The comic strip "Beetle Bailey" describes the misadventures of the titular Army private at a forlorn post called Camp Swampy. One of Beetle's friends is another private named Zero, who is not terribly bright, yet often insightful. In one of the episodes of the strip many years ago, Zero came upon Beetle watching a movie on television, and sat down to watch with him. After a few minutes he turned to Beetle and asked, "Who's that nasty guy in the ratty clothes, with the cigarette hanging out of his mouth?"
Beetle replied, "He's the hero."
Zero absorbed this and watched further, then asked, "Why is he driving his car down the sidewalk and shooting at people?"
Beetle explained, "That's the line of work he's in."
Zero turned back to the movie and before long turned back to Beetle to ask, "Why is he beating up that pretty girl and kicking her down the stairs?"
Beetle replied, "That's the way he finds things out."
Zero sat back and pondered all this, then turned back to Beetle and observed, "I think we need another word for "hero."
I thought about this scene yesterday when I read the sad news that Neil Armstrong, the American astronaut who was the first human being to set foot on the Moon, had passed away. In a time when we have too few true heroes, the loss of a man like Neil Armstrong is doubly unfortunate.
On July 20, 1969, Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin landed on the surface of the Moon and spent about ten hours on the surface, collecting rocks and taking photographs before returning to the orbiting Apollo 11 spacecraft for the return to Earth and a hero's welcome. As it happened, I didn't know the landing had been successful until several days after the event ... I was hiking in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of southwestern Colorado with the Colorado Outward Bound School, and only got the news when we came out of the wilderness a few days later to resupply at a local campground.
The moon has looked a little different every night since.
After his historic flight, Neil Armstrong never returned to space. He managed research and technology programs for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) before resigning in 1971 to teach engineering at the University of Cincinnati.
He was an American hero of the old school: calm, quiet, and self-effacing. He never cashed in on his fame as so many others might have, choosing to live a quiet life out of the public eye.
He was, and remains, a reminder of what can be great about America. And his passing reminds us that hapless Private Zero got his observation wrong: what we need isn't another word for "hero" ... what we need is more people like Neil Armstrong who can live up to the meaning and expectations of the perfectly good word we have.
Rest in peace, Neil. They aren't making them like you any more.
Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.
* This post is based on a speech I gave to the Arkla-Barkers Toastmasters Club at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, in 1977.