Thursday, July 23, 2009

Wapakoneta – Moon Town, My Town, USA

The forty years since Neil Armstrong made his “giant leap for Mankind” and left his footprints on the moon may seem like a long time to most people, but to those of us who grew up in Wapakoneta, Ohio, and are old enough to recall that amazing day, it seems, in a way, like the blink of an eye. There are at least two things that make my hometown unique: its name – I mean, if you say you’re from Wapakoneta, nobody asks, “Which Wapakoneta?” – and the fact the Neil Armstrong was born there.

Caption: Apollo 11 Crew - Neil Armstrong, Mike Collins and Buzz Aldrin. In Wapak, we all felt like we knew them personally, because Neil was one of our own.
True, Wapak (as we call it for short) has a World War I general, whose name no one recalls but who was a close aid to Commanding General John J. Pershing.

Caption: Dudley Nichols, Courtesy Wapak Alumni Hall of Fame

And it has Dudley Nichols too. Dud – as my dad, among other people, referred to him - was a very famous American screenwriter and director: He wrote the screenplay for Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, as well as for Stagecoach, And Then There Were None, The Tin Star and other famous films of the 1930s and ‘40s. He was also the president of the Hollywood Screen Writers Guild and became even more famous for being the first-ever movie-land name to refuse an Academy Award – a protest move followed many years later by the likes of Marlon Brando and George C. Scott. Dud won his Oscar in 1936 for writing the screenplay of The Informer. But the Guild was on strike for higher pay and better conditions at the time and in protest, he refused to go to the Awards Ceremony. His most famed work as a screenwriter was the script for the 1930s Howard Hawks comedy Bringing Up Baby, starring Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, which was not a big box office hit at the time, but which is today considered a comedy classic.
More recently, we also have my childhood playmate, Jenny Smith. If you’re not from Wapak, you won’t know her by that name, but as Jennifer Crusie a 15-time bestseller of witty he- said/she-said romantic novels like Crazy for You, Faking It, Fast Women and Tell Me Lies, and, from what I hear, still one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet.

Caption: Jennifer Crusie (Courtesy Wapak Alumni Hall of Fame)
But while these shining hometown stars are well-known, Neil is in a league apart, because he is now and will always and forever be the First Man to Walk on the Moon. It wasn’t his only first, either. When I was a little boy the sign at the city limits read:
The Friendly City
Pop. 7,800
But by the time I was a teenager, it had been changed to read:
Home of Neil Armstrong
First Civilian Astronaut
For a long time, as a youngster, I felt like I vicariously shared something with Neil. When I first heard his name and about some of his achievements, I asked my dad if he knew him. (He was used to this kind of questions, because when I was smaller, I had also asked him, for instance, if he had known Abraham Lincoln – which Mom found hilarious, but Dad, not so much so).
“Not really,” he answered. “But your Uncle Don went to school with Neil.” Don was Dad’s younger (much younger) brother.
“Were they friends,” I asked, hoping they were.
“I don’t know about friends, exactly, but they played basketball together. Don was the captain of the team. Neil was kind of an egghead, but he played ball anyway.”
That crack wasn’t aimed at Neil, but at me, since the ol’ man had never been able to get me interested in playing team sports. I liked bike hikes, trekking through the woods and just about anything that involved fishing poles, swimming pools, shotguns and pool cues, when I wasn’t reading, playing music or writing. But all somebody had to do was mention any activity ending in the word “ball” and I got to feeling instantly queasy. Dad just about jumped up and clicked his heels when I started wrestling in seventh grade, found out I liked it and was even pretty good at it. I liked the coach, who was also my phys-ed teacher and a tough but understanding trainer. He had been an All-State wrestling champion himself, loved the sport and imbued us with that love. I planned to keep wrestling the next year and (who knew?) maybe even go out for high school wrestling later on. But that same year, the coach, who was in his late thirties, had a massive heart attack at the dinner table and dropped dead, and after attending his funeral, I just didn’t have the heart to wrestle again – although everything I learned that year came in handy later in occasional street fights and in the Army.
But my uncle’s high school basketball career wasn’t my only link to Neil. I had an “in” of my own with the Neil Armstrong Story: namely, Neil’s mother, Viola Armstrong.
A Nose for News
I started working when I was twelve. Besides shoveling snow in winter, mowing grass in summer, raking leaves in autumn, assisting people with their gardening in the spring and helping out at my father’s restaurant on Saturdays, I also became a paperboy. My first route was with the Dayton Journal Herald, a job I inherited from one of my sister’s high school freshman friends. It had seemed somehow glamorous to me when I first accepted it, but the glitz quickly wore off when the drudgery of it set in. The Journal Herald was a morning paper so the job involved getting up at 4:30 a.m. and pedaling my bike through the slumbering town to the Post Office, where my package of papers awaited me in the unlocked hall where the P.O. boxes were. The papers came in a bale, wrapped in sullied newsprint and banded with baling wire, which meant that I always had to remember to carry a pair of wire-cutters in my pants pocket. I got that job in the late fall and kept it through most of that winter and the dark Ohio mornings were freezing cold. The best part of the task each morning was sitting on the floor of the hall in the silent Post Office building, warmed by a hissing radiator, un-baling and rolling my papers, before packing them carefully into my cumbersome canvas shoulder bag. The hard part was leaving the hall - where I would have been only too happy to curl up like a dog by the radiator and take a nap – to go back out into the cold and pedal my bike from the northeast side of town to the northwest side, near my home, hurling my rolled and rubber-banded newspapers onto the porches of my customers.
By the time I got back home at 7:00, all I wanted to do was climb into my nice warm bed and sleep. But there was no time for that. Mom was waiting for me with hot Ralston, Cream of Wheat or eggs and toast, and then, there was just time to wash up, change clothes and with the first light of winter morning, catch the school bus when it swung by to pick me up. By noon I felt so tired I scarcely knew how I would make it through the rest of the school day, but somehow I always did. Mom, however, started worrying about my grades and my health – I had had hepatitis the previous year and wasn’t very strong yet – and asked Dad to talk to one of his steady customers, Russ McLean, who owned the local newsstand and managed the routes for the Lima News and other Ohio papers, to see if he could get me an afternoon job. The following spring Russ gave me a prime route – 120 papers a day in a central part of town near my school – with the Lima News.
Hot Chocolate at Neil’s Place
Caption: Neil Armstrong's Childhood home. Photo by Steve Centers

That’s when I got to know Neil’s mother. She lived with Neil’s father, Steve Armstrong, in a large, pretty old two-storey house on West Benton Street, a main Wapakoneta thoroughfare that formed part of my route. During that first spring, which started off cold and snowy, and the following winter, the Armstrong home turned out to be a kind of a way station for me. Whenever it was so snowy that I either had to struggle through the slush and mud on my bike or leave it behind and walk, Mrs. Armstrong would often invite me in to get warmed up.

She would have me take off my coat and cap and gloves and sit at the dining room table, where she would serve me piping hot chocolate with slowly melting marshmallows on the steaming surface, accompanied by homemade cookies – chocolate chip, oatmeal and other favorites of mine. And while I sipped the scalding milk and ate my cookies, she would talk to me about Neil.
On a bookcase against one wall of the room, there was a scale model of the X-15 rocket plane that Neil had flown as a test pilot. And while we chatted, she would sometimes take it down and let me hold it and look at it “as long as I was really careful with it”. Mrs. Armstrong made me almost feel privileged to be a paperboy. She told me about how Neil had sold papers to help pay for his pilot training. After he did his paper route, he would bicycle out to the Wapakoneta Air Field – actually a mown disused pasture with a makeshift hangar and a windsock on a length of water pipe en lieu of a mast – where he took his flying lessons. He had soloed in a light plane and won his wings before he was old enough to get a license to drive a car.
Mrs. Armstrong was always like that, considerate, a very nice lady. For Christmas, if people gave you anything at all it was usually a tip of a dollar or so when you came around to collect the week before the holidays. But Mrs. Armstrong gave me a one pound box of Brach’s Chocolate-Covered Cherries all gift-wrapped with a bow in red and green. It wasn’t hard to tell why her son turned out to be exceptional. He had learned it from the get-go.

One Small Step for a Man…
As you can imagine, when Neil first set foot on the lunar surface on July 21, 1969, you could have heard a pin drop on the deserted streets of Wapakoneta. Everyone was glued to his or her TV screen.
It was a shared event. Friends and family got together to watch. It was summer and we young people were all home from college, the Service or wherever we had been earlier in the year. I had started that year off with my first trip to Argentina and had then gone to Ohio State University to study music. I was home for the summer break and, appropriately, was watching the historic event in Wapak with family and friends. Everybody who knew somebody in Wapakoneta wanted to see it from there: Moon Town USA. Merchandising was rife, with everybody selling or giving away Apollo 11 cups, glasses, caps, shirts, post cards and other memorabilia and gimmicks to clients and friends. The Fisher Cheese Company of Wapak had created a greenish product that it called Moon Cheese to commemorate the landing and built a small specialty product sales outlet on the edge of town just off of Interstate-75 where the “lunar” cheese was featured and tourists bought it as a souvenir. Despite the fact that it wasn’t one of the company’s better cheeses, its pull as a novelty caused the company to have to put on an extra shift to meet demand in the run-up to the moon walk that July.
Our in-laws-to-be had arrived from Cleveland for the occasion as well. My sister’s fiancé, Tom, and his parents, the Ginters, had wanted an excuse to get to know my parents better and this seemed as good as any. On the historic launch date, Mr. Ginter drove to the Post Office in Wapakoneta, bought commemorative Apollo 11 postage stamps, affixed them to as many envelopes as members of the two families and mailed them all to us. His theory was that an Apollo stamp posted and cancelled on that day from the hometown of Neil Armstrong would someday be worth a fortune.
I still have mine somewhere. So far no avid collectors have beaten down my door with proposals of fame and fortune, though I remain open to offers. Anyway, it was a nice gesture on Mr. Ginter’s part.

A few months later, Neil finally came “home” after the moon walk. The town went wild. There was a parade even bigger than the ones held each year for Memorial Day and a later celebration at the Fairgrounds. Celebrity sidekick Ed McMahon accepted an invitation from the Chamber of Commerce and rode next to Neil in the open car provided by one of the local dealerships, both men smiling and waving at the thousands of local and tourist well-wishers that lined the streets of the little town.
I was back in town for the occasion and  one of the first people I saw when I got home was my former band director and music teacher, Bill Trunk. I found Bill at a local coffee shop, hard at work putting the finishing touches on a score while he was having his mid-morning java. Although I had been his head drummer and student conductor and had also played gigs with him at local nightclubs, he didn’t recognize me at first, so changed was I since he had last seen me, but when he finally did, he beckoned me to sit beside instead of across from him so that we could look at the score together. He immediately and enthusiastically began to sing it to me.
“It’s for the parade, when Neil gets here,” he said, “to play in front of the grandstand at the Fairgrounds.” As he hummed the melody, I glanced at the title he had penciled in. It was a patriotic march entitled Footprints on the Moon by William Thatcher Trunk.
My former art teacher, Dick Chadwick, has also gotten into the act, creating a spectacular downtown mural for the occasion with Neil standing tall in his space suit in the foreground. Heartfelt tributes by local talent anxious to be part of the historic even. As for myself, normally a rebel and non-conformist who was lately drawn to anti-Vietnam War protests and anti-establishment rhetoric, I couldn't help but feel a rush of patriotic pride that the first man on the moon was from my hometown. I was there with the rest of the town to cheer and wave as Neil was driven by and it felt right and warm to be doing just that. 
Still the Big Cheese
Featured at this week’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of Neil’s lunar landing in Wapakoneta was a 180-pound spaceman. No, not Neil. Typical of the semi-reclusive erstwhile professor of aeronautical engineering, Armstrong gave the hometown event a miss. In his place was a work of edible (though no one was allowed to eat it) art by Sarah Kaufmann depicting a 6-foot-tall, 180-pound spaceman, carved in cheddar cheese. What was edible at the Wapak moon fest was the world’s biggest Moon Pie: A 55-pound, 40-inch diameter version of the popular and delicious commercial snack pie containing 14 pounds of marshmallow and six pounds of chocolate. It was on display for two days before the tasting held on July 19th.
There was also a cooking contest in which all entries had to include novel ways of using – what else? – Tang (the famed vitamin C-rich powdered drink originally developed for use in space) as an ingredient.
For those who wanted to wet their whistle with something other than orangeade, however, the Thirsty Dog brewery of Akron, Ohio came up with a special beer called Lunar Lager, distributed exclusively to Wapakoneta for the 40-year celebration festivities.
For a festive week, Wapakoneta has rocked again. But even after things quiet down and the town goes back to being its sleepy quiet, rural self, the unique emblem that Neil has left us as his legacy will remain. We’re the hometown of the First Man on the Moon.


Hispanic New York Project said...

Dan, what a wonderful chronicle of your hometown. I'm so glad you finally started to put in writing what you told me so many times. You got to develop the whole thing into a full-fledged narrative, a real book evocative of a place and time gone but present in your memories.

Dan Newland said...

Thanks Claudio. It's due in large measure to the encouragement of you and people like you that I no longer ask myself the question, why write?