Neil Armstrong, in memoriam

Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) aboard the lunar module after his first walk on the moon.

Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) aboard the lunar module after his first walk on the moon.

I wrote the following post for a now defunct website following Neil Armstrong’s death seven years ago at the age of 82. I repost it here, lightly emended, for the 50th anniversary of Armstrong’s first steps on the moon tomorrow. —JMP

I had a poster on the wall beside my bunkbed showing the planets—Pluto included, back then—in their orbits around the sun. I had more toy space shuttles than I could keep track of, and enough booster rockets and rust-orange external tanks to launch all of them into orbit above our trampoline. I went to Space Camp, ate dehydrated ice cream in vacuum-sealed packaging, and wore my blue NASA jumpsuit and pilot wings to school. I wanted to be an astronaut.

And when I thought of “astronaut,” I thought of him.

Neil Armstrong died this weekend at the age of 82, just over 43 years after taking man’s first steps on the moon. It was that moment and those words—broadcast worldwide on television—that cemented him forever as The Astronaut.

But he wasn’t just an astronaut. He was a few weeks shy of his 39th birthday when he landed the Eagle in the Sea of Tranquility, and the vast majority of those previous years he had spent behind the stick in hundreds of planes. He learned to fly before he got his driver’s license and, after joining the Navy, became a test pilot. As the horrific opening chapter of Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff makes clear, testing aircraft was one of the most hazardous and demanding jobs in the US military. Equipment malfunction or failure was part of the job, and pilot error, even among the coolest, most daring pilots in the country, could kill a man even when everything else went right.

And Armstrong was one of the coolest and most collected of those pilots. Though he declined to be interviewed for the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, in the film his fellow Apollo astronauts speak of his bravery and cool. Archival test footage—which shows Armstrong ejecting from a flaming military prototype just above the ground, seconds before the vehicle crashes and explodes—amply back up his reputation for courage.

He was born to do his work. “Pilots take no special joy in walking,” he wrote, “pilots like flying.” And it was as a pilot that he approached the crowning moment of his career and of the space program. “The exciting part for me, as a pilot, was the landing on the moon. . . . Walking on the lunar surface was very interesting, but it was something we looked on as reasonably safe and predictable. So the feeling of elation accompanied the landing rather than the walking.”

He returned home a hero, and remained a hero the rest of his life. He retired from NASA and worked as an educator, teaching aerospace engineering and devoting himself just as wholly to that as he had to his career in the Navy and the space program. “I am, and ever will be,” he said, “a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer.”

He avoided the limelight, increasingly so as the years went by, declining interviews and attention from the media. He even stopped giving out autographs after learning that scalpers were hawking his signature for exorbitant amounts of money.

As a child, I didn’t know much of that and wouldn’t have understood if I had. I was obsessed with Armstrong for strictly one mission and one moment and wanted to emulate him, though I never saw him on TV. I had to content myself with photos in my many books about space and NASA, and the black and white footage I saw when Apollo 11 was commemorated every year. I think that added to his legend for me—he was the man who walked on the moon, the first to achieve all my astronaut dreams, and then he disappeared.

Now I understand, and my childlike worship has matured into real admiration as a result—Armstrong was humble.

As far back as Cicero and Dante, writers have imagined the awe that must come with seeing Earth for what it is, in the context of all creation. How would man, such a tiny creature, feel about himself upon seeing that his home and all he knows and loves is hardly bigger than himself against the backdrop of the universe? For a wise man, the experience should be humbling.

Neil Armstrong knew that humility. He experienced what the ancients could only imagine. Standing on the surface of the moon in 1969, the aviator, astronaut, engineer, and representative of all mankind to outer space looked up at home. “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant,” he said. “I felt very, very small.”

Beyond his courage, his cool, and his willingness to risk all in the pursuit of his mission, that humility is why Armstrong is a hero—and why he will remain one.

John Mahoney, RIP

John Mahoney died three days ago at the age of 77. Everyone remembers him—justifiably—as "Frasier's dad," a part he performed wonderfully opposite Kelsey Grammer for eleven seasons. I want to pay tribute to two other performances Mahoney gave before Frasier took off, the two performances I always associate with Mahoney, and to a aspect of his life I've only learned about since his death.

Eight Men Out

Mahoney as Kid Gleason in  Eight Men Out

Mahoney as Kid Gleason in Eight Men Out

One of my favorite movies—and, in my opinion, the best baseball movie out there—is Eight Men Out, the story of the 1919 World Series scandal that ended the careers of eight players for the Chicago White Sox. Mahoney plays Kid Gleason, a veteran ballplayer and now the manager of the Sox. Mahoney doesn't have a lot of scenes in the film, which gives much more attention to the players involved in the bribery scandal—Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn), Buck Weaver (John Cusack), Chick Gandil (Michael Rooker), and Shoeless Joe Jackson (DB Sweeney). But in his handful of scenes, Mahoney evokes enormous pathos. Gleason is a father to his players. He's proud of them and trusts them, not just to win ballgames but to play to the standard he has seen them set.

As the World Series unfolds, we see Gleason confronted with evidence he doesn't want to believe. He goes to his players, tries to get them to open up to them, and when they won't, we see, in a wonderfully subtle performance, his heartbreak. During the court case that follows, we see Gleason try to salvage his boys' reputations by standing up for them in the face of all the evidence against them. It's hopeless, and we know it even if he doesn't. It's tragic, and Mahoney plays it excellently. His pride, his disbelief, and finally his disappointment—who hasn't felt their heart pricked upon hearing "I'm disappointed in you" from their father?—command your sympathy and sadness.

Watch Mahoney in his handful of insert shots in the Game 3 montage, at the emotions he takes the viewer through in just a few seconds of screentime. 

Barton Fink

Mahoney as W.P. Mayhew in  Barton Fink 's memorable introduction

Mahoney as W.P. Mayhew in Barton Fink's memorable introduction

The second film—and my favorite Coen brothers movie—that has made me respect Mahoney is his comic turn in Barton Fink. As in Eight Men Out, Mahoney does a lot with a relatively small supporting part. Barton Fink is the story of a socialist playwright who makes the move from New York to Hollywood just before World War II. There, with an enormous opportunity to spread his message and make some good money, he develops writer's block. While Barton is still trying to adjust to the Hollywood lifestyle, he encounters Mahoney's character, WP Mayhew, for the first time—a dapper Southern gentlemen puking his guts out in a restaurant bathroom. His first line to Barton, while washing his hands: "Sorry 'bout the odor."

Mayhew is an alcoholic writer whose critically acclaimed modernist novels have, like Barton's plays, attracted the attention of Hollywood, where he's been slumming ever since leaving the South. (Mayhew is, incidentally, loosely based on William Faulkner, and Mahoney in his bowtie and mustache is a dead ringer for the man.) With just a handful of scenes, Mahoney creates a character whose magnificence lies well behind him, and contributes mightily to Barton's disillusionment with Hollywood in general and writing in particular. After the initial shock of meeting Mayhew wears off (almost immediately, given the circumstances), Barton has almost nothing good to say of his one-time idol: "He's a big fat phony!" and, after Mayhew's put-upon secretary and lover weeps over a drunken Mayhew and says how sorry she feels for him, "He's a son of a bitch!" And, thanks to Mahoney's performance in what could have been a straightforwardly slapstick role, you can see why both characters feel the way they do.

Mahoney the man

Since his death a few days ago, I've learned a little about Mahoney the man. I try to avoid reading about the personal lives of actors since they're usually sordid and disappointing, but I was happy to learn a bit more about Mahoney. The respect and humility he brought to his craft were remarkable, and I think, in hindsight, that it shows in the finished product. He viewed acting as his vocation and approached it as an outgrowth of his faith

I’ve always prayed to the Holy Ghost for wisdom and for understanding and knowledge. I think he answered my prayers when I stopped in the church that day. My life was totally different from that day on. I saw myself as I was, and I saw into the future and saw what I wanted to be. And I sort of rededicated myself to God and begged him to make me a better person. It wasn’t fear of hell or anything like that. I just somehow knew that to be like…what I was, wasn’t the reason I was created. I had to be better.

And the prayer he would pray before each performance he gave:

Most glorious blessed spirit, I thank you for all the gifts and talents that you’ve given me. Please help me to use all these gifts and talents to their fullest. And please accept this performance as a prayer of praise and thanks to you.

Not a bad approach to our daily work, whatever it may be. Nor is this humble prayer a bad way to approach our fellow man:

Dear God, please help me to treat everybody—including myself—with love, respect, and dignity.

Actor John Mahoney, RIP.