Inspiration

by Tom Swift

WAPAKONETA, OHIO — We were driving up the highway, and off to the side of the road were telephone wires bare and black against the leaves of autumn. Winter wheat had been planted, and the cornfields remained. There was a barn constructed of gray wood. I saw the sign saying that the next exit was Wapakoneta, and I said that we should stop and look around.

So we did. Wapakoneta is a town of 9,214 in northwestern Ohio. It looks like so many small Ohio towns — its borders are invisible, but it is a self-contained universe, and a person can be born here, go to school here, work his whole life here, and be buried here. If you didn’t know anything about Wapakoneta, you might get the impression that a person who grows up here is pretty much destined to stay in Wapakoneta forever.

Yet no town on the globe may be more representative of the power and grandeur of the human dream. Many of the people who are born in Wapakoneta do stay here, and lead good lives here, and are happy here. One man who grew up in Wapakoneta decided that the boundaries around his town — around any town — are not permanent and not constraining. He left Wapakoneta and he went to the moon. In the history of the world he was the first man to step upon the moon, and this is where he got started. This is where the dream was allowed to be born.

Neil Armstrong grew up walking these Wapakoneta streets. He attended Blume High School here in the 1940s; at the age of 15 he began taking flying lessons at an airstrip north of town. He received his student pilot’s license before he got his driver’s license. On July 20, 1969, as commander of the Apollo 11 spacecraft, he stepped onto the moon, something no one else had ever done.

On this bright autumn afternoon we drove slowly through Wapakoneta. School had just let out; there were children on the sidewalks, heading for home. The day’s edition of the Wapakoneta Daily News beckoned readers from vending boxes on corners; the Farmers Insurance Group branch office was open for business. At the corner of Wood and Bellefontaine a house bore a “Fore Sale” sign; at the Zip Stop convenience store, Mountain Dew and Dr. Pepper were being featured.

You can do anything. If you want it badly enough, you can do anything that anyone ever dared to dream, and some things that no one ever dreamed. On this October afternoon, people worked on their cars on the streets of Wapakoneta, and three men sat and talked on the front stoop, and leaves were on the ground. You can do anything in the world.

On the outskirts of town, there was an air and space museum named in Armstron’s honor. I went inside; there were’t many visitors today. I looked at his spacesuit, and I studied the pictures of him that were on the wall. I asked if there was any biographical information available on him, and a woman who worked in the museum directed me to a skimpy four-page pamphlet printed on blue paper, which she said cost 25 cents a copy. “That’s the story of his life, what there is to tell,” she said.

I bought a copy. “You do’t have anything more complete?” I said.

There’s not much written about him,” she said. “He’s a very private man.” She said that he now lives elsewhere in Ohio, and does his best to avoid publicity.

Does he ever come back to Wapakoneta and look around your museum?” I asked.

“The last time he was in here was 12 years ago,” she said.

“Did he like the museum?“ I asked.

“He didn’t say he didn’t,” she said.

Encased in plastic, attached to the wall, were newspaper front pages from around the world-front pages from the day after Armstrong walked on the moon. There were papers from Italy and from Thailand, from England and from Germany; there was The New York Times, recording for history the day a man did what no one had ever done before. And then there was the Wapakoneta Daily News, the edition of July 21, 1969. The headline:  “Neil Steps on the Moon.”

You can do anything. You don`t have to be from a big town or a famous town; you don’t have to be from New York or from London or from Los Angeles. You can do anything you want, and you’re the only one who can decide to do it. On this autumn afternoon in 1992 the Auglaize River flowed gently through Wapakoneta, and a woman walked past the United Methodist Church holding her child’s hand, and at the Wapa Theater Sneakers was showing and tickets were three dollars apiece. The highway runs right past this town, and most travelers speed by without giving it a second thought, and you can do anything. You can do anything you dream.

-Bob Greene, “In Wapakoneta, the Sky’s the Limit,” Chicago Tribune, 10-19-1992