Re-tweeted an inordinate number of times was the joke about Lance Armstrong giving up the battle to prove he was not taking drugs when he won his seven Tours de France. “Now that we know he took drugs” it ran, “I’m beginning to doubt that he ever walked on the moon.”
It wasn’t very funny and it was also singularly ill-timed, because Neil Armstrong died the following day, bringing back memories of that night in July 1969 and the moment when he represented mankind as he stepped onto the moon. I remember it particularly because, on my long vacation from university, I was working the night shift in a canning factory in Peterborough. Earlier in the month, production had come to a halt as we – a motley collection of students and occasional labourers – went on strike in support of our claim for a few extra pence on our hourly rate. That night, production came to a halt as a newly chastened manager brought in his black and white television from home so that we night hawks could see this historic moment.
I don’t know who wrote the line “One small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind”. But I do know who wrote the speech which, with one or two alterations to suit the nature of the audience that day, he gave a number of times during the early 90s.
It was me.
This was the beginning of the era when corporate sales conferences would customarily end with a gala dinner, at which a celebrity of one sort or another would close proceedings with a half hour inspirational or comic address. Often, the choice of speaker would be from the world of sport or show business. It depended largely on the interests of the CEO. If he (and it was usually he) wanted to meet Tommy Docherty, then the event management company would arrange for Tommy Docherty in black tie to roll out his standard stories of Chelsea and Man United, and intersperse a few spurious analogies of sport and big business.
When Neil Armstrong was booked as the keynote speaker at a conference of insurance sales people, he didn’t have a standard speech. He was, as his obituaries have noted, a modest man who eschewed the life of celebrity which could so easily have been his. He was a reluctant hero, claiming that he was just doing his job. He had little to say. So I was brought in to draft something which he could make his own, and which would make the appropriate points about reaching for the sky, daring to succeed, hard work and attention to detail etc etc.
I did so without meeting him. I researched his life. I garnered quotes from newspaper interviews and NASA briefings. I cut and pasted them into an address which, I thought, was interesting from an historical point of view and inspirational for an audience of insurance people. I embellished a little here, exaggerated a great deal there, added some after-dinner jokes, and delivered a draft which would form a reasonable basis for a proper speech. And I heard nothing in response until, a week later, as part of the event management team, I stood at the back of the room, and heard Neil Armstrong read that first draft word for word from an autocue.
After a standing ovation, and a round of handshakes with top table, he was whisked away by his minders. But the company was happy. I got paid. And a friend told me a few weeks later that he had attended a similar event as a guest at which Neil Armstrong had told this great joke.
My joke. I’m very proud of that.
Today’s listening: Duquesne Whistle, the first track on the new Bob album, written with ex-Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. Won’t risk copyright infringement by embedding the YouTube vid, but commend it to you.