A rare gem formed under intense pressure

To paraphrase an old toast:

“Here’s to him and more like him. Damned few left.”

I’m, as usual, late with this one because of deadlines and things happening when they do rather than when I’m due. Still, I wanted to write about Neil Armstrong.

It’s not that I can add anything unique to the accolades that have followed his death. Better writers have already said just about all that can be said about the man. It’s just that having admired him and, even as a grown man, looked up to him, I wanted to spend a few words explaining those feelings.

I think that, sometimes, we get lucky. Sometimes, we get precisely the right person, at precisely the right time, in precisely the right place, to do precisely what needs to be done.

Neil Armstrong was, I’ve always thought, the perfect individual to first set foot on the moon.

Humble, dedicated, smart, brave, and forever willing to acknowledge that he stood on the shoulders of the hundreds of thousands of others who got him to that last rung on the ladder leading down to the surface of the moon.

He seemed to represent the best that can be found in us and, even with that, there was something else I admired in him.

He wasn’t one to cave into fear. Rather, he was one of those individuals who could put fear into some closet of his mind, close the door to that closet and, then, work a problem right up to the end.

Do you know what pressure is?

Not the scientific type of pressure that has to do with pounds per square inch or some other such measurement, but the kind that comes from having to perform when it really counts. The kind that comes from having to bet the farm (and, sometimes, your life) on what you are about to do next.

The kind that comes from volunteering for something that has few guarantees of success and a million and one ways to go sideways on you.

The kind that comes from having to perform a complicated task in front of an audience of not just your friends, your peers, or your co-workers but, rather, the entire world.

“Pressure” is being in a flimsy capsule, a quarter of a million miles from home, descending onto the surface of the moon with no backup, and having only your training and skill to pull it off.

“Pressure” is seeing that your computer is aiming you toward a rock strewn landing spot that could make your visit permanent in nature.

“Pressure” is taking control of the lunar lander and manually flying it along the surface, looking for and finding a good landing site, all while the last seconds of fuel remaining are being called out into your headphones and, then, setting that beast down without ever allowing the least amount of worry show through.

As a nation, we like heroes. We especially like like them to be an “everyman.” We like them to make us believe that we — if given the chance — could live up to their example, swallow our fears, and face whatever we’re about to go up against without blinking.

We make movies about such individuals. Gary Cooper as Marshal Will Kane in “High Noon.” Alan Ladd as a stoic loner in “Shane.” Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

Such individuals leave an even greater impression because they’re heroic without seeming to know it. They do what needs to be done and, when finished, quietly walk away with no desire or need for fanfare. Then, they continue their lives quietly, always ready to stand up again. In other words, they stand the test of time.

Neil Armstrong — a self described “white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer” — was the first human to set foot on the moon and, after so doing, honestly wondered why everyone wanted to make a fuss about it.

He was also an engineer, a combat fighter pilot, a test pilot, and a professor of engineering. Not that he would’ve told you any of that had you ever met him.

We lost him a little more than a week ago. His footprints, however, will last for thousands of years — as well they should — to remind us of what he (and we) did.

So, again, let’s stop for a moment and toast him and those like him.

All while silently hoping there are more than a few left.

Larry Simoneaux lives in Edmonds. Send comments to: larrysim@comcast.net

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