I’ve always been a little bored by the “three dinner guests” parlor game.
Not that I don’t enjoy asking myself whom I’d truly invite to such a fantasy meal; it’s just that everybody else’s answers always seem to be Jesus, Abraham Lincoln and some movie star.
Here’s a better question: If you could meet one living person on Earth – shake a hand, have a brief chat, that’s it – whom would it be?
I have had the same answer for four decades, and a few days ago it came true.
Some months ago, the Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas called to ask if I would like to interview astronaut Walt Cunningham, who flew the first Apollo mission 40 years ago this month.
I was thrilled to meet him, and he was beyond gracious in enduring my endless questions about our race for the moon, which captured my heart as an adolescent and never let go.
My devotion to every detail of America’s reach for the moon earned me official Space Dork credentials in junior high school. Decades later, it yielded a payoff beyond description.
Watching men walk on the moon from 1969 to 1972, I thought surely I would visit the moon as a tourist during my lifetime. But I never thought I would ever come close to meeting any of the men whose journeys inspired the world for a moment in history, and kids like me forever.
But it turned out that the Frontiers of Flight Museum, which proudly displays the command module from that first Apollo mission, had plans to honor Walt Cunningham in celebration of the 40 years since Apollo 7 and 50 years since the birth of NASA.
They asked if I would emcee the luncheon and moderate the panel discussion. As soon as I could blurt out yes, the guest list started to take shape:
•Bill Anders of the Apollo 8 crew, who snapped the iconic photo of a blue Earth above the craggy, gray lunar horizon at Christmastime in 1968 as man orbited the moon for the first time.
•Fort Worth’s own Alan Bean, the fourth man to walk on the moon in November 1969.
•Flight Director Gene Kranz, who motivated Mission Control to bring a crippled Apollo 13 spacecraft home safely in 1970.
Already an Apollo-era kid’s dream come true. But then we learned someone else wanted to come.
Neil Armstrong’s steps on the moon were half his life ago. Now 78, he refuses all autograph requests, knowing anything he would sign would be on eBay by nightfall. A quiet, guarded man, he has shunned every beam of the limelight that could have swallowed him whole as the first man on the moon. He makes virtually no public appearances.
But he is unfailingly generous to causes he believes in, and one of them is the legacy of his colleagues who put human footprints on another world. He gladly devoted hours to the luncheon and the panel discussion, which meant I spent about five total minutes speaking to him publicly and about 60 seconds privately when the events concluded.
I told him that it was an unparalleled honor to meet him, and as I shook his hand he clasped my arm and thanked me for the job I had done.
It was my joy, I said, to give a few hours of service to an event honoring people whose exploits had filled me with wonder since my childhood. As he headed out of the museum through a crowd of hundreds of other outstretched hands, I remembered the magical night of July 20, 1969, as his ghostly image bounded with Buzz Aldrin’s on the lunar surface on a night that unified the world like nothing before or since. I was 11.
Those images were from a quarter-million miles away. Now, equally indelible, I have a memory at age 51 of meeting that man and thanking him, which I could not have expected in a thousand lifetimes.
And for the record, my dinner answer has always been Jesus, Abraham Lincoln and Neil Armstrong.
Have PoliticalMavens.com delivered to your inbox in a daily digest by clicking here