Monday, August 27, 2012

Chance encounter with a genuine American hero

It was Jan. 20, 1979, a Saturday morning at the Bull & Bear, a popular mom-and-pop restaurant in downtown Boca Raton.
The place was abuzz about Super Bowl XIII between Dallas and Pittsburgh the next day in Miami, but that changed not long after two couples entered and sat in a booth near the door.
I was seated at the counter and recognized one of the gentlemen.
Then, I thought, naaah, can't be him.
What would one of the most famous men in the world be doing here?
So I beckoned to owner Toni Brez, a real character.
See that guy over there, I said, the one facing us?
Isn't he an astronaut?
"How the heck should I know," Toni said. "Go ask him."
So I did, but not without some trepidation.
I knew the man valued his privacy.
I went up to the table and apologized for the interruption.
"Aren't you Neil Armstrong?" I asked.
"Yes, I am," he said, smiling.
I told him all I'd like to do was shake his hand and said how proud I was to meet him.
It was a brief encounter and Armstrong, who died last Saturday at 82, couldn't have been more gracious.
After I returned to my seat at the counter, Toni Brez came back.
"So, who is he?" she said.
Neil Armstrong, I said. The first man to walk on the moon.
Brez nodded and went about her business.
I figured that was that.
Five minutes later, I turned around and there was a line of patrons and waitresses queued up at Armstrong's table, each holding a napkin or piece of paper, hoping for an autograph.
Or just for a chance to meet this American hero, whose feat held a world spellbound almost 10 years earlier.
Later, when Armstrong's party finished breakfast and got up to leave, he turned at the door, smiled once more and all of us waved goodbye from the Bull & Bear.

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