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    Neil Armstrong
Neil Armstrong, seated during an exercise March 9, 1966 in prepartion for the Gemini 8 flight. (AP)
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  • Kathy Sawyer
    Washington Post Magazine
    Sunday, July 11, 1999; Page 10

    It was an autumn day in 1979, and Neil Armstrong had been back on planet Earth for almost 10 years. A middle-aged man with a bit of a paunch, thinning hair and a need for spectacles, he was at work on his farm near Lebanon, Ohio, a terrestrial dream of rolling pasture with a brook running through it and cows grazing under big skies. As he jumped off the back of his grain truck, he caught his wedding ring on a latch, shredded his finger and tore off the tip.

    ''Instead of screaming and running for a doctor, he scooted around until he found his finger,'' a friend recalls. He put it on ice, then ''got in his car and drove'' to a nearby hospital.

    Eventually, microsurgery specialists at Jewish Hospital in Louisville, Ky., managed to stitch two arteries and five veins, restore blood circulation and feeling. But the finger was a bit redder than the rest of his hand, and, for a time, he massaged it as the doctor advised, a practice some mistook for a nervous tic. He tried to convince reporters the injury was not news.

    Solitary, self-sufficient, cool under fire and so taciturn that he is apt to be misunderstood, Armstrong climbed more carefully out of another sort of vehicle and into the history books 30 years ago this month. An audience estimated at 500 million watched on television and millions more tuned in by radio as Armstrong became the first human to step onto an alien world.

    At few other moments has one person become the fulcrum of such weighty imperatives — to win a famous victory for America and vindicate a vast investment of national treasure, to penetrate a hostile frontier, to master a new technology, to navigate a harrowing descent to the unknown — all in the glare of rapt global attention. By the time he landed in the Sea of Tranquility, the country boy from Ohio had already spent most of his adult life in jobs where intensity of focus and the threat of violent death were part of his daily routine. He was used to all of that. It was, instead, the loss of privacy that appalled him. He loved to fly, and he loved his country, and in the name of those passions he was willing to risk not only his hide but a piece of his soul.

    Only a piece, however — a mere finger's worth — and no more.

    Twelve Americans walked the barren moonscape from 1969 to 1972. But Armstrong, 68, remains unique in his firstness — and in his aloofness ever since. He holds a record that can never be broken but that might, in other hands, have been tarnished. He can seem arrogant, cold and as distant as the lunar far side. He grants no interviews these days, attends public functions only rarely. Unlike his crew mates, he has written no memoir. He left a university teaching job abruptly in the middle of the school year. Five years ago, on the 25th anniversary of the moon landing, he declined to participate in a parade in his honor in his own home town. Yet he has occasionally rocketed back into view in unexpected ways — popping up, for example, in a high-visibility ad campaign for Chrysler.

    Those who know him say he is a smart and intensely private, even shy, man determined to live life on his own terms despite having floated down that ladder into the public domain. Whether as an astronaut, naval combat aviator, test pilot, civil servant, engineer, absent-minded professor, gentleman farmer, businessman, civic booster, amateur musician, husband or father, Neil Armstrong has followed his own code.

    He studied the lesson of Charles Lindbergh, another proud and isolated 20th-century pioneer out of the heartland, who struggled with fame and was almost destroyed by it. Armstrong, for the most part, has steered clear of celebrity's temptations and pitfalls. Since imprinting those crisp, tractor-tread footprints in the moon dust, he has taken care to cover his tracks. He politely declined a written request to be interviewed for this story, saying in a note, I am comfortable with my level of public discourse.' But he has left scattered signs and clues to the motives and of an American original, a man willing to surrender his life but not his privacy.

    Neil Armstrong
    Armstrong wearing an Apollo mission space suit. (Corbis)
       
    Wapakoneta, Ohio, population 10,300, is a quiet farming town 115 miles north of Cincinnati, transected by railroad tracks and the Auglaize River. Its quaint older buildings are increasingly engulfed at the margins by strip malls, truck stops and whizzing transport. A huge, brightly colored mural on a boarded-up storefront dominates Auglaize Street, the main drag, showing a montage of images of its most famous native son: a smiling Neil Armstrong in his spacesuit, a little rocket, a flag slanting against the blackness of space.

    Neil Alden Armstrong was born a few miles to the southwest, out on the windswept limestone prairie — then, as now, an outsider. From the time he was a small boy, it was clear that he was smart, insular and addicted to flying. When he was 6, his father took him on his first plane ride — aboard a Ford Trimotor that was barnstorming through the region. Father and son sneaked away without telling Mom they were skipping Sunday school.

    One of the first books Neil ever read was about the Wright brothers, who had cobbled up the designs for the first aircraft in their workshop in nearby Dayton. He was soon spending much of his time building balsa wood models from kits, eventually engineering his own wind tunnel for flight-testing them.

    At 15, Neil started hitchhiking to the airport to take flying lessons with money he earned working at various odd jobs. On his 16th birthday — before he had a license to drive a car — he had earned his student pilot's license.

    Neil's classmates summed him up this way in the 1947 Blume High School yearbook: ''He thinks, he acts, 'tis done.''

    He won a Navy scholarship that paid his way through Purdue University, where he studied aeronautical engineering. But his sojourn there was interrupted when the Navy called him to active duty at age 19 to serve in the Korean War. In training at Pensacola, Fla., he chose single-engine fighters because, his mother remembered him explaining, ''Mom, I didn't want to be responsible for anyone else.''


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