Wapakoneta May Not Have A Lot, But It Will Always Have Neil Armstrong
To most of the world, the late Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969, now some 50 years ago.
He was the Apollo astronaut the entire world watched on grainy, ghostly TV images as he stepped off the lunar module ladder and left his boot print in the chalky moon dust.
But, in Wapakoneta, a town of about 10,000 on the flat and fertile plains of western Ohio, 113 miles north of downtown Cincinnati on Interstate 75, he is remembered by old timers as the shy and quiet son of Steve and Viola Armstrong, who learned to fly a rickety airplane at the age of 16 a few miles north of town at the now largely abandoned Port Kaneta air strip.
To the people of Wapakoneta – which otherwise has little to distinguish itself from dozens of other small Ohio towns that dot western Ohio's farmland – he is not only the first man to walk on the moon, he hung the moon.
He was the man who planted the Stars and Strips at Tranquility Base on the moon's surface, and he did it not only for the United States or the world or even the mankind for whom he had just made a giant leap, but for Wapakoneta.
At least, that is the way many in the Auglaize County seat see it, as today, they begin a 10-day celebration of the moon landing, a 50th anniversary observance combined with the annual Summer Moon Festival that Wapakoneta has been putting on ever since Neil Armstrong put the town on the map.
But this one will be the Summer Moon Festival on steroids.
There will be a hot air balloon rally; a parade through town; "Launch Day" festivities at the Armstrong Air and Space Museum to commemorate the day Armstrong and his crew mates, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins, were rocketed into space from Cape Canaveral; a "Rock to the '60s" dinner at St. Paul Church, the Armstrong family church; a Miss Summer Moon Festival Pageant, where a local young woman will compete for the honor presiding over the festivities; and visits from five other Ohio astronauts.
Is there more? Indeed there is. A full list of events can be found at Firstonthemoon.org.
What you will not find at the Summer Moon Festival is the man for whom it has been staged all of these years: Neil Armstrong.
He died from complications of heart surgery in Cincinnati in 2012 at the age of 82.
But the people of his hometown rarely saw him after 1969, when he returned for a post-mission parade that drew tens of thousands to Wapakoneta.
After leaving NASA in 1971, he took a position as a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati, a job he held until 1979. Over the years, he lived on a farm in Warren County and then in Indian Hill. His remains were buried at sea, in the Atlantic Ocean, by the U.S. Navy.
Ten years ago, I was writing for the Cincinnati Enquirer and I pitched a story about Wapakoneta on the 40th anniversary of the flight of Apollo 11.
Photographer Michael E. Keating and I spent a few days there, staying in a motel next to the Armstrong Air and Space Museum.
We wandered around, talking to people who well remember the shy young high school boy named Neil. Others were far too young, but they all seemed to be steeped in the legend of Neil Armstrong. It was something I could relate to, having grown up in Dayton, Ohio, and having heard the story of two Dayton boys, Wilbur and Orville Wright, who gave the world powered flight.
Michael and I were there in the throes of the Summer Moon Festival; the town was swollen with visitors and the local restaurants – joining in the spirit of "The Taste of Wapakoneta" – were running daily outer space-themed specials.
At the Comfort Zone Diner on Wapakoneta's main drag, you could order up the One Giant Sandwich for Mankind, with one-third pound of beef, along with a Blue Moon Sundae.
The local Bob Evans restaurant featured Houston, We Have a Pot Roast.
At the Alpha Café, which had one of the most beautiful carved oak bars I have ever seen, one of the lunch specials was a hand-breaded tenderloin sandwich called The Flying Saucer.
The Alpha was famous in local lore because of gangster Al Capone, of all people. When things got too hot with the law in Chicago, Capone would head southeast to his hideaway at nearby Indian Lake. In Wapakoneta, folks say Capone would always stop in the Alpha Café and belly up to the bar for a few shots before heading to the lake.
Across the road from the Armstrong Museum, The Lucky Star Café featured the 3-2-1 Lift Off breakfast, a power-packed, protein-laden meal. Those not inclined to gorge on eggs and bacon could try the Apollo Rocket Salad instead.
We stopped at RJ's Coffee Cup, a diner on the north side of town. Owner John Schenker wasn't sure what his diner was doing for a Taste of Wapakoneta, so we showed him the official menu – it included the Martian Burger with Crater Cheese (that would be Swiss cheese to you), Moon Rocks (fried mushrooms) and Alien Fries and Orbit Rings.
"We’re doing all that?,'' Schenker said. "We'd better get busy."
Up and down Wapakoneta's Main Street nearly every shop window had some kind of display of space-themed items – old Life magazines from July 1969; commemorative moon landing Pepsi cans; fancy upholstered chairs with a moon theme.
My favorite was in the window of the Goodyear Shoe Repair shop. Owner Pat Barrett was quite proud of her three foot-tall yard goose, dressed in a lunar space suit and a space helmet.
We had the good fortune to run into Rachel Barber, the administrator and sole employee of the Auglaize County Historical Society.
Barber took us on a ride inside the city and out in the country surrounding Wapakoneta.
She showed us the farm house about five miles south of town where Armstrong was born and where he lived until his family moved away for a while. The Armstrong family returned to Wapakoneta when Neil was ready for high school and she showed us the neat and well-kept Cape Cod-style house where the family lived on their return.
And then we took a ride on narrow country roads to Port Kaneta, a tiny air strip, which is where Neil, at the age of 16, learned to fly a plane. At the time, the air strip was overgrown and clearly was out of use, but, to Barber, it was historic ground.
"This is where it all began,'' she said. "This is where the famous astronaut's passion was born."
Back at her office, Barber showed us her high school yearbook, where she had autographs from most of her classmates – but not the shy, reserved Neil Armstrong.
"Some people complain that he never comes around here,'' Barber said. "I don't get it. What does he owe us? Nothing really.
"He was quiet and shy as a boy and he didn't change as a man,'' she said. "That's just Neil."