It wasn't easy to avoid hero worship as I grew up. For one thing, I lived in Los Angeles. Its celebrity world of film and music surrounded me. Once, Dad got Lana Turner's autograph on a Super Chief train to New York. I didn't really know who she was, but I handled it ("To Paul, Best Wishes, Lana Turner") as I might have handled the Pulitzer Prize. If my dad thought it was important, who was I to doubt?
Some years later, I remember going to a legendary restaurant in Los Angeles called Chasen's. Aunt Dora rushed up to me and said, "Do you know who that is over there?" I saw two middle-aged men, seemingly deep in an important conversation, throwing down cracked crab piled high on a silver tray of chipped ice. A small battalion of onlookers ogled them.
"The one on the left is Walter Winchell! The one on the right is J. Edgar Hoover!" said the deeply impressed Aunt Dora.
I obediently acted impressed and stared with the others, wondering how those two men could be unaware that a roomful of people was staring at them. They weren't, but it took me 20 years in Hollywood to figure that out. Like all good celebrities, they were counting the house from the corner of their eyes while pretending not to notice.
That was the problem for me. They were just famous names. Even though Mr. Winchell was then one of the most powerful gossip journalists in America and Mr. Hoover was head of the FBI, they were still only celebrities. Why should they be my heroes? It wasn't as if they were Shakespeare or Woodrow Wilson or even Alexander the Great or Eleanor Roosevelt. You know, people who had really done things.
One year, the vice president of the United States came to my dad's golf club to help raise money for something, and Dad said I could run outside and watch his limousine pull away. Just as I got there, Vice President Alben Barkley missed a step climbing into his limo and fell flat on his face. Lots of men around him, all wearing funny little ear pieces, became frantic. I went back and told Dad that I'd seen him. "He fell down," I said.
Where was a real hero? He was coming. But he was born in East Derry, N.H., so it took a while for us to meet. Not that he was ever idle. He graduated from Annapolis in 1945, served in the Pacific, and won his wings in 1947. He flew jets on test flights and was chosen one of the original seven NASA astronauts. Twenty-three days after Russia's Yuri Gagarin became the first to orbit the earth, Alan Shepard became the first American in space. On May 5,1961, he flew space-capsule Freedom 7 in a near-perfect suborbital flight 116 miles high, for just 15 minutes.
The world went wild with joy. Alan Shepard was our first astronaut hero. Others came later, but Shepard actually did himself one better by commanding the Apollo 14 mission to the moon in 1971 - one of only a handful of humans ever to walk on the moon, and certainly the first to play golf there. In 1961, I met Alan Shepard. I've even got a letter (somewhere) to prove it.
He had come to Los Angeles right after his historic flight. An article in the Los Angeles Times said he was staying at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. I sat down at my typewriter and poured out a tribute to him in a letter. I decided to deliver it myself, so I drove to the Hilton, left it at the front desk, and drove home. I'd put my phone number in the letter.
I didn't know then that the odds of an American hero telephoning a young fan were extraterrestrial. Nevertheless, late that afternoon my phone rang. I answered, and someone asked for me. Then I heard this voice say, "This is Alan Shepard."
He invited me to the Hilton to meet him. I drove like a maniac. A man at a red light leaned out his window and shouted back at me, "You almost hit me! What's the matter with you?"
"I'm sorry. But I'm on my way to meet Alan Shepard! Can I get in front of you?"
"Alan Shepard!" the man shouted back. "Are you kidding? Really? Here, pull in front of me! Go on, hurry!"
I did, and reached the Hilton in near-collapse. I ran into the lobby, called for him on a house phone, and they actually put me through, just like that. He answered, and I told him I was in the lobby. He said, "I'll be right down."
HE came out of the elevator, smiled, and shook my hand. Who could miss America's most famous face? We went to the coffee shop. I couldn't get my legs to stop trembling. I could see that everyone was staring at us. When we sat down, he immediately said: "Thanks for writing me. That was a great letter."
I not only couldn't recall what I'd written, I couldn't form a simple declarative sentence. So I asked questions as I tried to relax. About his past, what it felt like in space, what he'd seen out his window. He answered every one, pretending he'd never been asked any of my idiotic questions before. He was my hero, an utterly down-to-earth astronaut, kindly as could be.
I watched him sign the check for our sodas, and asked if I could have his autograph. Of course, I'd promised myself I'd never ask that of a real hero. He smiled and signed his name for me. Later, he even wrote me a letter. The day it arrived, I read it several times. Then I jumped in my car and took the letter to Aunt Dora's. The poor darling didn't know the difference between a celebrity and a hero. It seemed the least I could do.