don’t even remember their friends?”

“Um,” I began uncertainly, “when was the last time you talked with Neil Armstrong?”

“I guess it’s been about thirty years,” she said.

“Well,” I offered, “don’t you imagine that he’s done a lot and met quite a few people over the past thirty years?”

“I suppose,” she said. But I could tell that she was still convinced that of all the people he’d known in his life, Neil Armstrong certainly should have remembered her.

I’ve argued in this column before that celebrities are people too. We who are so anxious to have our names put on lists to keep from being bothered by telemarketers and who get perturbed by pop-up ads on our computers can certainly understand why the famous may not be anxious to treat every person they pass in a restaurant like their bosom buddy.

It seems to me that when we have chance encounters with celebrities---especially those who have never courted fame, like Neil Armstrong---that the least we can do is remember Jesus’ Golden Rule to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

So, after I saw Neil Armstrong on that flight home, I sat back, savoring the notion that, though I would never meet him, I was flying with the man on the Moon!

[Mark Daniels is pastor of Friendship Church. You can find his columns, sermons, and other writings at on the web.]

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