Neil, Lex And The Rest Of The Family


I am a bit late with this, but it would be remiss of me to let the passing of Neil Armstrong go without any comment, although possibly not for the reasons most people have done.


Neil Armstrong

I am an engineer, as was my Dad, and as is my brother. Mr Armstrong was an engineer. He epitomised the best in engineering in that he understood the job and got it done with a minimum of fuss. The fact that he was chosen to be at the pointy end (literally) of one of the most astounding feats of engineering ever seen is testament to his personal abilities. The fact that after achieving global recognition he chose to retreat to a professorship in a relatively small university, passing on his passion for engineering to newer generations is a testament to his character.


Everyone remembers watching Neil and Buzz stepping on to the moon that night, don't they? Well, I don't. We did have a telly in 1969, in fact I think our McMichael 9" portable may even have been replaced by a 14" Bush by that time. Huge screen that had, with four enormous press buttons on the front, more than there were even available channels then. Had all the colours too, black and white, mostly black because telly wasn't on 24 hours a day then.

But we weren't anywhere near it. July 21st falls into the period of the Glasgow Fair holiday, so we were in Fife, holidaying in a caravan at Upper Largo. In those dim and distant days caravans didn't have tellies because they didn't have electricity. They didn't even have running water, and the gas for lighting and cooking came in bottles.

But even in the darkest corners of the East Neuk we shared in the excitement. We listened on the radio and read the papers the next morning and talked about little else for days. Games of spacemen and aliens replaced Japs and British and sand castles took on a rather lunar appearance.

It was an exciting time. I was just nine years old but within my lifetime space travel had advanced from a man flying round the earth in a remotely controlled tin can to an autonomous craft and crew landing on the moon and coming home safely. It was a rate of change of technology not seen since the early days of steam engines. What is sometimes forgotten is that the impetus for this change came from a politician - the sainted John F Kennedy had decreed that his country would put a man on the moon and bring him back and they did just that. It's quite possibly the last time, and maybe the only time ever, that any politician made any contribution to science and engineering and all he did was provide the money and the objective to people who knew what they were doing. Ever since then politicians seem to think that they understand science so instead of providing direction and funding they like to prescribe technical solutions to practical problems. That has never worked well: think of unleaded fuel (heavy metal contamination of hedgerows from catalysts), airport security scanners (now banned) and climate change (wind farms and burning food as fuel) for example.

However, back to engineering and a slightly spooky coincidence involving Mr Armstrong. When I heard of his passing, late on the Saturday night, I was in Lower Largo, less than a mile away from where I had been when I heard of his most notable achievement all those years before. And the reason that I and my family - wife, children, mother, brothers, aunt, nieces and assorted hangers-on - were there was to celebrate the life of another engineer, who had passed away nine years before that weekend.

My Dad (Lex to the family, Alec to the world, Dad to me) was the best practical engineer I have ever known. Clever and resourceful, he understood how mechanical and electrical things worked and could quickly devise and implement a fix to most problems. Although his natural habitat was a toolroom, at one point he found himself in Sullom Voe, 10 metres above the deck of a swaying oil rig support vessel and making repairs to the superstructure using a machine had designed and made himself: this is all the more remarkable when you learn that he had only been asked to do the job the day before. A very busy 24 hours had meant analysing the problem, designing the machine from scratch, building it and transporting everything to Shetland from that little engineering workshop in Lanarkshire we heard about in a previous post.

He was a remarkable man, and like so many men he was sadly taken before his time by prostate cancer. An engineer to the end, he devised modifications to his hospital drip stand that were made for him in his own workshop, and may even yet be in service. Since that sad time the remaining family have gathered every year for the weekend nearest the anniversary of his death to commemorate his life.


Crusoe Hotel 2 Lundin Links 2 Crail - beautiful and fragrant2
The Crusoe Hotel Over the Sea to Lundin Links Crail - Beautiful and Fragrant


So that was why we were back in Fife, near the place where we had had so many happy childhood holidays. And we had a lovely weekend, as we always do. It's always good to meet the rest of the family. We all live in roughly the same part of the country, and one slightly disparate section is soon returning to home base but we don't spend enough time together.

We should.