Remembering a Friend and His Most Unusual Journey
BY JOHN CHAPPELL
When Neil Armstrong died last week it hit an old friend here pretty hard.
Jim Prim, of Southern Pines, trained the first man in the moon and other astronauts in the months leading up to that historic "giant leap for mankind" - and the Prims were friends and neighbors of the Armstrongs from the day their house burned down.
"We got to know each other the day our son was born in Texas," Prim said in a Sunday afternoon interview. "Neil and Jan's house had burned to the ground, and they'd moved into a house one door away from us. Our wives became good friends and are still friends to this day."
Around the globe, Armstrong's death has been mourned as "one giant loss for mankind" in an echo of the famous words he spoke as he stepped down onto the moon in 1969.
Those were heady days in El Lago,Texas, the little town near Houston's Manned Spacecraft Center where 47 astronauts lived at one time or another. Armstrong and others underwent four years of intensive training there for the Apollo program.
"There is a picture of Neil Armstrong in the Mercury spacecraft, with me talking to Neil," Prim said. "He was in the Gemini program, and I think it was during the Gemini program (a precursor to Apollo) that his house burned.
"It was in the same subdivision. They were able to exit their house through a door that led out to their swimming pool. Neil had to crawl on his hands and knees to get his two young boys out of the house and into the pool area. The living room was where the fire started."
Prim's job was as a trainer working with astronauts on training modules, going through the protocols and procedures they'd use in making history's first trip to the moon. He and his trainees knew each other well as a result. They had nicknames for the various trainers.
"Armstrong called one of them 'the flying bedstead' for its shape," Prim said. "It had lifters on four corners, like a big bed. Neil was actually forced to eject from it finally and said it was 'too dangerous' to fly."
There's a photo of the Apollo 11 crew after the flight showing Armstrong strumming a ukulele.
"That was my ukulele," Prim said.
He'd trained the original seven astronauts from Mercury days, and then moved to the Gemini program about the time Armstrong came on board.
"At that time we were not the friends we developed into later," he said. "The procedures trainer was tied to a spacecraft, and I would work them through various procedures - emergency procedures and so forth."
That training proved handy when Armstrong's Gemini 8 capsule spun wildly out of control after achieving the first docking of two spacecraft. He was able to right the vessel, and he and David Scott returned safely to Earth.
On July 16, 1969, Apollo 11, with Armstrong as commander of the three-astronaut mission, lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. He and partner Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin Jr. landed on the moon on July 20 and took their historic walk on July 21.
Around the world, an estimated one of every five humans watched as the two bounced about the lunar surface.
"There were two EVAs (extra-vehicular activities)," Prim said. "I think each was two or three hours."
Back in Texas, everybody in El Lago watched black and white television along with the rest of the world as Aldrin joined Armstrong and they performed assigned tasks before the live TV camera they'd set up on the moon.
The Armstrong that Prim knew was a private man with a zany sense of humor. Once, Prim and his wife were talking in their living room when she suddenly screamed, startled by an apparition at the window.
"It was Neil," Prim said. "He'd pushed his face up tight against the glass - it looked pretty distorted that way - and was grinning in at us."
Another time, when the Prims and the Armstrongs were out sailing in Galveston Bay with another couple, the astronaut had climbed into a fold of the mainsail to take a nap. Their Cal 30 sailboat was heading straight for land and needed to turn to keep from grounding herself.
"Get out!" they shouted, but at first Armstrong wouldn't budge, Prim said.
"We needed to turn or be grounded, but he was rolled up in the main," he said. "Finally, he rolled out and we came about."
He and Armstrong never talked about the moon trip, or how the astronaut felt about the fame and glory hitting him and Aldrin. It just wasn't done.
"It was a matter of professional respect, I guess," Prim said. "We just didn't talk about it. We talked about other things."
When the Armstrongs went on their round-the-world trip, their kids stayed with the Prims. Armstrong, like other astronauts, had become an ambassador for American achievement. He described his lunar trip in an account Prim sent to The Pilot:
"It was our pleasure to participate in one great adventure," Armstrong said, laying emphasis on the 10 years leading up to it. "It's an adventure that took place, not just in the month of July, but rather one that took place in the last decade. We had the opportunity to share that adventure over its developing and unfolding in the past months and years."
Off work, friends were friends. The rest was the job, an intense endeavor that proved costly.
"We both went through divorces," Prim said. "Merle and Jan stayed close. Last week I lost one of the best friends I ever had."
Contact John Chappell at (910) 783-5841 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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