Gene Cernan – About Neil Armstrong


How does one adequately express his feelings
about a special friend, when that friend is also a world icon, a national hero of unimaginable
proportion, and a legend whose name will live in history long after all here today have
been forgotten? A friend whose commitment and dedication to that in which he believed
was absolute? A man who, when he became your friend, was a friend for a lifetime? I’m not
sure this is possible, but I will try. Neil Armstrong grew up on a farm in Middle
America and as a young boy, like most kids, he had a paper route, he cut lawns, he shoveled
snow, and his fascination for model airplanes gave birth to a dream. A dream of becoming
an aeronautical engineer. Neil had his first taste of flight when he was but six years
old, and from that day forward he never looked back. Although he always wanted to design
and redesign airplanes to make them do what they weren’t supposed to do, once he had tasted
flight, Neil’s eyes turned skyward, and it was there that he always longed to be. Little
did Neil ever realize that his dream, his longing to soar with the eagles, would someday
give him the opportunity to be the first human being to go where no one had gone before. Neil Armstrong was a sincerely humble man,
of impeccable integrity, who reluctantly accepted his role as the first human being to walk
on another world. And when he did he became a testament – a testament to all Americans
of what can be achieved through vision and dedication. But in Neil’s mind it was never
about Neil. It was about you. Your mothers and fathers, your grandparents. About those
of a generation ago who gave Neil the opportunity to call the Moon his home. But never ever
was it about Neil. Neil considered that he was just the tip of the arrow, always giving
way to some 400,000 equally committed and dedicated Americans – Americans who were
the strength behind the bow – and always giving credit to those who just didn’t know
it couldn’t be done. And therein lies the strength and the character
of Neil Armstrong. He knew who he was and he understood the immensity of what he had
done, yet Neil was always willing to give of himself. When Neil, Jim Lovell and I had
the opportunity to visit the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, on three separate occasions,
meeting them in shower halls, control centers, yes even armored carriers and helicopters,
those enthusiastic young men and women, yet to be born when Neil walked on the Moon, were
mesmerized by his presence. In a typical Neil fashion, he would always walk in, introduce
himself – as if they didn’t know who he was – shake each and every hand, and he’d
always give them, “Hey, how are you guys doing?” Asked one overwhelmed, inquisitive
Marine, “Mr. Armstrong, why are you here?” Neil’s thoughtful and sincerely honest reply
was, “Because you are here.” Neil was special to these young kids – and to a few
old ones as well. Although deeply proud to be a naval aviator,
as a civilian at the time he flew, Neil never received his astronaut wings – it was a
tradition of those in the military. It was on the USS Eisenhower, back in 2010, on our
way to Afghanistan, that Neil finally did receive the tribute that he deserved. His
visibly moved response said it all, and I quote: “I’ve never been more proud than
when I earned my Navy wings of gold.” And I’ve got to believe that there’s a few Golden
Eagles in the audience who will second those words. Trying to get into Neil’s inner self was always
a challenge for almost anyone – maybe everyone. Asked one day by a stranger, “Mr. Armstrong,
how did you feel when looking for a place to land on the Moon with only 15 seconds of
fuel remaining?” In only the way Neil could – and I know some of you have seen him this
way – he’d put a thumb on an index finger, he’d tilt his head and sort of put his hand
down there and he’d say “Well, when the gauge says empty, we all know there’s a gallon
or two left in the tank!” Now there is a man who has always been in control of his
own destiny. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is vintage Neil Armstrong. Fate looked down kindly on us when she chose
Neil to be the first to venture to another world and to have the opportunity to look
back from space at the beauty of our own. It could have been another, but it wasn’t.
And it wasn’t for a reason. No one, no one, but no one could have accepted the responsibility
of his remarkable accomplishment with more dignity and more grace than Neil Armstrong.
He embodied all that is good and all that is great about America. Neil, wherever you are up there, almost a
half century later you have now shown once again the pathway to the stars. It’s now for
you a new beginning, but for us, I will promise you it is not the end. And as you soar through
the heavens beyond where even eagles dare to go, you can now finally put out your hand
and touch the face of God. Farewell, my friend. You have left us far
too soon. But we want you to know we do cherish the time we have had and shared together. God bless you, Neil.

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