By Kathleen Bangs
When Neil Armstrong made his historic journey down the Eagle’s ladder to the moon’s surface, I was right there with him. Overheating in a Lost in Space Halloween costume jumpsuit, I sweated, spellbound, in front of our walnut console television. As Armstrong made the first footprint, I struggled to breathe through the tiny air holes of my tight, plastic face mask. Minutes after the crew of Apollo 11 planted the flag, Mom yelled to get upstairs. It was way past bedtime.
No surprise that, years later, I landed in aerospace, and in April 2012, was working for an aircraft manufacturer. One thousand miles from home, I marketed a new jet for launch into service. As I neared the end of another grinding fourteen-hour day, my laptop screen glowed in the twilight of the hotel patio, amidst a constellation of hovering insects. One unopened email remained.
It was an invitation from a former boss to attend a Lindbergh Foundation black-tie dinner with ninety-nine other guests at New York City’s renowned Explorers Club. Three special guests would be speaking at the event: Apollo 13 Commander, Jim Lovell; the last Apollo moonwalker, Gene Cernan; and the first—the legend himself—my hero, Neil Armstrong.
I hesitated to accept the invitation, but my reluctance was not only the $1,000-per-plate expense. A few years earlier, I had the opportunity to meet a favorite actor, a charmer who endeared himself even further onscreen by convincingly portraying an astronaut. But in our real-life encounter, he portrayed a drunk, stumbling around slurring profanities, whiskey bottle in hand, a joint in the other, with a contingency of strippers wrapped around his thighs. I instantly regretted seeing what could never be unseen. Heroes were all too human off their pedestal. To meet, was to risk a colossal disappointment.
My inclination to elevate the wrong man went beyond just actors. Romances usually proved disastrous, a series of dizzyingly turbulent relationships that crashed and burned around the two-year mark. I’d heard from every significant ex that whatever I was searching for, I probably wasn’t going to find it in them. The accumulation of wreckage seemed a vestigial influence from childhood, from my father, from his unfortunate absence. But this was Neil frickin’ Armstrong. We went way back. How could I miss the chance?
In 1962, when John F. Kennedy made his famous “we choose to go to the moon” speech, my father, another charismatic Irish-Catholic, was already an enthusiastic supporter of the young president. One of Dad’s closest friends nominated Kennedy at the party’s Democratic Convention. A former FBI Special Agent, my father could have had a high-profile career, but instead, became a small-town, big-fish attorney. If our community had a need, Dad found a solution. A tireless organizer, he rubbed shoulders with luminaries from Hubert Humphrey to federal judges, preferring to stay in the background, as friends in high places worked the spotlight.
Dad was a man of a certain era, old enough to remember WWII, young enough to usher in the space age. When JFK encouraged a nation to “ask what you can do for your country,” men like my father and Neil Armstrong were already moving to that beat. And, while both men were friendly and articulate, their snug lid on emotion bordered on formality. Instead of greeting or waving to my older sister one time as she approached on the opposite side of Main Street, Dad simply tipped his fedora, and kept walking.
If Neil Armstrong’s passion was the sky, my father’s was the wilderness, especially the remote lakes of Canada’s Ontario province. Dad often arranged fishing adventures with his friends, and enjoyed chartering the seaplanes. My older brothers occasionally got to accompany the men. As a rambunctious four-year-old girl, the most excitement I was allowed was to toddle around the dock. Maybe my father took pity on me, because one July afternoon he asked pilot Rusty to take me up for a short hop. It was my first time in an airplane.
Pressed up against the warm Plexiglas side window, I leaned wide-eyed as we skipped across sparkling waves until a wild corkscrewing propeller yanked us into the sky. Rusty in his grease smudged cap banked the plane so steeply an unfamiliar sensation smooshed me into my seat. Flying was more fun than our backyard swing-set, it was magic.
If a seaplane trip meant missing Sunday mass, Dad brought church to him by flying in a priest to give Holy Communion, often atop the grandeur of a scenic granite point. He would need his deep faith. After having suffered from sporadic bleeding over the previous year, Dad learned that September an inept doctor’s misdiagnosis had given colon cancer what it needed to dig in and metastasize—time.
Two months later, in November, President Kennedy was assassinated in Texas. The shock magnified the hushed melancholy in our home. By the following summer Dad was moved into a hospital, ironically the same hospital he was appointed chairman of the board. His portrait hung on a corridor wall, near Kennedy’s. The pillars of my childhood were falling, one by one. During visits to his room I would play, oblivious, on the green linoleum floor with whatever I could find from rolls of bandages to tiny salt packets, wondering when daddy would finally come home.
On a rainy morning the first week of kindergarten, we buried my father. An elderly woman gently shook my little forearm, and tearfully pointed up, “Even the sky cries today.” I dared to imagine my father might return. I couldn’t grasp where he had gone. How could others be so certain he was never coming back?
Perhaps because I didn’t share the same rich vault of shared experiences as my older siblings, my mother gave me memorabilia to remember my father: a Christmas card from Jack and Jackie, an inspiring get-well note from Robert F. Kennedy, telegrams and letters from J. Edgar Hoover and Adlai Stevenson, the museum of a man I could barely remember. But I was a child. They were artifacts, not memories.
My older sisters had letters. Ah, the envy I felt! His words were upbeat and funny, not maudlin, but conversational, even though penned from his hospital bed. Dad asked one of my sisters about college and boyfriends, and another, about her lost luggage misadventures traveling abroad through Columbia as a foreign exchange student.
But nothing for me. Nothing for later, for when I knew how to read. As my recollection of his voice disappeared, everything else about my father faded away. Only a single photo of us together existed. One happy memory remained, the airplane ride.
Over the next few years, as the country’s attention got swept up in the excitement of the Apollo moon program, I was smitten by the planetary travels of the Robinsons on the hit TV series Lost in Space. Inside my own elaborate spaceship, constructed precariously from cardboard boxes, a Twister vinyl floor sheet, and fold-out game boards, I followed the family’s galactic close-calls. “Danger, Will Robinson, danger!” became the show’s popular catchphrase, but young Will’s safety was never really at risk. He had a robot, a pilot, and his own father, Commander Robinson, to protect him. His family was lost in the Milky Way, but they were all together, and more than anything, I wished our family could be like the Robinsons.
When Apollo 11’s historic radio transmission: “Houston, Tranquility Base here…” crackled through the air in July 1969, a new pillar stood tall: Neil Armstrong. At school we studied the hero astronaut but never learned he had a daughter named Karen. He never spoke of her, so I didn’t know we were born only two weeks apart, or that she died from brain cancer before turning three. The world did not know either.
Eyeglasses in fifth grade soon nixed the childhood fantasy of becoming an astronaut. My focus shifted from space to the sky. It occurred to me that Dad would not have sent the baby of his six children up flying if he didn’t believe the mystery of flight held something worth experiencing.
At sixteen—the same age Armstrong got his pilot’s license—I learned how to fly. And then immediately trained for a floatplane rating. Within a decade, I was an airline pilot. In the high altitudes I found a cocoon of tranquility, even in the ever-changing chaos of the sky.
Over the years, I would from time to time scour my mother’s old photo albums, or run Super 8 film reels, yearning to find a snippet of my father’s broad smile beaming at his little girl, a reassurance that remained elusive. During my lowest moments, I still felt just the flimsiest connection to my father—like an astronaut spacewalking through a dark, empty void, connected by only a fraying umbilical tether from spacesuit to spaceship.
On the warm May evening of the Explorer’s Club gala, I entered the ornate brick mansion to discover an adventure repository of expedition mementos from Mt. Everest to the Marianas Trench, from both poles to outer space. I posed for photos flanked by massive tusks, of what origin I wasn’t sure, mastodon? And under a towering polar bear, reared on its hind legs, frozen in time. On the verandah, a row of elegant arches framed a gauzy peach sunset where a circle formed as people jostled in the manner refined guests subtly clamor for attention. And there he was. I didn’t expect Neil Armstrong to be in a spacesuit, but I’d never imagined him in a tuxedo.
Armstrong spoke with the gathered flock and, finally, to me. As I stood in high heels and awe, we chatted amiably for a minute. About what? I probably was the billionth person to tell him what an honor it was. He was kind and soft-spoken. He held a gift sack of chocolates, and joked that he wished everyone had brought him a bag. I’d hoped we could talk flying. Once asked what it was like to walk on the moon, he famously replied, “You know, pilots really prefer to fly.” I loved his answer. But almost as quickly as my chance to meet my idol came, it went, with the announcement to be seated for dinner.
After the meal, Neil Armstrong addressed an enraptured audience. It seemed like before the hundred guests even finished their applause, he was gone. I shared a yellow cab to the Upper East Side. Outside my hotel, someone walked past, flicking a cigarette high into the night air. I looked up. The ember arced, trailing sparks like a miniature space capsule burning through the atmosphere on re-entry. On a patch of distant space, stars shimmered. I thought of my father and how amazed he would be. The moon landing, the technological miracle of the phone in my hand, more powerful than all of Armstrong’s mission computers. And his youngest and onetime wannabe astronaut, meeting his era’s man from the moon.
It had been an enchanted evening, yet I couldn’t shake a bittersweet twinge. Disappointment lingered. Which was nuts. What had I hoped for? A hug? Armstrong was the man who carried JFK’s legacy forward, and landed the giant leap. He was also a time traveler from the brief span of years I knew my father. Neil Armstrong left this world, yet made it back. Had he sensed something out there? The echo of an afterlife? I’d met my hero. Why couldn’t that be enough?
Inside, the hotel lobby I walked toward the elevators and suddenly, the rarest of life’s opportunities appeared. A second chance. Neil Armstrong was standing in a dimly lit nook, between astronauts Lovell and Cernan. I was wary of approaching, but they seemed like any three old friends on a Friday night, not quite ready for festivities to end.
“Are you following me?” I asked Neil Armstrong, smiling as if he were a mere mortal. Jim Lovell thankfully remembered our conversation from the earlier cocktail hour and declared enthusiastically, “Hey, she has over 10,000 hours!” That landed me in my element. Now I wasn’t a woman in a little black dress, but just another pilot, jawing with the guys. The conversation was a blur, even as it happened. We talked about Purdue University, where Armstrong was a proud alumnus. For a select number of their flight student grads, I once taught a short prep course on the Boeing 727, my favorite jet to fly. Armstrong was an astronaut for eight years, but a pilot first and last. He grinned as he recalled the fun of delivering a 727 donated by United Airlines to his alma mater.
As each Apollo astronaut spoke, a part of my consciousness became an observer, watching the scene as if levitating from above. A voice from within told me, ‘for the rest of your life, never forget the gift of this moment.’ Not wanting to overstay my welcome, I said goodnight.
Three months later, on August 25, 2012, Neil Armstrong was gone forever. He died unexpectedly during recovery from heart surgery.
When the long-awaited Neil Armstrong biopic film, First Man, was released in 2018, I had mixed feelings about going. I wanted to remember him from the night we met, not as an actor on the big screen. But Armstrong’s two sons were consultants on the movie, and I wondered what, if any, new glimpse behind the curtain they might provide.
Throughout his life, Armstrong chose to never speak publicly about his daughter Karen. In the emotional climax of the movie, he stands alone at the precipice of a small crater. Memorializing the child he lost, Armstrong leaves in the moon dust a tiny bracelet bearing her name. Never having heard the remarkably touching story, I was astonished. A few days later I learned the scene was imagined, created by screenwriters. But I didn’t feel duped. Instead, I felt a burst of overdue relief. More than anyone, to my bones, I understood the need so universal that even the filmmakers bowed to it—the need to witness a father’s love for his little girl.
In Armstrong’s aloofness, I could finally see my father’s reserve from a different perspective. His decision to not say goodbye, to not leave behind some message, wasn’t personal. Neither man could outwardly acknowledge their private grief. I felt a sort of cosmic symmetry. In the 1960s, Neil Armstrong was a father losing his little girl to cancer, and I was a little girl, losing my father to cancer. Just because Neil Armstrong never talked about his daughter’s death didn’t mean he didn’t love her. Just because I couldn’t remember my father’s love didn’t mean it wasn’t there.
As Armstrong’s only authorized biographer elegantly said regarding the bracelet scene, “Sometimes the power of poetry prevails over the uncertainty of fact.” And so, I am left now to imagine the poetry of my father’s adoration. That he bounced me on his knee. That, in my face, he saw himself.
I imagine a poetry where my father took with him the entirety of our memories together, because he yearned to never forget me, even more than he thought I would need to remember him. Whether returning triumphant from mankind’s boldest adventure, to the fanfare of the world, or departing alone on a whisper to the unknown realm beyond time, I must believe that in their hearts, they both carried us with them.
Kathleen Bangs is a writer, commercial pilot, on-air aviation safety analyst, and International Journalist of the Year Award overall winner. Her work has appeared in a wide array of publications from The New York Times to Split Rock Review. She enjoys being in the sky, being underwater, or spending time at her remote Ontario island. She is presently at work on a memoir about her exuberant experiences as the only woman pilot at an airline.