In Memoriam

A Human Prince

Neil Armstrong, RIP

By 8.28.12

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Amongst the billions of Homo sapiens scattered across this mysterious planet of ours, there are but a few human princes.

No, not the royal sort whose thin veneer of worth and dignity is inversely proportional to their lofty, worshipped position and, even more so, their banal existence.

I've met three. The Queen of England, Princess Anne, and the Duchess of Wales. That would have been Camilla, back in 1993, in Kenya on an escapist private safari right during the outing of her affair with Prince Charles and his infamous tawdry musings during a cell phone conversation. Metaphoric thinking, too, is yet another royal limitation.

They don't impress. More said isn't worth the keystrokes.

This past week juxtaposed the royal and the human prince. The gob-smacking shenanigans of Prince Harry and the very sad passing of Neil Armstrong.

I had the fortune of knowing Neil Armstrong. My husband spent a lot more time with him than I. But our experiences weave the same golden thread in a tapestry of what Ernest Hemingway called the best people: the feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to tell the truth, the capacity for sacrifice.

But Neil Armstrong possessed more. He walked the path of modesty with the clarity of a full moon rising. At lunch one day at the home of a mutual friend, I asked him if he had a little piece of moon rock in his home. With a kindly physiognomy that was prelude to a revealing reply, he softly said: "I don't. The moon rocks belong to the people of this country."

I wanted to crawl under the table in embarrassment for having even wondered how surreal it must be to have a piece of the universe.

The shocking moment came one day when he asked my husband to take him flying in an Aviat Husky. Why on earth did he need my husband to fly the plane?! A former test pilot, aerospace engineer, and, need I say, first man to land on the moon and with a computer that had, as he put it that day, eight times less memory than an IBM home computer released in 1981? Twelve years after Apollo 11's lunar landing!

Yes. And only because he wasn't checked out in that sort of plane and with deference to the FAA (which was nowhere in sight) and respect for the plane's owner. For all you non-flyers out there: Could he have flown it legally and flawlessly without my husband at the helm?

Absolutely.

That was Neil Armstrong. Quiet, unassuming, respectful of others, "only doing his job."

If music is the "universal" language that sparks communal emotions and rejoicing (and it is), then the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak's beautiful "Song to the Moon" speaks volumes about Armstrong. Listen to it here, sung by the beautiful Renee Fleming, and see if it doesn't give you those universal goose-bumps and emotion-laden thoughts of an earth-bound soul whose actions reflect the heavens.

Based on a Czech fairy tale which ends with Rusalka thanking the Prince for letting her experience human love and commends his soul to God.

If Dvorak were alive today, no doubt his "song to the moon" for Neil would thank this unique human being for that and more. For flying us to the moon with class, grace, dignity, honesty and, most importantly, humility unknown to princes.

And for letting the light of that silvery moon serve as a lesson to us all that the not so small steps of human princes on earth and moon are indeed great leaps for mankind.

Armstrong certainly had what Tom Wolfe called the right stuff but in his case it's the stuff of fairy tales, too.

Rest in the peace and love you left behind, Neil Armstrong. You will be missed.

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About the Author

Marilia Duffles is a contributor to the Financial Times and the Economist. She has also written for the Globo, Brazil's leading newspaper.