Published at http://www.deafnews.net (Deaf News Network) on August 28, 2013
Dust to Dust
Considering the legacies of two men with the last name of Armstrong, one year later
Fear no more the heat o’ the sun;
Nor the furious winter’s rages,
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney sweepers come to dust.
– William Shakespeare, Fear No More
The Twain Shall Meet: August 2012
After a long, quiet but distinguished career as a pilot, astronaut and engineer, Neil Armstrong passed away on August 25, 2012, at the age of 82. High praise and fond reminiscences poured into the country from around the world, praising Neil’s quiet dignity and legendary courage. The world paused to remember where they were on the day he touched down on the moon, marking an epochal achievement for humanity, and appreciated his reluctance to embrace being a celebrity.
On the flip side of the coin during that same month, there was Lance Armstrong, he of the same last name as Neil’s, vainly trying to keep his crumbling reputation as a legendary biker together in the face of mounting evidence of illegal PED use and revealing testimony about his behavior behind closed doors. Back when he was winning the Tour de France on a repeat basis, Lance was eagerly surfing the fervent waves of idealization and profit which had been created by a partly-mythical story of his own making – that of a cancer survivor using nothing but grit and endurance to win the Tour de France seven consecutive times. That story began to fall apart piece by piece several years later, after his last race.
And so it came to be that the paths of two men with the last name of Armstrong would meet in August 2012, with one path coming to an earthly end and the other to a fiery, controversial end.
Neil Armstrong: For All Mankind
Growing up in Ohio during the Great Depression, it was already evident that Neil was focused on one thing only: getting to fly planes way up in the wild blue yonder. A nomadic childhood spent with his family in many different towns allowed Armstrong the chance to both witness and participate in aerial events, such as air races, held around the state, which then led to his first flight on a passenger plane. Along the way he became a dedicated Boy Scout and earned a flight certificate at age 15, essentially choosing flying over driving.
From there he went on to study aeronautical engineering at Purdue University, under a tuition plan that required three years of service in the Navy. Entering the Navy in 1949 (without completing his degree), he qualified as a Naval Aviator in 18 months and went into combat shortly afterwards, in Korea. He conducted multiple missions over Korea, and had to eject out of a damaged fighter jet during one such mission. Neil did not get injured or shot down, and completed his tour of duty. He returned to Purdue and completed his studies, moving on to conducting test flights of experimental jets with the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), which would eventually become the National Aeronautic and Space Agency (NASA).
Quiet courage was a big part of Armstrong’s mental and emotional makeup, and so it was used to great effect during his test pilot career. There were multiple accidents including the jets, all of which he and/or a co-pilot survived, and it served to build up his reputation as a cool-headed, analytical pilot. It was his steady performance and technical aptitude that gained the attention of the then-embryonic organization NASA, and he was selected for several programs involving space flight, where he continued flying test jets. His name was then selected once more, for the ultimate program of programs: the Apollo program. Thus began his long journey to the moon.
Armstrong started out as a command pilot for the Gemini program, Apollo’s predecessor, and reached orbit in Gemini 8. After completing the program, he went on to become a command pilot for the Apollo program, and was chosen to command Apollo 11, the long-awaited mission to touch down on the moon. He reached the moon on July 20, 1969, safely but not without a few tension-filled moments. It was Neil’s cool-headedness that saved the day, and ensured both a safe landing and takeoff. He was the first man out of the hatch, and upon stepping foot on the lunar surface he uttered the immortal sentence that would come to define him afterwards: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
It was the crowning achievement of his life, and the world’s most astonishing achievement. But, being just like the man he was before he touched down on the moon, he chose not to bask in the immortal glory and fame that befell him as a result of being the first man on the moon. He instead returned to his humble roots in Ohio as an engineer and consultant, and stayed out of the limelight. Neil Armstrong was the truest of true heroes, and the humblest of humble men.
Lance Armstrong: Of Fallen Heroes and False Idols
Following in Neil’s footsteps as someone who knew what he wanted to do at a young age, Lance began competing in triathlons and made his mark early on as a gritty upcomer. After being a triathlete for a few years, he made the full-time switch over to competitive road biking, with every intention of competing in and winning the Tour de France, the biking world’s premier race. He put together a profitable and successful biking career, and put himself in prime position to go after the Tour de France. And then the weight of the world fell upon him.
He was diagnosed with stage 3 testicular cancer, which meant that the cancer originally located in his testicles had spread to his lungs, abdomen and brain. His biking career would have to be put on hold. Lance took immediate action, having his cancer-devastated testicle removed and a course of aggressive chemotherapy laid on along with a cocktail of drugs that he chose specifically to ensure that he would ride again. Doctors gave him a less than forty percent chance of survival. He beat the odds.
Armstrong then launched his comeback with the U.S. Postal cycling team, fully intent on making it to the Tour de France and winning it. This he did so in dramatic and dominating fashion, winning seven straight titles. All around the world, people praised him for his courage in beating cancer, and he sold himself as a cancer survivor who could still achieve great things with just courage and determination. He started a foundation and sold his famous yellow rubber wristbands, which had one word: “Livestrong”. Scarcely anyone questioned the suddenly meteoric rise of Lance’s post-cancer career, and it was chalked up to the same determination and grace he showed during his bout with cancer.
He was a hero to everybody. He was an idol to cancer patients and survivors everywhere. And then that same public image and identity, so jealously guarded and professionally promulgated over the years, dissolved into ash in the course of a year. His bitter rivals began to appear out of the woodwork, and the doping allegations that remained in the shadows for a long time suddenly came out into the open. It had been a cat-and-mouse chase for some time, and Lance eluded the trap several times while still maintaining his claim of complete innocence. The hunt was still on, however.
All at once, the legacy of Lance Armstrong was crumbling into pieces, and the final blow came when the United States Anti-Doping Agency announced that they had found evidence of doping by Armstrong, and witnesses who were willing to testify. In August of 2012, the agency officially stripped him of all competitive biking results (his Tour de France titles, and so on…) and banned him from riding competitively ever again. Giving up all claim to being both a courageous hero and an international idol as a cancer-surviving biker at the top of his sport, Lance finally admitted on January 4, 2013 that he had doped while competing.
Dust to Dust: At the Intersection of Courage and Fraud
And so the legacies of two men with the last name of Armstrong would eventually come to meet in August of 2012, at the intersection of courage and fraud. In America, more so than the rest of the world, we tend to passionately go the full distance in mythologizing our heroes and villains, even if they don’t deserve the attention or legacy that we choose to bestow upon them. In the case of Neil Armstrong and Lance Armstrong, one man completely deserved the public legacy and farewell that he earned in spades by daring to go out to the stars on a rocket made with 1960s technology, and the other man, in the end, in the bitter end, turned out to not have deserved everything that had been granted him by an awed and inspired world.
The legacy of Neil Armstrong will always remain with us as an example of what we can accomplish if we put our mind to it, and infuse that same effort with copious reserves of courage, and the legacy of Lance Armstrong will unfortunately remain with us for some time to come, in that it will continue to serve as a cautionary tale of blindly accepting glittering idols without putting out the sadly necessary effort to verify his or her claims and results. In August of 2012, two men with the last name of Armstrong met at an intersection where one courageous man’s body turned into earthly dust with his legacy secure in history’s pages as the first man who stepped foot onto the moon for all mankind and the other man’s reputation and legacy virtually turned into dust, forever consigned to be remembered as a fraud.