Saturday, June 27, 2009

Buzz Aldrin's candor has saved many lives

Colonel Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin, Jr. (USAF, Ret.), Apollo 11 lunar module pilot and second to set foot on the Moon, wanted to be first.

He and Dr. Neil Armstrong share the distinction, of course, of being first to land on the Moon but Buzz Aldrin still thinks the tradition of a junior officer going ashore ahead of a mission commander ought to have been followed on that precedence-setting mission. He clearly holds no grudge, however. He's just remarkably honest about his feelings of the protocol he still believes ought to have been followed on that first trip to the lunar surface.

And this lack of resentment may be a key to understanding much about Colonel Aldrin. His attitude clearly follows the traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, those that were recommended by that organization's co-founder Bill Wilson, "neither to dwell upon the past nor shut the door entirely" on an A.A. member's personal experiences" as integral to a lifestyle of recovery, one requiring "rigorous honesty."

There are still some members of A.A., however, ones hold fast to A.A.'s Twelve Traditions and who will argue to this very day about Buzz Aldrin's appearance at a "controversial" press conference that featured celebrities who tested the envelope of those tradition by going public about their recovery. There are some A.A. members who insist this violated their Program's tradition of Anonymity.

It's a fine line, perhaps as fine an edge as repeated "601" alarms sounding clarion calls from a remedial flight computer, overloaded with information as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and the computer monitored the parameters of the first landing of a lunar module anywhere, let alone the Sea of Tranquility.

Anonymity is the name of the game, the name taken from the Big Book after which the Program, itself, was named, in 1935. Those who don't take the precepts seriously, as a matter of life or death, don't belong in the Program. Anonymity is encouraged, in the canon of A.A. to protect the reputation of the Program. The same protection it affords to its Membership is an added benefit only.

Aldrin, actor and comedian Dick Van Dyke, and many others attended this well-publicized press appearance highly aware of this interpretation of an important A.A. tradition. Each of those who came forth were respected individuals who led very public lives. They were careful not to mentioned A.A. when they went public about their alcoholism. Still, there was little question that it was within A.A. where each of those present had found each other and found a working method to follow for recovery.

Since July 1969, Neil Armstrong's well-known reticence clearly contrasted with Colonel Aldrin's openness, a willingness to talk with just about anyone at any time about nearly anything, and this continues to this very day as the Colonel makes almost daily public appearances and travels during these days heading up to the 40th anniversary of that first landing on the Moon on July 20.

Colonel Aldrin looks remarkably fit for a man 79 years old. He has a new autobiography in print, with a title taken from his own first words he spoke after following Neil Armstrong out onto the lunar surface.

"Magnificent Desolation."

Aldrin's personal ordeal upon his return to Earth, clinical depression and alcoholism became the central them of his autobiography, appropriately entitled "Return to Earth," an inspirational best seller published in 1973.

As controversial as his public affirmation about his difficulties was, for only a brief time within the far flung meetings of millions of members of A.A. ultimately did nothing to threaten the reputation of A.A., primarily because both he and Dick Van Dyke stayed sober and both still "share experience, strength and hope" with countless others searching for survival as they suffer from what was once considered completely hopeless.

The fact there is today such little stigma associated with the admission and, more importantly, the acceptance of alcoholism is something else our civilization owes to Colonel Aldrin, as much as the similar earlier public declarations made by former First Lady Betty Ford, Van Dyke and many others who challenged public perceptions of what a person who attends A.A. meeting looks like.

A great many people owe Colonel Aldrin their lives. Even if I am not in accord with his vision of putting Mars ahead of unfinished business on Earth's Moon, I will never forget the fact that I owe him my life just as surely as if he had saved me from drowning.

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