July/August 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 4
It was the summer of 1973, and I was a seventeen-year-old Boy Scout who seemed destined to “age out” at First Class rank unless I could earn one final merit badge, which would advance me to Star. I decided to pursue one of the newest badges, Space Exploration.
Unfortunately I discovered that in my rural southeastern Ohio Scout district, there were no qualified counselors for this badge. When I went to my Scoutmaster for advice, he offered the response he always gave to a problem he didn’t have an answer for: sarcasm. “You claim you’ve written to all these astronauts and gotten their autographs,” he said. “Get one of them as a counselor.”
America was just completing the Apollo moon-landing program. We had met the challenge that John F. Kennedy had set for us in the early 1960s. The summer I was seventeen, one astronaut towered above the others: the first man to set foot on the lunar surface, Neil Armstrong.
Armstrong, an Ohio native, had left the space program and purchased a farm in southwestern Ohio. He consistently refused lucrative endorsement offers and commercial ventures in order to avoid the appearance of taking advantage of his place in history. Instead he accepted a teaching position with the University of Cincinnati and did his best to blend back into everyday life, enjoying his family and farm.
With a little amateur detective work, I was able to find out where he lived. One Saturday I drove my car 150 miles to the town of Lebanon. Mustering every ounce of bravado I had, I pulled into his dusty driveway and parked behind an Opel Kadett station wagon. Another vehicle, a four-door Chevrolet, stood in front of the equipment shed that doubled as a garage. Not the automobiles you would expect an astronaut to drive. The century-old farmhouse was in obvious need of repairs, and there were signs of remodeling and construction all around it, but no crew. Could it be that the first man on the moon was actually fixing up his own place? Taking a deep breath, I knocked on the back door. In a moment my hero appeared, wearing jeans and a torn shirt, with sawdust in his hair.
I introduced myself as a Boy Scout who had driven across Ohio to ask his help. I said a silent prayer that Neil Armstrong, the Eagle Scout from Wapakoneta, would look on this intrusion from a First Class Scout from Marietta in a favorable light. Mr. Armstrong paused for a moment and then said that since the house was being renovated, he would prefer to talk outside.
We settled against the fender of his Chevrolet, and he listened as I explained my need for a merit-badge counselor. With a skeptical grin he agreed to take a look at whatever work I had brought with me. Elated, I ran to my car and opened the trunk, where I had my paperwork and even a model of the Saturn V launch rocket ready for demonstration. For more than half an hour, this great space pioneer listened while I did my best to fulfill the list of badge requirements. He stopped me a few times and asked a question. When I was done with my presentation, he gave me a list of things he wanted me to complete and send to his office at the university. (To this day I still have the pen and paper he used to write his name and address.)
Thanking him for his time, I then headed my car onto the country road that would take me to 1-71. Once back in my hometown, I worked on my assignment for Mr. Armstrong as diligently as if it had been a doctoral thesis and put it in the mail.
A few weeks later, when I still had not heard from my hero, my elation began to bottom out. I began to wonder if he had just been being polite. But at the next Tuesday-night Scout meeting my Scoutmaster greeted me by waving a letter in my face. “You went and did it! You really went and did it, didn’t you?” he said. Unfolding the letter, I saw the University of Cincinnati’s logo and quickly scanned to the signature at the bottom of the page: “Neil A. Armstrong, Professor of Aerospace Engineering.” Hastily reading the text, I discovered Mr. Armstrong was confirming that I had completed the necessary work for the badge. He went on to say that while he was not an officially recognized counselor, “in my opinion, [Scout Ken Drayton] has completed all requirements satisfactorily.” In Neil Armstrong’s opinion! Who could possibly question that opinion? I spent the rest of the evening floating as high as a lunar module.
As much as I cherished being the first Scout in my district to qualify for the new badge, nothing compared to the feeling I had for the man who made it possible. Thirty years ago this summer Neil Armstrong made that “giant leap for mankind” as he placed his foot onto the lunar surface and stepped into the history books. But my best memory of him comes from four years later, when the former Eagle Scout took the time to help another Scout achieve a goal.