Guideposts Classics: Neil Armstrong's Mother on Her Son's Love of Flying

In this Guideposts story from February 1970, Mrs. Stephen Armstrong shares how her son's faith helped her accept his decision to fly.

- Posted on Jul 11, 2019

Neil Armstrong, Apollo XI

Most people think Neil Armstrong took the most important step in his life when he set foot on the moon. But as his mother, I remember an even greater step taken in our old home on Pearl Street in Wapakoneta, Ohio, on another July day—23 years earlier.

The story begins when Neil was two and his father and I lived in Cleveland, not far from the airport. Like many families during the depression days of the early 30s, one of our inexpensive Sunday-afternoon pastimes was airplane watching. Neil stood between us, his little face pressed so intently against the fence that it often left red marks. We were always ready to leave long before he was, and his plea was always the same: “Can’t we see just one more airplane?”

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I was often uneasy about Neil’s obvious fascination with planes. And I had to admit to myself that this child, our firstborn, was very special to me. After Stephen and I married, I was haunted by the fear that maybe I couldn’t conceive. I had been an only child and often thought, What if I can’t have even one baby?

Then finally the day came when our doctor assured me I was pregnant. The minute I got home I went down on my knees and thanked God for His blessing to us and, in the fullness of my heart, I dedicated this child-to-be to Him. In the months that followed, I prayed steadily that this child would be given a thirst for knowledge and the capacity for learning which someday would accomplish noble deeds—hopefully to serve the work of the Lord.

One Sunday morning, when Neil was five or six, he and my husband left for Sunday school. When they returned, both had peculiar expressions on their faces. Stephen was a bit white-faced, but Neil was beaming from ear to ear.

“What is wrong with you two?” I asked. There was utter silence.

Suddenly a thought came to me. “Did you go up in that airplane I read about in the paper!”

Now they looked relieved. Yes, that is exactly what they had done. A pilot was barnstorming in town, and Stephen said rates were cheaper in the morning. He had not really enjoyed the flight, but little Neil had loved every minute of it.

One morning Neil and I were walking down the cluttered aisles of a dime store looking for cereal bowls. My husband and I now had a wonderful family of three active children who consumed vast quantities of cereal. Somehow the bowls were always getting chipped or broken. I was selecting five shiny new ones when I felt a tug at my arm. “Mom, will you buy this for me?” Neil held up a gaily colored box.

“What is it?” I asked cautiously.

“It’s a model-airplane kit.” The eagerness in his voice betrayed his excitement. “Mom, this way I could learn how to make airplanes. It’s twenty cents.”

Quickly I thought how 20 cents would buy two cereal bowls, but how could I resist the urgency and enthusiasm in my son’s voice?

“Honey,” I said gently, “could you find a kit for ten cents?”

“Sure, Mom!” His face radiant, he raced back to the toy counter.

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Although Neil was then only eight years old, that was the beginning of two important occupations in his life. The first was his meticulous assembly line for many model airplanes. We put a table in one corner of the living room, and it was never moved—even when company came.

The second occupation made the first one possible. Beginning with his first model plane, Neil was never without a job, no matter how small. First he cut grass in a cemetery for 10 cents an hour. Later he cleaned out the bread mixer at Neumeister’s Bakery every night. After we moved to Wapakoneta, Neil delivered orders for the neighborhood grocery, swept out the hardware store and opened cartons at Rhine and Brading’s Pharmacy.

When Neil wasn’t working or studying, he rode his bicycle three miles north on a gravel road to the Wapak Flying Service Airport. Today this field isn’t used, but in 1944 it bustled with activity. A young instructor, Charles Finkenbine, kept three light airplanes busy as trainers. Budding pilots came from surrounding counties to learn to fly, and Neil at 14 was a familiar figure sitting on the sidelines, his eyes glued to every takeoff and landing. One afternoon I was making grape jelly when the screen door banged as he rushed into the kitchen.

“Mom,” he shouted, “Mr. Finkenbine let me touch one of the airplanes!”

“That’s fine, son,” I said.

“He says from now on I can be a grease monkey and one of these days he’ll teach me to fly!”

“Are you sure you’re old enough, Neil?” I tried to hide the anxiety in my voice.

He flashed his wide, confident grin. “Don’t worry. I’ll be careful.”

The screen door banged again, and he was gone. I’m afraid his assurance did little to comfort me. By now I was beginning to wonder how the Lord could be served by a youngster so completely captivated by airplanes.

From then on every penny Neil earned went for flying lessons. At 40 cents an hour at the pharmacy it took him between 22 and 23 hours of work to pay for one nine-dollar lesson. But both Dick Brading and Charles Finkenbine were generous men: The first often let Neil off early to go to the airport, the latter managed free flying time for our son in exchange for odd jobs around the hangar. Neil’s goal was to get his flying license as soon as he reached his 16th birthday in August.

In July our two boys, Neil and Dean, with their father as scoutmaster, attended Boy Scout camp in Defiance, Ohio. The evening they were due back I planned a special homecoming supper. They thought they’d be home at five o’clock, so I peeled potatoes and put them on to boil at 4:30, then started to set the table.

At 5:15 I picked up my darning basket and started to mend some of Dean’s socks. An hour dragged by. I finished the socks and walked to the window. They were more than an hour overdue, and I knew something was wrong.

Then looking through the grape arbor, I saw our car drive into the garage. My husband appeared in the doorway, his face pale and drawn. Fear clutched my throat.

“What’s wrong, Stephen? Has something happened to the boys?”

“No, they’re all right. Dean is here with me, and Neil will be along soon. But there has been an accident.”

“What do you mean?”

“Viola, come into the living room, and I’ll tell you all about it.” He put his arm around me, and together we walked to the sofa.

“We were on our way home this afternoon,” he continued, “when we noticed an airplane flying parallel to us. Neil recognized it immediately as one of the trainers from the Wapak Flying Service. Some student was practicing takeoffs and landings in a field near the road. Then he must have dipped too low over the telephone wires, because suddenly the airplane was in trouble.”

“Oh no!” I whispered.

“It nosedived into the field, and at the same time Neil yelled, ‘Stop the car!’ and before I knew it, he had climbed over the fence and was running toward the plane. Then we all got out and ran over to help too. Neil was lifting a young fellow out of the cockpit, and just as we got there he died in Neil’s arms.”

“Oh Stephen, how awful! That poor boy and his family.” Then a terrifying new thought seared my brain. “It might have been Neil.”

“Yes, Viola, it could have been.” My husband’s voice roughened with emotion. “Instead it was a young man from Lima whom Neil knew. Neil is staying with him until the ambulance comes.”

A car door slammed, and I heard slow footsteps coming up the front-porch steps. Then suddenly Neil and I were in each other’s arms, tears streaming down our faces.

“He was my friend, Mom. And he was only twenty!” I could hardly bear the anguish in his voice.

“I know, honey.” I released him, with a mother’s sudden awareness that her son was no longer a boy. I forced my voice to sound cheerful. “Do you want some supper?”

“No, thanks. I’m going up to my room.” He stopped on the landing and tried to smile. “Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll be all right.”

“I know you will, Neil.” I watched him walk up the stairs and quietly close the door as dry sobs tore through me.

Stephen and I both thought it best to let him alone for a while. But we could not help wondering if Neil would want to keep on flying. Both of us agreed he must fight this battle himself.

The next two days were the hardest of my life. As all mothers know, whatever hurts your children hurts you twice as much. And yet I knew he had to make this decision himself. Had our closeness with the Creator and the nightly prayers through the years prepared him to find the help he needed so desperately now? At this stage, it was out of my hands. All I could do was wait.

I tried to carry on a normal family life, but my heart and mind were always in that back bedroom with the iron bed, yellow wallpaper, the single overhead light fixture and the bureau covered with model airplanes. What was he thinking? What would he decide?

Finally, near dusk on the second day, I couldn’t stand the silence and separation any longer. I baked oatmeal and raisin cookies and took a plate of them and a glass of cold milk upstairs.

“Neil, may I come in, please? Here are some cookies still warm from the oven.”

He opened the door, and I walked into the stuffy little room and put the cookies on the bureau. What I saw made my heart leap. Next to a model airplane was an old Sunday-school notebook with a picture of Jesus on the cover. It was now turned to the page where years before Neil had written in his large childish hand, “The Character of Jesus,” and had listed ten qualities of His. Among those that caught my eye were: He was sinless, He was humble, He championed the poor, He was unselfish. But the one which struck me the most was number eight—He was close to God.

Suddenly I felt like singing hosanna. “Honey, what have you decided about flying?” I asked him.

Neil’s eyes held mine in a steady gaze, then he said firmly, “Mom, I hope you and Dad will understand, but with God’s help, I must go on flying.”

For a minute I was jolted as I thought of that other mother only a few miles away in Lima, brokenhearted and perhaps standing in her son’s empty room at this very minute. I asked God for strength and the right words, and He gave them to me.

“All right, son. Dad and I will go along with your decision.” My heart was pounding. “And, Neil,” I said, “when you get your license in a few weeks, may I be your first passenger?”

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