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Armstrong's Code


    Neil Armstrong and Bob Hope
Armstrong, left, and Bob Hope perform for the members of the 25th Infantry Division in Cu Chi, Vietnam in December 1969. (Corbis)
Armstrong's first day as a professor attracted reporters and photographers to the engineering building. Once his 18 students were inside the classroom and the clock ticked past 2 p.m., he slammed the door shut. ''He was pretty nervous . . . but that was only natural,'' recalls Dave Burrus, then a third-year engineering student. ''When the class was over, the hall had filled up with reporters. I was the last one out, along with Jack Lippert . . . [Armstrong] had his hand on the doorknob and he pushed us out as fast as possible, and slammed the door shut again.''

Armstrong ''was very good working with kids,' Burruss adds. ''We designed an aircraft [on paper] under Neil's direction.'' In one of his classes, Armstrong ''actually took kids up on flights . . . These guys actually got to fly with him in a little twin-engine plane.''

Armstrong had an office in Rhodes Hall, and several colleagues recalled that students would come and stand on one another's shoulders at the window, trying to catch a glimpse. ''That bothered Neil,'' Huston says. ''But once the shine wore off, he blended right in.''

Some UC faculty members dismissed the former astronaut at first as a mere show pony with no doctorate. They ''eventually accepted him,'' says Al Kuettner, then director of public affairs at the university. But the conservative Armstrong struggled to steer clear of campus politics and stay out of the unionized faculty's bargaining unit, Huston says. ''He was very conscientious,'' he says. He wanted to do the right thing, whatever was expected of him.'' For example, Armstrong apparently felt that part of his lingering duty to NASA was to sign autographs. ''He'd have a huge stack of 8110 glossies he felt obligated to sign . . . And every day, he'd spend an hour or two writing these. He'd whip 'em out. He did it slavishly.''

At the same time, university officials were aware of Armstrong's deep wariness and suspicion. Cautioning a colleague about importuning Armstrong a planned event in 1979, Kuettner wrote: ''Mr. Armstrong . . . can smell exploitation a mile.''

Ed Bridgeman, then chief of the university police, was responsible for erecting what he call ''buffers'' to shield the former astronaut so he could get his work done. ''A lot of people just wanted to touch him,'' says Bridgeman.

Armstrong in some ways fit the mold of the absent-minded professor, Bridgeman says. The ex-astronaut once forgot to set the brake on his car, which rolled over an embankment into another car. And at least three times, Bridgeman remembers, he had to return Armstrong's pipe and tobacco pouch after he went off and left them. The pouch was embossed in gold with the Apollo emblem and the names of the crew.

An engineering department colleague of Armstrong's, who asked not to be named, recalls going to lunch with him at the Skyline Chili parlor. If autograph seekers spotted the moon man, ''he would always be very polite, but then excuse himself whether his lunch was done or not. He'd go out in the car and wait'' until his companions were finished eating. ''If you ask me, he's one of the few people in the world who could have handled this.''

The farm seemed to be an important part of Armstrong's sense of balance. A friend once explained Armstrong's devotion to the place this way: ''You understand that you're a short-term phenomenon, like the mosquitoes that come in the spring and the fall. You get a perspective on yourself. You're getting back to the fundamentals of the planet. Neil feels that way, because we've talked about it.''

Residents, and the occasional reporter, would spot Armstrong tooling around Lebanon in a pickup truck, waving back at someone now and then, stopping at the feed store, or the ice cream parlor, or the historic hotel with the elegant restaurant. But these sightings were rare and fleeting. ''I don't want to be a living memorial,'' he told British journalists who trailed him to his farm from a Lebanon grocery store.

Armstrong left the university abruptly on New Year's Day 1980. He declined to is comment at the time, and the only reason he's ever given for leaving is that he felt it was time to move on to do other things. But colleagues suspect it was because of his continuing discomfort with campus politics and the union question. ''It was sudden, as far as we were concerned. I had to pick up a design class he was scheduled to teach,' says Gary Slater. ''He didn't explain, and I didn't ask. Neil was the kind of person you didn't ask those questions. But I guess the ivory tower was not everything it was cracked up to be.''

''My Vacation''
By Neil Armstrong
Nine summers ago, I went for a visit,
To see if the moon was green cheese.
When we arrived, people on earth asked: ''Is it?''
We answered: ''No cheese, no bees, no trees.''

It hasn't been all solitude for Neil Armstrong. He has surfaced at surprising times in surprising circumstances. He wrote the above, for example, at the request of a syndicated children's feature to commemorate the ninth anniversary of Apollo 11.

But even such a whimsical foray could turn sour. Not long after the poem ran in several newspapers, Armstrong wrote to the university's public affairs office: ''Under no circumstances would I again assist the [syndicate]. I think they took considerable advantage of my good nature. Also, they misprinted the poem.''

In a rare 1979 interview with the Cincinnati Post, Armstrong said the problem with accommodating the demands of the media was that it is too time-consuming. ''The only thing I've done is say, gee, I'm not going to spend all day every day with every guy who's trying to put a book together, put a magazine article together or put a newspaper feature together.'' He added, ''I think the interview is the worst form of information transfer, because it's all hip shoot.''

At the end of the interview, he asked for just one favor: ''Don't print it.''


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