Cultual Icons, Celebrities Give Us Cause to Reflect on Our Lives

Published September 7, 2012, Pawtucket Times 

             The death of those celebrities and cultural icons who were familiar to us growing up give us cause to reflect on their lives – and our own, as well as ones’ contributions to society.

             Astronaut Neil Armstrong traveled 250,000 miles from earth to the lunar surface and was the first man to walk on the moon.  At the age of 82, he died last month in Cincinnati, Ohio from complications resulted from cardiovascular procedures.

            With his death on August 25, 2012, hundreds of tributes would come in from all over the world, from world leaders, former astronauts and his family, calling him modest and humble, a “reluctant American hero,” an explorer –  an exceptional test pilot, recognized as a war veteran who flew 78 combat missions during the Korean conflict.

            Not unexpectedly, even President Barack Obama, American’s Commander-in-Chief, recognized Armstrong’s impact on the cultural fabric of the nation.  “When he and his fellow crew members lifted off aboard Apollo 11 in 1969, they carried with them the aspirations of an entire nation,” said Obama in a written statement released by the White House. “They set out to show the world that the American spirit can see beyond what seems unimaginable – that with enough drive and ingenuity, anything is possible. And when Neil stepped foot on the surface of the moon for the first time, he delivered a moment of human achievement that will never be forgotten.”

 Man on the Moon

          In July 1969, one month after my 15th birthday, as a young man, I was riveted to our television as my family watched the CBS news with Walter Cronkite, as he told a captivated nation that American astronaut Neil Armstrong and  lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin, along with command module pilot Mike Collins, had reached the moon four days after being launched from Kennedy Space Center. Cronkite, America’s most trusted newscaster, detailed the landing, noting how the lunar module “Eagle” separated from the command module, making its descent to the moon surface.

           When making that lunar contact, the 38-year-old Armstrong would say, “Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.”  No aging baby boomer would ever forget the memorable quote of the young commander of Apollo 11 as he climbed down Eagle’s ladder and stepped on to the lunar soil on July 20, 1969 at 10:56 p.m…  “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

         According to NASA, Armstrong would prance around on the lunar surface for two hours and 32 minutes, while Aldrin, who followed him, spent about 15 minutes less than that.

         For years, a small framed replica of the front page of the Dallas Morning News featuring Armstrong’s voyage sat on my old dresser, which served as an inspirational reminder – a  piece of history I witnessed,  now recorded into the nation’s history books.

 Long-time Comedienne Passes Away

          Phyllis Diller, a high-profile stand-up Comedienne who during a 50 year career served as a role model to younger females (including Roseanne Barr, Ellen De Generes, Whoopi Goldberg, and Joan Rivers among others) trying to make a career out of telling jokes, died on August 20, 2012 at the age of 95.    She was one of the first women to break into this male-dominated standup comedian profession, even giving them a run for their money.

       Over her long career, she made dozens of movies, appeared in specials, situational comedy shows on television, recorded comedy LP records and even performed on Broadway, as well as breathing life into animated characters on films and television shows with voice-overs.   

       Keeping my mother company on the couch by watching Johnny Carson after the late night news, as a young child I would lay my head on her lap, watching The Tonight Show “Starring Johnny Carson” in the early 1960s.  Diller appeared on this show, as well as variety shows, hosted by Jack Benny, Dean Martin, Red Skeleton, and Ed Sullivan.  She captivated the nation with her quirky sense of humor and signature laugh.

       As I grew up watching Diller on television I can remember the self-deprecating professional jokester wearing an unkempt wig, wrist-length gloves, and cloth-covered ankle boots, carrying a long fake jeweled cigarette holder (even though she never smoked) and taking lob sharp barbs at her fictional husband, Fang, and her home life during her routines.  She was confident and proud of her place in the world, despite the trials and tribulations of “family life”.

       At age 37, Diller, a mother and homemaker, got her first break in 1955, playing San Francisco’s Purple Onion nightclub.  The two week engagement ultimately ended a year and half later.

       Diller, a longtime resident of the Brentwood area of Los Angeles, California, appeared regularly as a special guest on many television programs throughout her career, including What’s My Line? mystery guests.  She also made cameo appearances bringing her unique humor to Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, Love Boat, Chips, Love American Style, the Drew Carey Show and even appeared on ABC’s Boston Legal.

       Diller, who underwent 15 different plastic surgeries during her life (this noted in her 2005 autobiography), surprisingly was also recognized as an accomplished pianist as well as a painter.

       Archie Bunkers chair went to the Smithsonian.  So did Diller’s jokes, so to speak.  Even the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery at the National Museum of American History, from August 12 to October 28, 2011, displayed Diller’s gag file, a steel cabinet consisting of 48 file drawers holding over 50,000 jokes penned on index cards and costumes that became part of her “comedic persona.”

 The Passing of Cultural Icons and Celebrities

        When we are young, we feel invulnerable and that we will live forever. Unrealistically, we see death as no match for us. In our later year’s as aging baby boomers, we begin to see death close up, through the passing of our older parents, siblings, co-workers, friends and sometimes even our children.  Health conditions continually remind us of our impending mortality. 

        As we look at the passing of Neil Armstrong and Phyllis Diller, their impressive life stories should give us confirmation of their major impact on our culture. Their passing become “mortality markers” subtly giving us the gentle message that “generations come and go” and that we, like them, will not live forever.  Time becomes the most valuable commodity that we carry throughout our lives.

          If we use time wisely, we can better use our remaining days to make a positive difference in our community, whether it be through the professions we chose or simply our outlook on life to those around us.    Armstrong, to take mankind to where it has never has been –  Diller to make us laugh to forget the pains of life.

         Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.
Additional information about Armstrong is available on the Web at:

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