Neil Armstrong: Knowing the Kid From Wapakoneta
The following article is from the January 2013 print issue.
Way back in the early ’70s, an old friend of my husband’s, Harry Combs, invited us to join him and his wife at the National Aviation Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony and dinner in Dayton, Ohio. Serving as master of ceremonies that year, Combs was also playing host to a famous “space guy” and his wife for the weekend. Ebby didn’t want to drive the 50-some miles to Dayton and stay over for the weekend, but he relented when I threw a hissy fit of massive proportions.
Well, it was pretty special because at that time many early aviation heroes were still on the scene and came to these annual Hall of Fame events. I actually met and shook hands with Bob Reeve, Kelly Johnson, Scott Crossfield, Bob Hoover, Elrey Jeppesen, Joe Kittinger, Jimmie Mattern, Claude Ryan and probably others I don’t remember. Talk about star-struck!
But the high point was on Saturday afternoon, before the Hall of Fame ceremony, when Ebby and I, Harry and Ginny Combs and their famous guest and his wife toured Hawthorn Hill, the Wright brothers’ mansion in the Oakwood suburb of Dayton. Almost nobody got to see it in those years because it was privately owned and used as a VIP guest residence by NCR Corp. Today it’s open to the public as part of the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.
The house was beautifully preserved and interesting, built by the brothers after they finally won their patent-rights suits and were making some serious money from the airplane invention. Curiously, it had two identical and imposing entrances — one for each brother — but I guess Wilbur died before he could enjoy his half. And it was unchanged from the days when Orville lived there, full of interesting gadgets that only an engineer would devise, like complicated “surround-spray” showers in the bathrooms and lots of intricately designed reading stands and lamps. The caretaker showed us a grandfather clock with the hands frozen on 3:15 a.m., the exact time Wilbur died — even though you could still hear it running.
Well, it was a gloomy afternoon, and the house was dark as we finished the tour and descended a long staircase to the entrance hall. But suddenly I had one of those “moments” and stopped, looking down at the little group below.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “I’m standing in this house built by the first man to fly off the face of the Earth with the first man to walk on the moon. I’m a little overwhelmed by that.”
The astronaut, a Midwesterner, would move his family to a farm near Lebanon, Ohio, just north of Cincinnati, and teach aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati. I’d see him occasionally, and I especially remember a party given by Otto Pobanz, Federated Department Stores’ chief pilot and then-president of the National Business Aviation Association. After a number of vodka martinis, I was sitting on the floor with my friend, chatting and laughing, but (again) suddenly I got quiet and tried to explain:
“Maybe this is weird, but we’re chattering away about all kinds of trivial stuff, and then I suddenly remember and get really uncomfortable with you. I think it’s because I can’t get my arms around the fact that you were ‘out there,’ completely detached from the Earth, looking back at this planet through space.” He just laughed and tried to pass it off as really no big deal. He said they had trained so long and so intensely that, when they actually flew, it was “just another mission.”
Anybody who knew him had to be struck by his quiet, self-effacing modesty, which I saw in action one summer afternoon on the terrace of a golf club in Cincinnati. I was entertaining a visiting English friend, Joe Waldron, when four men emerged from the locker room. We were at a large, round table, and one man in the group, a good friend, asked if they could join us for lunch before resuming their game on the back nine. Amid the chatter I made introductions and, as drinks and lunch were served, noticed that Joe was deep in conversation with one of them.