Houston, We Have A Problem With Neil (September 20, 2011. Issue 31.)
Every year New York Life rewarded its top fifty salesmen and women with an incentive awards trip at a five-star hotel in an attractive global location. The company also conducted a similar incentive trip for brokers selling our products to the membership of large associations such as the American Veterinary Association and the American Bar Association Foundation. As president of the company, I attended both of these trips annually, and I always looked forward to them because I had developed strong personal friendships with many of the attendees who qualified for the trips year after year. In addition, the company spared no expense in arranging for very well-known, high profile speakers to address the group at the annual awards dinner. In the fall of 2004 the two trips occurred in a fairly compressed three-week time period. The first was for the brokers selling to associations and was held in Lake Como, Italy, while the second for the retail sales leaders was held on the Hawaiian Island of Lanai.
The guest speakers for these two meetings also created a great deal of pre-trip excitement for the sales attendees and frankly for all of us. The first two men to walk on the moon in July of 1969, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were contracted to speak; Buzz in Lake Como and Neil in Hawaii. I was eagerly anticipating the prospect of meeting both men and getting their personal observations and perspective on that courageous first landing and how it felt to risk their lives as modern-day explorers.
I think most people, myself included, remember where they were when they watched Neil and then Buzz set foot on the moon and plant the American flag. I was home for the summer following my junior year in college, and I watched the landing and moon walk at the home of my high school friend Al Shemke while we played music from the epic 1968 Stanley Kubrick movie 2001: A Space Odyssey on his stereo system.
As a mathematics and science student, I recall being totally astounded by the marvel of this remarkable technological achievement. I had only a rudimentary understanding of the complexity of the underlying engineering formulas that were required to accomplish the task, but it was enough knowledge to appreciate the enormous risks involved. Understanding the magnitude of the risks left me extremely impressed with the courage it must have taken for these men to land on the moon, trusting that they would indeed be able to blast off the moon's surface and return safely to the command module and then to earth. What an honor it would be to meet these famous American heroes. I had hoped I would get some private time with each of them to ask the numerous questions filling my mind, not only about the technical aspects of the accomplishment but also, and more importantly, about their emotional and spiritual reaction to the experience.
Buzz Aldrin was the keynote speaker at the first of the two events, and spoke to a group of about one hundred attendees. He totally captivated and enthralled us by reliving the intense but thrilling moments during the flight as the lunar module approached the surface of the moon. He shared the emotions he felt, the visual images that were etched in his mind forever, and his fear as a series of alarms went off within the landing module just as they were approaching the point of no return. He and Neil had to rapidly make a difficult joint decision on whether or not to abort the landing, which would have meant returning to earth having failed to achieve their mission. Most observers were never aware of this life-threatening decision that could have left them stranded on the moon's surface with no way to return to the command module. In that split second they didn't even have time to consult Houston because of the short time lag in communications, and instinctively they decided to continue the landing mission.
As he spoke, Buzz's love for space travel and for the engineering of rocketry was evident. He talked enthusiastically about design work he had been doing on new rocket boosting technology, which he believed would allow future astronauts to travel to Mars and beyond. What a pleasure it was to witness the passion and sheer joy this man (who was then in his early seventies) had for his life's work. Many times before I had heard people say that if you love what you do you'll never work a day in your life. Buzz Aldrin very clearly exemplified that sentiment. Buzz was truly an inspiration to me, particularly as I began to think through my own future and how I would spend my retirement years. As I worked through my post-retirement plans over the ensuing three years, I often thought back on the joy and enthusiasm I witnessed in Buzz that evening. I knew I needed to identify and pursue my greatest passions in whatever retirement activities I chose.
I sat next to Buzz at dinner that evening and was able to witness firsthand the true depth of his enthusiasm for his work. I didn't have the heart to interrupt him as he made frequent use of technical terms I couldn't begin to understand. But I didn't want to stop him because it was so heartwarming to see his passion come through, particularly as he elaborated on some of the more harrowing experiences of the trip.
I also was pleased but not surprised to hear that the descent to the lunar surface was indeed an inspirational and spiritual experience for him. One of the amazing facts he revealed to me that was not aired on television and not publicized much afterword was that after the moon landing (while still in the lunar landing module), Aldrin was the first Christian to take the sacrament of communion on an astronomical body other than earth.
During dinner I mentioned that we also would have the honor of hearing from Buzz's fellow astronaut and moon walking companion Neil Armstrong. When I mentioned this, a somewhat sad and frustrated look came over Buzz, and he then nervously, almost apologetically, warned us that our experience with Neil might be disappointing. I asked what he meant, and he said, "Neil never appreciated or understood the importance of our accomplishment." He said, "Don't be surprised if he doesn't even mention the moon landing."
I was astonished by this admonition and was eager to hear more. Buzz went on to say that every year there was a reunion of all astronauts who had walked on the moon and that Neil had never attended. I had heard several years before that Neil had suffered from depression, but I hadn't heard anything about him recently. I thanked Buzz for the warning but secretly hoped he was wrong or was exaggerating. Our top agents were accustomed to hearing inspirational presentations from our keynote speakers and also in personally interacting with the speakers before and after these dinner presentations. I knew our top agents would not be happy if Neil didn't talk, as Buzz did, about his personal perceptions of the historic moon landing experience.
We traveled to Hawaii a couple of weeks later and greeted our top agents, many of whom had brought along their young children not only to enjoy the Hawaiian climate and restfulness, but also to personally meet and hear from a man about whom they had heard in their American history classes. For a kid, just meeting an astronaut would be exciting, but to personally meet the first man to set foot on the moon was indeed special. They'd be the envy of all their friends back home, and an experience like this would generate added incentive for agents to qualify for next year's top sales incentive trip.
I was scheduled to meet alone with Neil before the reception to go over the logistics of the evening, after which I would move him quickly to the cocktail reception for photographs and to interact with our anxiously awaiting guests. However, because Neil was late to our meeting, his time with our guests was already cut short. So when he finally showed up, I tried to cover the events for the evening as quickly as possible and move him straight on to the reception. Naturally, Neil had aged quite a bit over the prior thirty-five years, so much so that I honestly didn't recognize him at first. But what surprised me more was that he was so quiet and sullen during our meeting. I expected a confident and sociable man, self-assured by his fame and his immortalized place in history. When I noticed he made no direct eye contact, I wondered about the possible continuing affects of depression.
After introducing myself and telling him what an honor it was to have him as our guest speaker, I first indicated where we would take the pre-event photos with each of our guests. This was an element of our original contract with him, and he seemed fine with this arrangement. Next I mentioned we would move on to the reception for a while to mingle with our invited guests, after which we would sit down for dinner. I told Neil he would be at the head table seated with our chairman Sy Sternberg along with our top two or three agents and their children. I also noted that after dessert had been served, he would be introduced by Sy and invited to speak.
The first real sign of trouble came when I mentioned that during dinner it was likely he would be interrupted by some children and young adults who might come up to his table to ask him to autograph the evening's printed program. To my utter shock, which was difficult to conceal, he said, "I don't sign autographs." I gathered myself and responded as tactfully as I could by saying, "But Neil, these kids have heard of you in their history classes; they view you as a true American hero, and most certainly many will ask for your autograph." To which he said, "I don't sign autographs. Please alert the guests before dinner." I chose not to argue the point, and I knew this would not be specified in the contract (we never thought we'd need to specify something so inconsequential). So, following our logistical meeting, I spoke to our travel staff and asked them to get the word out before dinner. I didn't want to make a public announcement that might evoke an audible negative reaction from the crowd that could embarrass Neil.
The second sign of trouble came when I indicated to Neil that, as was customary for these events, following his remarks to the group we'd want to leave ten to fifteen minutes for questions from the audience. Once again, he shocked me by saying, "I don't do Q & A." Again I indicated we would keep this part short and limit the time, to which he repeated, "I don't do Q & A." At this point I was angry and incredulous, but I didn't press the issue any further. Instead I explained that after his remarks I would come to the podium to thank him, and that we hoped he would stay for a while to interact with any of the guests wishing to stay longer (again the contract didn't specifically require that he take Q & A or that he remain with us after his remarks). He gave no reaction and I chose not to press my luck with any further questions or comments.
In spite of Buzz's having forewarned me, the third and perhaps most astonishing surprise of all was the nature of his presentation. My worst fears were realized, and it was painful for me to watch the reactions of our honored guests, the agents, and their families. Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon and to fulfill President Kennedy's vision, did not mention his historic journey to the moon, or the Apollo missions, or even that he had ever been an astronaut. Instead, he chose to talk about the early exploration of our planet and the first European discovery of Hawaii by British explorer James Cook in 1778. As Neil continued his professorial presentation, I wondered, along with virtually everyone, when he would get to the topic of the moon landing—he never did. Buzz Aldrin's prediction had become a reality. He wasn't exaggerating.
To say this was a disappointment to our top agents and their families would be the biggest understatement I have ever made. It is a wonder to me that anyone would ever invite Neil Armstrong to speak, unless they were totally unaware of his insensitivity to his audience and his unwillingness to mention what he and his Apollo 11 team had accomplished.
Over subsequent months and years, I often pondered what this disappointing experience revealed to me about human nature and about extraordinary achievement. I would later discover in my readings that Neil actually had some logical basis for not giving autographs: He was upset at the extent to which his achievement was being commercialized through the sale of autographs at exorbitant prices. I thought perhaps this was honorable, but I wondered why he didn't explain that to me in our pre-dinner discussion in 2004. I could not however find any logic for the refusal to take questions or for avoiding any mention whatsoever in his prepared remarks of an achievement that was as broadly known and recognized as almost any event in modern history.
As I often do, I wondered what I could learn from this unusual experience. Strangely, my initial anger and disappointment at the outcome of the experience in Hawaii had changed over time to compassion for Neil Armstrong. There was clearly some deep-seated emotional issue for him that went beyond simple humility, which prevented him from more openly discussing his experience. As children, many of us dream of becoming famous and gaining the admiration and respect of thousands, if not millions, of people. Very few ever achieve that status, and almost no one has ever achieved comparable fame to Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. Even famous athletes, singers, actors, and actresses do not achieve the enduring and unique fame that has been achieved by Neil.
The irony in this situation is that Neil himself had a very humble and modest upbringing as the son of a civil service worker in Wapakoneta, Ohio. He certainly can relate to young kids brought up in similar circumstances who aspire to fame and greatness. I myself represent a similar story, having been raised in a lower-middle-class family. If I hadn't received a full scholarship, I never would have been able to attend college. I didn't even begin my insurance career until I was twenty-nine years old, and to ascend to the presidency of one of the largest and most respected Fortune 100 insurance companies over such a short period of time was truly gratifying. The risk of becoming arrogant, self-satisfied, and proud was great. Such feelings could easily surface when making presentations to thousands of agents and employees, when meeting and interacting with political leaders around the world and even when interacting with famous personalities like Neil Armstrong. I often caught myself in such moments and reminded myself that this work was my passion and my calling and that I needed to strive to be a role model for thousands of agents and employees through my rapid career advancement. Perhaps through this experience with Neil Armstrong, I was being reminded of that fact and reminded to remain humble and to avoid pride, arrogance, or self-aggrandizement.
Strangely, my thought process around my own temptations toward pride and my reflections on the Neil Armstrong experience has reversed my negative attitude toward Neil. Over time I began to feel sympathy and compassion for Neil when I realized that even if emotional issues were at the root of Neil's eccentricities, he indeed was a humble and unassuming man. The man who angered others and me on the Island of Lanai in 2004 actually revealed to me that God has a purpose for all of us and that avoiding pride is far more important than sharing or promoting one's accomplishments.
I learned very different lessons from Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, but at the end of the day, each remains an American hero in his own way: one a congenial man, who remains passionate about his chosen career, and the other a sympathetic figure, who, by strenuously avoiding pride or hubris, continues to have difficulty acknowledging his role in history.