Photographs copyright: DAVID McMAHON
Did I ever tell you my Neil Armstrong story? No? Well, stick around because this could be as good a time as any to share it.
About three years ago, I used to drive past a memorabilia store in suburban Melbourne. On the footpath outside the store, there was always a selection of life-size figures. There was a chef, complete with an impressive waxed moustache and his toque, the white chef’s hat. There was even a medieval knight, in a suit of armour. There was a fisherman, holding a huge marlin.
I marvelled at the collection and how beautifully they were crafted. Things would change, new figures would be added and sometimes the old ones would disappear, obviously sold.
So one day, early in 2005, when the figure of a NASA astronaut, appeared with the others on the footpath, I just had to find out some details. So instead of driving past as I always did, I parked my car and actually went into the store. The manager was more than happy to have a yarn with me and told me that the figures were made of fibreglass and that they sold for an average price of about $1500.
I had to ask the obvious question. How was it I always saw the figures on the footpath, with no visible sign of security. He just chuckled. He said the figures were always brought into the shop before closing time. And he revealed there was one figure that was never, ever, under any circumstances, placed on the footpath.
It was a figure of Michael Jordan. Given his status as a sporting legend, it was considered too precious to leave out in the open. The manager then pointed to a storefront across the road. It was another branch of their business, where a range of figures including John McEnroe, complete with wooden racket and headband, stood arrayed above a balcony.
With a smile on his face, the manager told me there had been "a few" attempts to steal the figures. He said on one occasion, the would-be thieves had rocked up in a cherry picker to try and remove at least one figure - before being thwarted.
He was more than happy for me to photograph the fibreglass figures. So I went outside and enjoyed the rare opportunity to shoot a Neil Armstrong lookalike.
It was really interesting, because the quality of the fibreglass visor was so good that I was able to get a good shot of the street, reflected in its dark surface.
And I did promise you more than one Neil Armstrong story, didn’t I? I was in primary school when Apollo XI captured our collective sensibilities. During the mission, my Dad happened to hear an announcement on Voice of America and he told me that there was a chance of getting a large official NASA colour photograph of the three astronauts.
All I had to do was write to a particular address and now as I look back on the event, I cannot remember if it was NASA I had to write to, or whether it was Voice of America. Anyway, I was so excited that I sat down and wrote the letter immediately. I did realise, even at that early age, that the odds did not favour me.
It was probably a month later, when I came home from school, that a beige A4-sized envelope was waiting for me. Inside was the photograph I had coveted, of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. To me, they were more than just the three Apollo astronauts.
They were the embodiment of the spirit that I have always carried through life - that all things are possible, even the most ambitious of dreams.
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