9/1/12 The Coolness of Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong quietly passed away on August 25. The news media has been sort of quiet about it, in my opinion, though maybe not in Neil’s.

Like everyone else who had a TV, I was riveted to it in July of 1969 watching Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong take the first steps on the moon. I was twelve years old at the time. The memories of it are as vivid as any memories I have. Neil proved to be a man worthy to have made that step, because his soft-spokenness and kindness, and ultimately his humility about his remarkable adventure made us all seem like we were part of his accomplishment. Neil was a regular guy. He was a hero that was touchable and approachable if you could find him. I know that because one day in July of 1992, I managed to find him. He was approachable. He was touchable. And he was kind.

You may never have heard of a Yazoo Big-Wheel  mower, but Yazoo mowers were an institution in the South. Nearly every boy in the South grew up pushing one on hot summer days, cutting bahaia grass that grew as fast as you could mow it. No other mower could handle tough grass like a Yazoo. If one wanted to maintain a lawn, there was Lawn-Boy, Toro, Snapper, and any other number of mowers that could do the job adequately; but if you had to CUT THE GRASS, few mowers could compare with a Yazoo. Yazoo mowers were exactly what we sold in my grandfather’s hardware store in Meridian, Mississippi, and we sold a lot of them. Yazoos were never cheap mowers, being quite expensive, but they lasted a long time, and I mean a long-long time. There are many Yazoo mowers built back in the 50’s and the 60’s that are still working every day. They never were throw-away mowers; they were built to last.

One of the other great attributes about Yazoo mowers was that they were hard to tear up. A froward fifteen year old could tear up a lesser mower pretty quickly, rendering it useless, thus providing him with an excuse for not mowing the grass. This was much harder with a Yazoo. It would cut limbs, branches, small stumps, and clear new ground without so much as an extra rattle when other mowers would have long-since given up the ghost and been relegated to the scrap heap. As we advanced deeper and deeper into a throw-away society, and throw-away lawn tractors were developed, no one pushed a lawn mower any more. As throw-away riding mowers got cheaper, the quality of a Yazoo mower seemed to lose its value in the marketplace, and ultimately the market moved beyond them, leading to their demise. The Kerr family, which started Yazoo in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1945 still makes a variant of it in their home in Australia, and there are other big-wheel (high-wheels as they are now called) mowers on the market, but they are a very specialized market now, as disposable junk is what the masses prefer.

I suppose I have had more experience selling and repairing Yazoo mowers than just about anyone left on this planet. I still know part numbers and model numbers by heart. Not only did I sell and repair them at my grandfather’s hardware store, but Yazoo mowers were such a part of my life that in my heart of hearts I simply KNEW that one day I would go to work for them. I was right. Yazoo Manufacturing Company offered me a job in 1985 and I took it as if it had always belonged to me, since I knew that it was rightfully mine by destiny. I did well there. I traveled all over the country calling on dealers and distributors, and ultimately became the Dealer Sales Manager, was the head of customer service department, and managed the special markets such as mass merchants, state government contracts, and sales through the GSA contract. I absolutely loved my job at Yazoo, since it taught me that the rest of the world was a much larger place than my hometown of Meridian, and that this country boy with the accent the Yazoo dealers up north seemed to like could successfully carry on business anywhere in the nation, or the world for that matter. My view of the world changed, thanks to Yazoo and the opportunities it provided to me.

I suppose there is only one person alive that has sold more Yazoo mowers than me, and that would be James A. Kerr, Jr., the former President of Yazoo and the son of the founder. Mr. Kerr and his sons carry on the tradition in Australia where they migrated as a family many years ago after the Kerr family sold the company. If you would like to, google “RED ROO +AUSTRAILA”, you can find the Kerr family there. I occasionally still hear from my friend James A. Kerr III. They are doing well and I am glad.

I went to work for Yazoo after the Kerr family had sold the company to Jackson businessman and philanthropist, Robert M. Hearin. Mr. Hearin had hundreds of business interests ranging from First National Bank of Jackson (now Trustmark National Bank), Southland Oil Company, Lamar Life Insurance, and dozens of other business interests he shared with his friend, Leon Hess (Amerada Hess). They are all gone now, but my memories of Mr. Hearin are pleasant and vivid. He was always very kind to me, loved to tell me jokes, and allowed me to speak my mind (though I was careful not to speak ALL of it, which would have been easy, but dangerous.) In my later years there, Dan M. Swain, Jr., became the President of Yazoo. Dan Swain was one of the finest human beings I have ever known. He, too, is gone now….just like Yazoo.

As the industry changed, Yazoo just seemed unable to keep up with the consolidation occurring in it. It was a great product for its time, but its time had passed. I left to pursue other opportunities because I saw changes in the marketplace which I thought would be fatal to the company. I was right. Though some remnant of Yazoo is still around, in a way, known as Yazoo-Kees, the company got sold, like all failing companies that still have some presence in a marketplace, from one investor group to another. I left when it was still owned my Mr. Hearin’s estate because I did not want to be around when all the bad things started happening that must happen when companies are no longer relevant to the market in which they participate. Mr. Hearin, his family, and the other senior executives of the various corporate entities of which Yazoo was a part were all very kind to me. I was constantly rewarded with increasing responsibility and the ability to make decisions, and I was well compensated. They had enough confidence in me to allow me to make decisions, and since I mostly made good ones (occasionally there was a bad one!) I was able to grow. Yazoo taught me that sometimes it is better to ask forgiveness than permission.

Once, when I had really messed something up, Dan Swain asked me, “Well, did you learn anything from this?”

“Oh! Yes, sir,” I said, standing at attention.

“Then it wasn’t a total loss,” he said, the forgiveness graciously granted in lieu of the permission which wasn’t sought. Of course, this didn’t happen when the decision made was a good one. I was fortunate to have such mentors.

I was paid one of the highest compliments I’ll ever get in my life by Dan Swain, and his immediate superior. When I got ready to leave the company, Dan said that I was the only employee there that would actually make decisions and be responsible for them. They kept me on as a consultant for nearly two years after I left. I still appreciate the confidence they had in me, and I appreciate every opportunity I had, which were many and several. When word got out that I had left the company, I was bombarded by calls from competitors asking me to go to work for them, which I appreciated very much. But I was done with the lawn-mower business. It had changed, and was still changing, and my place in the industry was becoming as anachronistic as the Yazoo Big-Wheel mowers that I loved so much. I was time to move on.

So, what’s all this got to do with Neil Armstrong?

The power equipment industry had (and still has) a huge trade show in Louisville, Kentucky. It lasted a week and was held at the Kentucky Fairgrounds and Exposition Center. Everyone who was anyone in the business had a booth at this trade show and at the outside demonstration area. I suppose, because of that trade show, I have spent more time in Louisville, Kentucky, than nearly any other place besides where I had a home. In descending order, that would be Mississippi, Louisiana, and then Kentucky…simply because of that trade show. It took several days to get ready, several days of the show, and several days to UNDO the exhibit and get the stuff all sent out to where it was going from Louisville. I made several friends there over the years I attended the show, and some of those Kentuckians are still friends after all these many years.

Yazoo bought lots of items from vendors who also had booths and displays at the Outdoor Power Equipment (OPE) show. Since Yazoo didn’t make engines, we bought engines from Briggs & Stratton, Wisconsin, Kohler, Kubota, and a few others, along with many other parts and accessory items from companies who were all present in Louisville every year. Though I haven’t heard from him in years, Dave Paider, from Briggs & Stratton was was one of my favorite business associates. I hope Dave is doing well.

Trade shows are all about business, the development of business, entertaining existing customers, acquiring new customers, acquiring new vendors, and once you get all those folks who know and like each other in a place where all the various companies are picking up the tab for all that fraternizing and entertaining, in spite of the long hours spent on the trade show floor, one can have a remarkably good time. Why, staying at Louisville’s famous Galt House is a good time in itself!

I mentioned Briggs & Stratton earlier. As you can imagine, B&S was a major player in the lawnmower business. Nearly everyone bought engines from them, and they did enjoy entertaining their customers. So not only was I entertaining my own customers, I had the opportunity to be entertained as the customer of several large companies. B&S was one of those companies.

B&S threw a couple of really big parties in 1992 at the trade show. The theme of the parties was “Famous Firsts.” This theme was selected because B&S was one of the firsts in the small engine business, and they were introducing a new line of engines that had new features and wanted to kick this new line off by providing great entertainment to their customers. The free tickets to these parties (you couldn’t buy them) had to be acquired in advance of the show, and had to be given to you by your B&S sale representative. Dave Paider made sure I had tickets for me and my key people.

B&S had had a special edition of Chuck Yeager’s autobiography printed and had sent copies to all their OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturers – Those who bought their products to re-use them on new products) customers. Dave hand-delivered my copy to me in January before the July trade show. When it was later announced that Chuck Yeager would be a speaker at one of their parties, I told myself that I had better remember to bring my copy with me so I could get it signed by the author. Well, Chuck Yeager was impressive as a famous first, and hopefully, we all know what he was famous for being first at. If you don’t know, then shame on you. At that same night’s party, another famous-first Chuck would be entertaining the crowd. In one night I got to see Chuck Yeager and Chuck Berry, thanks to B&S and Dave Paider. I had managed to get to that party in time to get a good seat at a table with a co-worker and with some friends who worked for competitors. One CAN have friendly relationships with competitors . . . we are all trying to make a living and feed our families. My Yazoo cohorts saw that I had my Chuck Yeager book with me and asked me why I had brought it.

“I’m going to get him to autograph it,” I said.

“He’s not going to autograph your book,” they said back.

“It’s HIS book. ANY author will autograph HIS book for you,” I said in rebuke. “You should have brought your copies.”

I was not the only person who had brought their Chuck Yeager autobiography with them. Apparently a hundred or so others out of the crowd of about a thousand knew to do so. After Chuck finished speaking, a receiving line was formed and I hurried to get in the queue to get my book signed and shake the hand of this famous man. As I was standing in the line, they introduced Chuck Berry, and I was listening to the sounds of “Maybelline” and “Nadine” (my favorite), while working my way up to Mr. Yeager. It was delightful to meet this most famous man and get his autograph on his autobiography. I still have this autographed special edition book that came in a matching box. It is in flawless condition. One day it will perhaps be of great value to my grandchildren. I only know that thanks to Dave Paider and B&S, I got this book, I got to get it autographed, and I got to see Chuck Berry. I also got one other bonus.

Two nights later, B&S was throwing another party to which I had tickets. This night, it would be a much briefer cocktail party featuring comedian/impressionist Rich Little, and a special speech by Fred Stratton, the Chairman and CEO of B&S. Dave had seen to it that I got tickets to that, too. Unfortunately, business kept me tied up long enough that evening that by the time I got there, all the seats at tables were taken, there was standing room only inside, and a large crowd was gathered about the main entrance while Rich Little was already underway with his show. I spied an open door with only a few people gathered around it at the stage left entrance, so I meandered down there and watched the rest of Rich’s show. After Rich was through, I stood there and listened to Fred Stratton talk about the new things his company was doing and as he was speaking a couple of other people came up to the stage left door where I was and stood there with me. One of them looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place him, so I nodded and smiled. He nodded and smiled back.

As I was listening, Fred Stratton said, “And in keeping with our tradition of famous firsts, it is my great pleasure to introduce to you our next speaker, a surprise guest speaker for all you loyal Briggs & Stratton customers. It is my  honor and privilege to introduce you to a man who holds an amazing first, the first man to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong!” As the crowd erupted into applause as only a surprised crowd can, and the crowd was surely surprised, the vaguely familiar man to my immediate right walked past me and stepped up onto the stage. I had been standing there right beside Neil Armstrong, himself.

Of course, I listened to every word he had to say, enraptured with this hero of mine, of America, of the world. And as I listened, a thought dawned on me. Because I had been late and could not get a seat inside, nor could I stand around the main entrance for all the people crowded around there, chance had placed me in a position where I would be the first person Neil Armstrong saw when he came back off the stage, that is, if he came back out the same way he went in. I kept my fingers crossed.

He made a speech that was more about his experiences with B&S and their contributions to the Outdoor Power Equipment industry than he did about his Apollo 11 adventure, though he did speak about that, in a quiet, subdued sort of way. He only spoke for about ten minutes, then he turned the stage back over to Fred Stratton, and to thunderous applause started down the steps on stage left, headed right towards me. He must have seen my big smile, because he was smiling before he got to me. We both stuck out our hands at the same time. Right then and there, I shook Neil Armstrong’s hand.

“It is a great privilege to meet you, Mr. Armstrong,” I said. “You are one of my heroes.”

“Thank you,” he said back, kindly and still smiling, still shaking my hand, adding, “But I didn’t work alone. I just happened to be the guy that got the call.”

By that time, hundreds of people had rushed to the stage left door and he was swamped in a sea of admirers. He shook many more hands, smiled and nodded to accolades, but was steadily working his way back down the hall, as if all the attention made him uncomfortable. Whereas Chuck Yeager seemed to enjoy every minute of signing his book and shaking hands, not implying in any way that there was anything wrong about the gracious amount of time Mr. Yeager spent with his admirers, it was a much more demure Neil Armstrong who seemed more interested in getting on with what he had come to do, and now that it was over, getting on back to the job of being Neil Armstrong, husband, father, grandfather, private citizen, human being. I watched him and his two companions as they walked down the long hall. I watched him until he was completely out of sight. I was unable to take my eyes off of him. I watched him like a child watches his parents as the school bus carries him off to school for the first time. I felt just like a child as I did so; for a minute, I was an anxious twelve-year-old back in front of that black and white TV in 1969 watching Neil Armstrong descending the ladder on the lunar module, making that small, manly step that was a giant leap for mankind.

Years later, when my son was about ten or eleven, he asked me who was the coolest person I had ever met. He knew that I had met some cool people because of music, and he was thinking I might name some musician. Without the slightest hesitation, I said, “Neil Armstrong.”

“Neil Armstrong?” He cried. “You met Neil Armstrong?”

“Yep. And shook his hand, too.”

“Wow! WOW! That is just way too cool!” he shouted, grinning and throwing his hands up in the air and cheering as if Ole Miss had just scored the winning touchdown by throwing a ninety-eight yard bomb in the final second of an SEC championship game against LSU, or Alabama, or Auburn, or Tennessee, or Georgia, or Florida.

“Wow! Just….WOW!” he said again, smiling.

For a couple of years after that, he’d sometimes pass me in the hall, shake his head, smile and say, “Neil Armstrong!”

Just this week, as we discussed the passing of this great American, Canaan, now nearly 23 years old, said, “I still think that your meeting him was one of the coolest things ever!” I suppose one of the most important things my son thinks I have ever done was to have been in a position where CHANCE allowed me the honor of meeting Neil Armstrong. I suppose, on further reflection, he is not far from the truth. Had the Kerr family not started Yazoo, and my grandfather not had the hardware store where we were Yazoo dealers, and had I not been offered a job at Yazoo which I took and prospered in, and had I not been at the trade show in Louisville, and had Fred Stratton not gotten Neil Armstrong to come to the very same party to which Dave Paider had gotten me tickets, to which I was late because of prior business commitments, I would not have been in Louisville at the stage left door in place to have done this thing my son thinks is so remarkable. It made me, then, a bigger person in his eyes, and I still am now. Thank you, everyone involved, and thank you, Neil Armstrong.

Neil, you bore the laurel wreaths of a hero with an admirable grace not often seen in humans, especially not those in modern times. I, along with millions of others, salute you for the achievement you allowed us to be a part of, for never letting us down in scandal, pettiness, or belligerence, and for showing us how a true hero conducts himself. In your new, eternal voyage into the cosmos, where you will need no space suit, where there will be no hostile environment, and the magic and the mysteries of space are yours to explore forever and ever, you’ll get to see many of those who made great sacrifices so you could be the one who got the call. Say hello to Virgil Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee for us; and to Alan Shepard, and Wally Schirra, and John Glenn, too.

One day, I will get to meet you, again. My son will also get to meet you one day. Be sure to shake his hand. You’ll know him when you see him; He’ll be the one with the grin as big as his father’s was that day in Louisville.

I wonder if Neil Armstrong ever pushed a Yazoo mower through some tall grass in his hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio? We sure sold a lot of Yazoo mowers in Southern Ohio. I’d like to think he did at some point in his life. This is my story . . . so, I’ll let her rest there. Though, if he ever did, I’m sure he’d say flying the X-15, or piloting the Eagle Lunar Module to a safe landing on the moon was a bit more exciting. I’ve never flown anything except a Yazoo mower over large fields of bahaia grass. There’s nothing exciting about that, but it is somewhat satisfying to watch your progress as every step you take reveals it in your wake.

Some of us leave a wider wake than others. Neil sure left a wide one. He will be missed.

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