I covered the dedication ceremony because all of our good reporters had gone home for the night. In the journalism hierarchy, the better you are, the more sunlight you’re allowed to see. The assignment didn’t call for me to actually interview Armstrong, who would rather shove glass up his urethra than talk to a journalist. Instead, I was supposed to snag quotes from his acceptance speech to share with the other newspapers in our corporation. There was company-wide interest in this story because it involved Neil Freaking Armstrong, which is actually how his name appears on his birth certificate. People figured he must have something worthwhile to say after spending so many years out of sight. Maybe he’d tell everyone the moon landing was a hoax. Maybe he’d fail to see his shadow and we’d have six more weeks of winter. Whatever went down, my editors could rest easy knowing I was there to capture it all with my usual piss-poor attention to detail.
|Back when I was still a reporter, I secretly hoped someone would subpoena my notes. I would have turned them over without a fight, but all they would have been able to decipher were the penis doodles in the margins.|
The event began with a reception packed full of alumni astronauts who came to honor Armstrong and take advantage of the open bar. This particular university pumped out space travelers like Catholics pump out babies. I squeezed my way through the room and interviewed as many VIPs as I could while also trying to grab a free drink. I remained disappointingly sober throughout the evening, but I did manage to interview Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the lunar surface. It was his job to lock up the place after everybody headed back to earth. Unlike Armstrong, who had a team of bodyguards to protect him, Cernan hung out in the crowd sipping a beer. I guess if you’re the twelfth man to the moon, you’re expendable.
I still don’t understand why Armstrong needed protection. Yes, the world is a dangerous place, but it’s not like they were holding this soirée in downtown Kabul. I’d like to think he had bodyguards to shield him from my hard-hitting questions: “Mr. Armstrong, you were the first man to walk on the moon. What’s your opinion on the flat tax and abortion?” The spaceman’s security detail wasn’t as airtight as it at first appeared. One of our newspaper interns managed to meet Armstrong by putting away her notebook and posing as a student. He was polite and engaging with her, but only because he didn’t know her sinister career aspirations. Armstrong always made time for young learners, but the only thing he ever taught a journalist is what it feels like to be punched in the throat.
The intern wasn’t the brightest girl in the world – she was going to college to be a reporter, after all – but she did manage to pull one over on NASA’s finest. I figured I could do the same. In case you’re questioning my professionalism, I assure you my motives were strictly selfish. I just wanted a story I could tell my grandkids.
Me: “I once shook hands with Neil Armstrong.”
My future grandkids: “Shut the hell up and go back to the nursing home.”
When the reception ended, the crowd made its way out into the freezing rain to trudge across campus to the formal banquet room. In the process, the security detail managed to lose Neil Armstrong. I found him standing by himself just inside the entrance of the dinning hall. This was my chance to casually offer him my hand, congratulate him, and be on my way. I’m amazingly smooth in my own mind. In reality, by the time I made my move an unseen bodyguard was all over me.
“Are you a reporter?” he asked. It was more of an accusation than a question.
“Yeah, but barely,” I wanted to reply.
Instead, I explained I didn’t want to ask Armstrong any questions. I simply wanted to meet him, just like our intern did without ill effect a few minutes earlier. The guard looked at me intently and heard absolutely nothing I said. He couldn’t. He had one of those Secret Service-style earpieces that are scientifically designed to block out reason. In the same way that animals have bright colors to scare off predators, security types wear communicators with incredibly obvious wires to warn the world that abusing authority is part of their job description.
True to form, the guy demanded to see my media pass. I didn’t have one. Nobody gave me one when I arrived at the reception an hour earlier. In fact, nobody had ever given me one for anything I’d covered at the university. The purpose of public relations is to get a message to the public, a function best performed by a class of professionals known as reporters who relay information to the masses on a daily basis. Inviting journalists to your event is a great way to get the word out; expelling them is not. The university’s public relations staff understood this, but that’s because they didn’t wear Secret Service earpieces. The bodyguard didn’t have that advantage. He threw me out and sent the intern with me for good measure. He didn’t physically drag us to the door, but only because I gave up easily. It wasn’t worth getting beaten up for my poverty-level salary.
Shortly before the evening’s formal program was set to begin, I found myself standing outside in the freezing rain staring hopelessly at a locked door. My only job that night was to be in the room when Armstrong gave his speech, and I still found a way to screw it up. I called the university’s public relations director to see if she could get us back in, but she was too busy hobnobbing with tipsy astronauts to answer. I also called my editor, but she didn’t pickup either. I finally gave up trying to contact a higher power and trudged across campus to the building where the reception was held. Apparently there really were media passes this time. They were lying on a table in a corner that an hour early had been hidden behind five hundred mingling people. Any security function the credentials served was defeated, though, because they didn’t have our pictures on them and they were left unattended. Anyone could have walked out of there with an official media badge, which is exactly what I did. I got back into the dining hall as Anderson Cooper.
I made it back to the banquet room just in time for Armstrong’s brief remarks. The bodyguard who threw me out made a halfhearted apology as I came in. To prove I was the bigger man, I glared at him angrily as I stormed by. Armstrong’s remarks weren’t worth all the trouble I went through to hear them. He said he was incredibly fortunate because all his life he had done only what he wanted to do. This described the exact opposite of my own life on that night and every other in which I worked for the paper. Afterward, I drove back to the newsroom and banged out my usual low-quality article. Nobody else in our chain ended up using any quotes from it. I think they pulled their information from an Associate Press reporter who had his media pass the entire time.
I’m sure Armstrong was an upstanding human being, but I wasn’t there for his whole life. I can only judge him by the thirty second incident in which he watched his bodyguard jerk me around and didn’t intervene. That’s the disadvantage of being famous. If you let down your public persona for even a second, people will assume that momentary lapse represents the real you. That’s why when I become a celebrity, I won’t even bother pretending to be nice. If my security team smashes your camera and pees in your face, please be aware this is not a misunderstanding.