July 17, 2019

“Too Deep for Tears” –  “Goodnight Moon” and the 50th Anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s First Step

By Stuart Mitchner

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
—William Wordsworth

The younger you are, the closer you are to the moon, whether it’s dangling in a mobile above the crib, or the funny-faced thing the cow jumped over, or the serene presence just outside the bedroom window you’re saying goodnight to as you serenade your drowsy two-year-old with the little book by Margaret Wise Brown. In the story made at once wondrous and intimate by Clement Hurd’s images, the moon is there with you, in the “great green room,” as close and as real as the teddy bears and the kittens and the telephone. I’m also thinking of the moonlight immediacy captured some 220 years ago by Samuel Taylor Coleridge when the author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner grabbed his notebook to jot down this entry about his first-born child: “Hartley fell down & hurt himself — I caught him up crying & screaming — & ran out of doors with him. — The Moon caught his eye — he ceased crying immediately; — & his eyes & the tears in them, how they glittered in the Moonlight!”

A “Very Special” Remembrance

Fifty years ago yesterday Apollo 11 began the American journey that ended on the moon, July 20, 1969. While celebratory coverage — like the special section in Sunday’s New York Times — attempts to do justice to an awe-inspiring event, it’s also a reminder of how much we, at least the grown-ups among us, have taken the miracle for granted, as well as the moon itself.

In Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight (Thomas Dunne 2014), NBC News Space Correspondent Jay Barbee describes Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin performing a series of “chores” that included planting an American flag “stiffened with wire so that it would appear to fly on the airless moon,” whose “subsurface was so hard that they could barely get the pole to stand.” Besides the placing of mementoes for “five deceased American and Russian spacemen,” several other undisclosed “remembrances” were left, one of them, in Barbee’s words, “very special” to Armstrong, “a part of an unfinished life.” He’s referring to Karen Anne (“Muffie”) Armstrong, the two-year-old who died from an inoperable brain tumor on her parents’ sixth wedding anniversary, January 28, 1962.

According to Barbee, who became Armstrong’s friend, “Neil’s analytical and scientifically driven core would not permit him to believe there could not be a procedure to surgically remove the tumor …. He would long for his daughter … for the rest of his life,” never losing “those special
protective feelings he had for his little girl.” People close to him were convinced that Karen Anne’s death “was the single most important reason he would submit his name to become an astronaut. Her death gave him a new purpose.” 

Looking through the copy of Goodnight Moon we still have after 43 years, I’m thinking that the same little book, first published by Harper & Row in 1947 and selling in the tens of thousands a decade later, would have been a natural for Neil and Janet Armstrong to read to their two-year-old daughter in May 1961, no doubt amused by the way the domesticated storybook moon coincided with President Kennedy’s call for the nation to commit itself to the goal of landing a man there “and returning him safely to earth” before the end of the decade.

Mailer Gets It

The most memorable account of the occasion I’ve read is Norman Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon (Little Brown 1970), “the cosmically sprawling monograph” James Parker refers to in the July Atlantic as “an utterly idiosyncratic take on the moon landing.” After describing it as “bonkers,” “deliriously tasteless,” and “bloated with prophetic wind,” Parker qualifies the put-downs, pointing out that, as always in Mailer’s universe, “the dross and the gold are whirled together.”

Covering the pre-launch press conference held with the Apollo crew, Mailer appears to be following the example set with his portrait of Jack Kennedy at the 1960 Democratic convention (“Superman at the Supermart”), reinventing Neil Armstrong as a fascinatingly ambiguous hero in the great American narrative. In Mailer’s shoot-from-the-hip profile, originally published in Life magazine, Armstrong had “the sad lonely mien of a cross-country runner… also the sly privacy of a man whose thoughts may never be read.” Not only was he “simply not like other men,” he “was apparently in communion with some string in the universe others did not think to play.” He was “the man nearest to being saintly” among the astronauts, “yet there was something as hard, small-town and used in his face as the look of a cashier over pennies….He would smile on command…a very useful smile…the smile of an enterprising small-town boy. He could be an angel, he could be the town’s devil…You could not penetrate the flash of the smile — all of America’s bounty was in it. Readiness to serve, innocence, competence, modesty, sly humor….”

The payload delivered by Mailer’s improvisatory approach to reportage (“a vertigo of impressions”) comes with Armstrong’s response to a question about “the maximum tension” felt in the moments “before blast-off.” Presumably without knowledge of the little girl’s death, Mailer is alert to the emotional undertone in Armstrong’s reply: “It’s nothing new. It’s the thing that’s been done before, and done very well, and we’re quite sure this girl will go.” The last words were spoken “solemnly, pleasantly, lightly, carefully, sadly, sweetly.” Call it what you will, prescient genius or sheer luck, Mailer’s spontaneous litany suggests Armstrong’s still-acute sense of loss, beginning with the hint of paternal affection in the use of the word girl for a rocket to the moon. Mailer concludes his demonstration of the difference between a writer with a mission and a journalist with an assignment, observing that the character he has just delineated “was a presence in the room, as much a spirit as a man.”

“A few months before Neil’s own passing,” Barbee writes in A Life of Flight, “I asked him, ‘Is there something of Muffie’s on the moon?’ I read his smile to mean yes.”

“First Man”

My lack of interest in last fall’s release of Damien Chazelle’s biopic First Man is a good example of what I meant about taking the moon landing for granted. You’d have thought that a film made by an ex-Princeton High student and Academy Award-winning director would have attracted my interest. Even now, all I’ve seen are some YouTube clips, notably the scene on the moon when Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) leaves a sentimental remembrance, his daughter’s bracelet, Hollywood’s version of the secret behind the death-bed smile Barbee observed and that Mailer intuited, nicely described by A.O. Scott in his New York Times review “as a kind of Rosebud, a half-buried center of emotional and psychological gravity, a source of motive and meaning” for Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy).

Along with the gripe Fox News passed on to Trump so he could feed the red meat to his base — that the film failed to show Armstrong and Aldrin planting the American flag — there was some  critical debate about the moment when Gosling appears to be in tears as he gives his daughter’s bracelet to the moon. While Armstrong might not mind the idea of the bracelet, he would almost certainly disapprove of the tears. As the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane puts it, “The whole narrative is shaped around the death of his daughter; he has visions of her when he least expects them, even upon reaching his destination. Is that really a teardrop that we see inside his helmet, sliding down his cheek? …. Skillful and compelling this film may be, but, if Neil Armstrong had been the sort of fellow who was likely to cry on the moon, he wouldn’t have been the first man chosen to go there.”

The idea of the “first man” leaving his dead child’s bracelet on the moon does have a
fairytale quality. You could even see it as homage to Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd’s little book, as if one of those everyday objects in the “great green room,” maybe a mitten or a teddy bear, had gone along for the ride.

As usual, I’m indebted to the Princeton Public Library, this time for the copy of Jay Barbee’s Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight that I consulted. Also on the shelves was the biography the film is based on, James R. Hansen’s First Man (Simon & Schuster 2005), published almost a decade earlier and at 769 pages almost twice as long. I picked Barbee’s biography because of length and the fact that it was the most recent, and more than that, because of John Glenn’s foreword, where after pointing out that Armstrong “was never comfortable with fame, hated talking about himself,” Glenn, the first man to orbit the earth, asks “so how do you write about Neil Armstrong’s life of flight? It helps if you are Jay Barbee, a friend and a pilot.”