Meeting Two of Ohio's Other First Flyers and Looking at the
Nature of "Greatness"
Last year I twice brushed with true greatness.The moments of these brushes were brief and ultimately shallow, yet still, they were moments of import to me. Brushes with greatness -- real brushes with real greatness -- don't come often for most people. I've had few. I once met comedian Roseanne before she was famous. I came reasonably close to meeting Paul McCartney when I was eighteen. I have a few other stories like these and they're all the kind about show-biz celebrities that many of us have. However, my brushes last year weren't with the type of celebrity you'll see featured on E True Story. They were with the type of people who would be portrayed in movies by the show-biz celebrities; in fact, both have been. And in several ways these meetings are directly tied to the legacy of Dayton, my home town, and the Wright brothers' first flight.
We've now entered into the second century since Orville and Wilbur Wright made that historical first powered flight on a field in Kittyhawk, North Carolina. For us in Dayton, where the brothers conceived, designed, built and first tested their flyer, the centennial of powered flight bolstered Dayton's great pride in two of its native sons. In this town, we jealously hold tight to the conviction that Dayton is the real birthplace of aviation. Kittyhawk is, for certain, the location of a great historical event, there can be no successful argument against that. However, Dayton is where it all was put together. Kittyhawk had the land (and the wind); Dayton had the plan. The Wright brothers are among those relatively few in history who have greatly affected the world. At this one-hundredth anniversary of their flight, we are reminded of how other great historical events and achievements reach directly back to that brief flight on December 17, 1903. In October of last year, I personally experienced my thrilling brushes with greatness, which reach directly back to the Wright brothers' flights, to their achievement.
I was in the presence of two profoundly significant people. They are two more men (both Ohio natives) who have left their own deep imprints in history, pioneer explorers, the real kind, in the company of not only the Wright brothers, but also the likes of Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, Marco Polo -- heavy weights in human exploration. That October day, Wright State University (named, of course, for the Wright brothers) hosted a meeting of the U.S. Centennial Flight Commission and the First Flight Centennial Federal Advisory Board. It was the only meeting of these groups held outside of the D.C. beltway. These two men were among the participants. They are astronauts, and that in itself puts them in an exclusive club. Which astronauts they are is far more impressive. One is John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth (Mercury 2, 1962) -- and only the second human ever to do so, and also currently the oldest person to ever travel into space, as per his trip on Space Shuttle Discovery in 1998. The other, the first human to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong (Apollo 11, 1969). Centuries into the future, these will be two members of humanity who, as the Wright brothers, will be answers on and subjects for school exams. And I got to meet them and shake their hands. Small events, but for me, very big deals.
Of course, the meeting they attended concerned the then coming first flight centennial celebrations, and was held in Dayton, and at WSU, for the obvious reasons. Col. Glenn attended as secretary general of Inventing Flight, Dayton's centennial of flight celebration committee. Dr. Armstrong was a Speaker of the House appointee to the First Flight advisory board. I met these men in a large room I frequent. The commission held the meeting in the group study area of Wright State's Paul Laurence Dunbar Library.
Some of us on campus knew the summer of 2002 the event was coming. For months it wasn't two astronauts we thought would be there, it was the actor Kurt Russell, a pilot who was also an appointee to the First Flight advisory board. So my first ideas were of a brush with a famous actor. Then I got this notion that his step daughter, Kate Hudson, would for some inexplicable reason accompany him and I could meet her: (because talented, smart, young, beautiful, successful Hollywood actresses keep their eyes peeled for middle-aged, middle-class men). At some point a rumor started to bubble that John Travolta, who's certified to operate airliners, might be there. And Kurt Russell morphed into Russell Crowe. I'm sad to report there will be no picture in People magazine of Kate Hudson in the company of a mysterious, bald, older man "while visiting Dayton, Ohio." Likewise, her step dad, who actually might have been there, wasn't able to attend. John Travolta isn't on the board; and to the best of my knowledge, Russell Crowe isn't even a pilot, and not being American, probably wasn't eligible for the board even if he is a pilot.
By the day the meeting was held it was clear Armstrong and Glenn would be there. I became far more interested in meeting them than Kurt Russell or the other movie stars -- even the lovely Ms. Hudson. I used my lunch time and some personal time to attend as much of the meeting as I could. I thought the astronauts might speak from the podium at some point, but they weren't there to present, they were there to listen. Though I was interested in the meeting, itself, I really sought openings to meet these two men. The panel had begun to introduce itself as I entered the room. There were people present from places such as the U.S. departments of Interior and Transportation, high ranking members from the Air Force and Navy, people from the National Air and Space Museum, NASA, the National Forestry and Parks Service, the Rockafeller Center. It was impressive. What impressed me the most, however, was how the two astronauts introduced themselves. "John Glenn, Inventing Flight Committee," said one. Then, a few people down, "Neil Armstrong, member of the advisory board." It wasn't, "John Glenn, first American in orbit, who went back into space at the age of seventy-seven." It wasn't, "Neil Armstrong, mission commander of Apollo 11 and first human being to step foot on the lunar surface."
Certainly they could both afford to be so humble. It's not like their historical import was unknown to those present. I'm also confident both men have a much different perspective on their "greatness" than those of us who thrust the mantle upon them. Neither man engineered nor built the vessel he flew on his mission. Neither planned the intricate details from take-off to splash-down. Neither executed his mission alone, nowhere close to alone. Perhaps thousands of people participated in each mission. Col. Glenn and Dr. Armstrong are surely acutely aware of all this.
Human achievement is built upon previous human achievement. The astronauts were, after all, attending a meeting about the celebration of the Wright brothers' flight. A human had to fly a few yards above a sand bar for a few moments before another could orbit the earth and then another could fly to, and land on, the moon. Before that first powered flight, the Wright brothers designed and built the Wright flyer by building upon previous engineering. We had to make kites and bicycles and engines before we could make aeroplanes. So the two astronauts I met, these two profoundly significant figures in human history, don't stand alone in their accomplishments.
Yet, that's only one side of the coin. The other side is that history has cast these men in their significant roles. Only John Glenn gets to be the first American in orbit, the first person in his or her seventies to travel into space. Only Neil Armstrong gets to be the first human to walk on the moon, the first to perform a successful docking of two vehicles in space (Gemini 8, 1966). The greatness of their legacies goes beyond their personal memberships in the human race.
I was only four when John Glenn orbited the planet. I don't remember it as it happened. But my Aunt Gladys had a 33 1/3 LP documenting the event that I often listened to as an older child. It solidified the greatness of the event for me. It taught me the wonder of the technical achievement and of the metal a person must have to sit in a space capsule traveling at thousands-of-miles per hour. It takes a brave human with the heart of a pioneer, the soul of an explorer, a lust for adventure, to overshadow the tremendous risk to life that space travel presents. We've had two space shuttle tragedies to underscore the point. In my youth, John Glenn was ingrained in me as a bigger-than-life American hero.
Then, just weeks after my eleventh birthday, on Sunday night, July 20, 1969, I, and perhaps a billion other people, watched a smudgy, grainy, black-and-white image of Neil Armstrong step off the bottom step of the lunar module platform ladder onto the moon. We heard him utter those historical words: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." He did say "a man," by-the-way, but the "a" was very softly pronounced so it's usually missed even in audio playbacks -- thus the commonality of the popular misquote. I remember my dad responding to Mr. Armstrong's words with a giddy giggle of enthusiasm saying something about how we'd be quoting that in a thousand years. Dad made sure I understood I was witnessing one of the most important events in human history. Unlike most historical events, it was the type where the weight and import is right there, in your face, as it unfolds, where though the total meaning may take historians to decipher later, the fact that it does mean something very big is not at doubt, as it happens before you.
It never occurred to me I'd ever meet either of these two mammoth historical figures. It seemed as likely I'd have witnessed Orville Wright's brief flight in Kittyhawk in 1903 or would have went to the moon myself. Though, Col. Glenn has spent so much of his life in the public sector, as Senator Glenn, that it eventually seemed a little more likely I'd meet him, yet not by much. But there I was, in a room with both these historical figures.
The commission meeting took a break. In C-SPAN-like fashion, the participants were beseeched to hold the five-minute break to twenty minutes. I stood chatting with my boss. Dr. Armstrong walked by us and back to where First Flight memorabilia items were on sale. Now, in Ohio at least, it's known to many that Dr. Armstrong is uncomfortable with his "celebrity" status. It's reasonably substantiated that he's only visited the Neil Armstrong Museum, in his home town of Wapakoneta, Ohio, a few times. So, as I stood there, I thought to myself, Oh, leave the guy alone. He's got thirty-three years of people wanting to intrude. Then I thought, On the other hand, that's Neil Armstrong, mission commander of Apollo 11, the first member of the human race -- the first terrestrial life form, period -- to set foot on extra-terrestrial ground. I'm in a room with this man and I'm not going to at least introduce myself and shake his hand? A few minutes later as Dr. Armstrong wandered back to his seat at the commission table, I saw myself three decades earlier, an eleven-year-old kid who never dreamed he'd get this opportunity. I excused myself from the small group of people I was currently in and went to Dr. Armstrong, who sat in his chair.
"Mister Armstrong," I said, standing beside him, reaching my hand out, "I don't want to intrude," he began to stand and grabbed my hand, "But I just wanted to shake your hand and welcome you to Dayton -- the real birthplace of aviation."
Perhaps because I knew his reputation for being shy about his place in history, I read a slightly embarrassed graciousness that wasn't there. But I don't think so. I think the almost pained humility I perceived was real. "Well, thank you very much, Sir," he said. I told him to enjoy his stay and was on my way. There it was. No big deal. A small encounter. Just two human beings meeting briefly. Dr. Armstrong wasn't godlike, he was just another one of us.
With Col. Glenn there was less mystique, even though he was the first hero of space travel I was ever aware of. But he's spent much of his life in the public eye. As I shook his hand I used that same real-birthplace- of-aviation line and he laughed and said, "Oh, don't worry, we're all aware of that." He was gregarious and made a point of asking my name; he employed all the people-person skills a seasoned politician and experienced statesman will use. There it was. No big deal, again. Another small encounter. Just two more human beings meeting briefly. Col. Glenn wasn't godlike, either, just another one of us.
Neil Armstrong and John Glenn did not have to be the ones who achieved their accomplishments. There were many other men who had the credentials (and I say "men" because, let's face it, in the sixties, women weren't given this sort of opportunity). There were hundreds who had the know-how and skill. There were thousands who had the cultivated talent -- certainly women can be counted by this level. There were surely millions of men and women who had the potential. It's not that Neil Armstrong had to be the first human to walk on the moon. John Glenn did not have to be the first American in orbit. Orville and Wilbur Wright did not have to be the first men to successfully fly a powered heavier-than-air machine; there certainly were others making the attempt. Someone was going to do it first.
There are also those millions and millions who could not have stood in any of these shoes. I, as an example, don't do well on a roller coaster, much less in a jet as a test pilot or in a space capsule as a member of a crew traveling thousands of miles from Earth at a speed of thousands- of-miles per hour. But I bet I have the potential for some sort of historical greatness based on something about me, my talents, my know-how -- we all do. Historical greatness, as with these men I met, and with the men they were in Dayton because of, has as much to do with timing and circumstance as it does with who the person is. This is the idea that seems to drive Dr. Armstrong's timidity toward his historical import. He knows he's not the only human who could have been the first on the moon. And Col. Glenn has been known to credit his wife for more-or-less pointing out this same idea to him.
Still, they all purposefully put themselves there in those moments. Their places in history are more than just the happenstance of events. They all wanted to fly, from the odd notion that two brothers decided they could make a reality, to the man who accepted the role as mission commander for an extra-terrestrial touch down. And there once was a kid who was in awe that the first people to fly a plane came from the same town as him, who marvelled at Col. Glenn's flight into outer space, a kid who sat with his parents and saw the great historical event of a human's first step onto the moon. It didn't have be them, but, it was them. And I met two of them. And because of what they represent, whether either of them like it or not, it was a big deal to me. And I can't think of better place for me to have met the two astronauts than during a meeting to plan the celebration of the first flight and on the campus of the university named after the two inventors who did it, who made it all possible.
This was originally written for the First Flight issue of The Vincent Brother's Review. The editors there, unfortunately, did not accept it.