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Man on the Moon

Close encounters with Neil Armstrong.

By Kathye Fetsko Petrie
Man on the Moon

Forty years ago this July 20, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. Five years later, he was at the Reading Air Show as a visitor—just like me. I was 21 years old at the time, with a passion for aviation.

Word spread that there was an astronaut among us. A fan of Armstrong’s since age 16, I’d watched the live moon landing on a neighbor’s television in Media. It wasn’t long before I spied him standing alone at the edge of a runway.

When I approached him, I went into a sort of trance, unable to stop staring at … Neil Armstrong’s shoes. The feet in those shoes had actually stood on the surface of the moon, literally going where no feet had gone before. I was mesmerized.

In those days, the world wasn’t so matter-of-fact about moon landings. They were as wondrous and impossible-seeming as, say, time travel would be today. Despite President Kennedy’s 1961 proclamation that we’d reach the moon by the end of the decade, I’d never really expected it to happen in my lifetime. Yet it had—and there I was in front of the very feet that had performed the, um, feat.

Flash forward to 1997. I’m married and have three sons, ages 15, 11 and 7. My husband, the children and I are traveling from our Delaware County home to visit friends in Dayton, Ohio. While there, we visit the National Museum of the United States Air Force and the Wright Bicycle Shop. The kids are starting to fray around the edges, so I resist the urge to stop at the Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum, which I know is in Ohio somewhere.

Our trip home takes us east for many hours. I awake from a nap and check a map. We’re about 20 miles south of the eastern Ohio town of Wakatomika.

I’m sure it’s the birthplace of Neil Armstrong, so I implore my husband to turn left. The children groan. The town is a half-hour out of our way. I try to sway them: Wouldn’t it be something to see the actual place where the man who walked on the moon lived when he was your age?

My husband turns the car in the town’s direction. The kids voice their objections. We’re on a small country road lined with fields filled with cows. There are very few houses, just a surfeit of fences and trees and grass—and a huge, open sky.

“This is the very sky that inspired Armstrong as a child,” I marvel. “Can you imagine him staring at the moon, not knowing he was destined to actually stand upon it someday?”

My companions are unimpressed. They’re also starving. Unfortunately for them, we’re surrounded by farmland—and not a single restaurant in sight. The landscape is timeless, nonetheless. It amazes me that a man could travel from such an old-fashioned place to outer space. Quite a journey.

We motor up some hills, past some farmhouses, and enter Wakatomika. I blink, and we are leaving it. What? Is that all there is? There was nothing there, save a few lonely residences. No marker or plaque celebrating a native son’s tremendous achievement. I’m indignant.

Then it hits me. I check the brochure in my travel folder: “Neil Armstrong was born in Wapakoneta” … not Wakatomika. Not surprisingly, Wapakoneta is also home to the Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum—and it’s on the other side of the state.

Wakatomika, Wapakoneta. An honest mistake, right?

Try telling that to my family—they still tease me about it. But that’s OK. I’ve already stood 2 feet from the man whose footprints are imbedded in the Sea of Tranquility, where it’s said they will remain forever.

Kathye Fetsko Petrie is the author of the children’s picture book Flying Jack, which includes an introduction by Reeve Lindbergh, daughter of aviation pioneers Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.