When I was in Mrs. Cushman's third-grade class at Meadowbrook School in Hillsdale, New Jersey, we learned to write business letters. We practiced putting the date and the return address in the upper right corner, and then the inside address on the left, above the salutation. We learned to spell "sincerely" and to distinguish "dear" from "deer." Most letters were handwritten back in those days, and we practiced our cursive handwriting diligently, to make it neat and legible for the strangers who would receive our letters.
The assignment was to write two business letters: one to a favorite author, and one to another celebrity. I initially chose Lois Lenski as my author, and I was saddened when Mrs. Cushman told me that she had recently passed away. My second choice was Sydney Taylor, author of the "All Of A Kind Family" books. I'm glad that I chose her, because she responded to my letter, and we began a back-and-forth correspondence - a long-distance friendship - that lasted for the entire school year. Her kind encouragement made me decide for sure that I wanted to grow up to be a writer.
The celebrity recipient of my second letter was Neil A. Armstrong, astronaut and first man to set foot on the moon. I chose him because I was captivated by the idea that someone had actually walked on a celestial body other than the earth. To my great delight, Mr. Armstrong responded to my letter with a handwritten note and a huge manila envelope full of 8x10 glossy photographs from the 1969 Apollo 11 mission: pictures of the moon, of the earth from the moon, and of himself. One of the photographs was, as I recall, autographed. In his note, he told me how proud he was of me for learning to write such good letters, and he encouraged me to continue to be curious about all things scientific. Mrs. Cushman let me read his letter aloud to the class, and the beautiful pictures were handed around for all to see.
Mr. Armstrong made a huge impression on me at an early age. He was one of the great idols of my childhood, but he wasn't too busy to take a moment to write to a schoolchild and to make her day by enclosing some beautiful photographs with his letter. I don't have his letter or the pictures anymore; they have gone missing in the nearly forty intervening years between then and now. I have not lost, however, the memory of his kindness and his caring response. As a result, I have always thought of him as not just a great scientist and astronaut, but as a great role model and human being.
Mr. Armstrong died today at the age of 82. I've lost a childhood friend, and the world has lost an icon of an age gone by. I'll always think of him as I look up at the sky. My memory of our brief interaction will always be high up in the sky, and deep down in my heart.