Don Blair's Neil Armstrong Photo in RTU

Behind the Scenes at RTU
Don Blair's Neil Armstrong Photo

Astronaut Neil Armstrong in 1969


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 says:

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 the moon.

Armstrong stood in the lunar dust and gazed into the vastness and enormity of existence.

But when he returned home to earth, he found his refuge in the smallness of the ukulele.

Then 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 insecurity.

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, focus.

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" Konter

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 really about.

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 Navy.

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.

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:


The 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.) 

Don Blair

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 wouldn't remember. 

I fired off three quick shots, turned, and walked away.  I looked back seconds later and Neil was no longer there.  Photo 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.