One of the
strongest moments for us in Rock That Uke comes
at the very end, when we show a black and white
photograph of Neil Armstrong playing a ukulele.
He wears a serious, pensive look on his face made
all the more dramatic by the overhead fluorescent
glow, washing down upon him and casting shadows
over his face. Our soundtrack plays a simple
ukulele melody. The camera slowly pushes in. And
Holly Hunter's gentle, strong southern voice
|This is a
photograph taken by journalist Don Blair
in 1969. It shows astronaut Neil
Armstrong in quarantine a few days after
becoming the first human being to walk on
Armstrong stood in the lunar dust and
gazed into the vastness and enormity of
But when he returned home to earth, he
found his refuge in the smallness of the
we cut to John Derevlany of Uke Til U Puke
smashing his ukulele on the floor, followed by
Richard "Heinous" Rynes imploring
people to stop "singing about your
feelings--I hate that!" And the
credits roll as Ukefink sings their bumptious
comic anthem "Leonardo."
Reverence followed by irreverence.
That's sort of the point to Rock That Uke for us.
The ukulele as a metaphor for the duality of the
human spirit. Between bigness and smallness.
Aggression and vulnerability. Confidence and
Crooning and screaming. Plucking and thrashing. Whatever.
To understand that Neil Armstrong shares
something with a guy in Cleveland Heights named
"Heinous" is to understand the larger
theme behind RTU. This theme came together for us
the first moment we set eyes upon Don Blair's
extraordinary photo of Neil Armstrong.
Don's photo, which was taken the very day that
Armstrong returned from the moon, wasn't
published in its day. The "Armstrong with
Uke in Quarrantine" photo that did appear in
Life Magazine utterly lacks the power
and intimacy of Don's photo--not to mention the, um,
Upon seeing Don's photo for the first time when
prints were being offered for sale on eBay, we
thought immediately of the famous old photo of
"Ukulele Dick" Konter, an explorer with
the Byrd expedition to the North Pole in the
1920s, who perversely smuggled his ukulele along
for the journey
Richard "Ukulele Dick"
We'll close with some words from Don himself, who a few years ago emailed us his reminiscence
of taking the "Armstrong with
Uke in Quarrantine" photograph, which we now share:
That two explorers with the vision to confront
the Vast Unknown should also be fond of the
diminutive ukulele struck us as a powerful
statement about human psychology. And suddenly, we knew what our documentary was
When we contacted him, Don Blair proved to be a
really nice guy, and genrously granted us
permission to use his photograph.
Don's a journalist, and as such, interested in
facts. He wonders to this day what song Neil
Armstrong was strumming on his ukulele.
But to us, the mystery is part of the pleasure.
Who knows? Maybe it was Stairway to Heaven.
We are deeply grateful to Don not just for taking
this picture, but for generously allowing us to
build our own eccentric design atop it. We're also pleased to announce that this extraordinary photo is finally getting the exposure it deserves--first, in Jim Beloff's revised edition of his landmark book
The Ukulele: A Visual History,
but also in Don's own recently published chronicle of the
Navy's historic role in executing recovery missions for
America's early manned space program, entitled SPLASHDOWN! Nasa and the
If you have memories as we do of the tense televised
scenes of sky watching and frogman recovery that
concluded every NASA mission of the 60s, Don's book is a wonderful read. The release of SPLASHDOWN! was timed to coincide with the
35th anniversary of Apollo 11. Congratulations, Don!
...And as always, to Neil Armstrong.
recovery of the Apollo 11
astronauts had been successful.
All three were now safely inside
the MQF (Manned Quarantine
Facility) aboard the great USS
Hornet. It was well into the
evening when, after too much
coffee in the officer's ward
room, I decided to head back down
to the hangar bay where the two
MQF's (NASA always has a back-up
or three) were sitting. The one
in use was attached by a
translucent plastic sheet tunnel
to the command module, so that
the crew and the two NASA
technicians spending the
three-week quarantine period in
the trailer with them could
transit back and forth and
de-activate the space craft
without exposing all those
terrible moon germs to the rest
of us. (Of course, there
were no germs and the process was
dropped after just three moon
missions, including the abortive
Apollo 13. By Apollo 14 the
trailers were history.)
With my Canon F1 around my
neck and loaded with Kodak hi-speed Tri-X
black-and-white film, I walked up to the
occupied MQF. The only other human being
on that deck was a young Marine guard
alongside the end window on the
trailer. A braided rope ringed the
trailer on brass pipe stands...just like
in theaters, restaurants, etc. The
message was clear: approach no closer.
So I moved up and pushed my zoom lens to
a point where the picture window at the
living room end of the AirStream
was obliterated, leaving only its occupant
standing there....with that ukulele in
his hand. How many people can even
spell ukulele much less play one? I
never could find out what he might have
been playing, and I'm sure even Neil
I fired off three quick shots, turned,
and walked away. I looked back
seconds later and Neil was no longer
there. Photo Op....it came and went
and I had the only picture of that
incident--and without flash. The ceiling
lights diffused, and I still think they
look like halos over the head of a man
who had just come as close to a heaven as
any man or woman ever might.