By Michael Cole
One fine early morning in 1943, three young Boy Scouts from Upper Sandusky set off on a 20-mile hike into the country. Their hike, to Carey, 10 miles away, and back, was in pursuit of their hiking merit badge, which each had to earn to make Eagle Scout.
John “Bud” Blackford was the young patrol leader for the other two boys.
One of those boys was Konstantine “Kotcho” Solacoff, who would later become Dr. Solacoff, one of Upper Sandusky’s most highly regarded and long-serving family physicians.
The other boy, Neil Alden Armstrong, would become the first man to walk on the moon.
“We were going to the Dutch Mill, which was a restaurant at that time,” Solacoff said recently. “We ate lunch there. And so we started walking back, and we got about halfway there. And Neil looks, and he says, ‘I’m gonna be late for work!'”
The young Neil Armstrong was working at Neumeister’s Bakery in Upper Sandusky at the time.
“He said, ‘I’m gonna have to take off.’ And so he started to run what we called the Scout’s Pace,” Solacoff said. “You’d run so many paces and then walk. He’d run two or three telephone poles and then he’d walk two more, and so on.” Solacoff smiled at the memory. “And he made it back in time.”
Neumeister’s Bakery was already Neil’s second job. His first job was mowing the grass at Upper Sandusky’s historic Mission Cemetery, for 10 cents an hour. Neumeister’s bumped him up to the princely sum of 25 cents.
These were the beginnings of a work ethic that in later years would make Neil Armstrong a fighter pilot, an engineer, a test pilot, and an astronaut.
He would prove exceptional at them all.
His abilities as a pilot and his analytical excellence as an engineer led to him being assigned as the commander of Apollo 11. He would become one of the most famous men in history and be propelled to the status of a world icon from the moment he set the first human footprint upon the moon.
Dr. Solacoff and Armstrong were friends throughout their lives. Solacoff obviously saw far less of Armstrong during his years as a pilot and astronaut, and in the time immediately following the moon landing.
But they connected often in the years that followed and right up to the time of Armstrong’s death in 2012.
Dr. Solacoff is retired and still lives in Upper Sandusky with his wife Doris. He enjoys relating the stories of his days with his friend Neil.
One of the first things Solacoff and his friends noticed about Neil when he moved to Upper Sandusky in 1941 was that he was smaller than all of them. They were going into the sixth grade together, but Neil was shorter and smaller than the others.
It turns out he was a year younger than all of them.
“He had skipped a grade,” Solacoff said. “But it was sort of by accident.”
He related how Neil’s father, Stephen Armstrong, worked for the state auditor’s office and moved the family from district to district at that time, auditing the books in that area. This meant the family moved a few times when Neil was younger. It was the reason for their move to Upper Sandusky as well.
“They moved into a district and Neil went to a new school,” Solacoff said. “And weeks later he came home from school one day with his grade card. It was all A’s. His mother looked at it and says, well something’s wrong here. This says you’re in the third grade. You’re supposed to be in the second. They must have made a mistake on this. So they went back to the school to find out what happened.”
What happened was that on the first day of school at the new school, Neil was just a little kid who didn’t know the teachers and didn’t know the kids. And little Neil Armstrong had walked into the wrong room.
“He sits down,” Solacoff said. “But he’s in the room one grade higher. But he was getting all A’s! So they decided to just leave him in there.”
It was a giant leap of sorts. Something Neil would become known for.
Armstrong has always been closely connected with Wapakoneta, where he was born in 1930. He took his first flying lessons there, earned his pilot’s license there, and graduated from Blume High School in 1947.
But his connection with the friends from his years in Upper Sandusky proved to be a lifelong one.
“He came back several times when we had our high school reunions, even though he was only here for the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth grades,” Solacoff said.
“He felt a very close relationship with us and the kids that he knew at that time. He enjoyed coming back to our reunions. In fact, his wife said that he enjoyed our reunions more than he did the ones in Wapakoneta where he graduated.”
A great deal of that closeness can be attributed to the bond built with his Scouting friends. Through his days as a pilot in Korea and as a test pilot, and through his years as an astronaut with the Gemini and Apollo programs, Solacoff heard from Neil at times but rarely saw him.
But Armstrong thought enough of Solacoff and Bud Blackford to invite them to Cape Canaveral on July 16, 1969, to witness the historic launch of Apollo 11 on its majestic Saturn V rocket.
Solacoff remembers vividly the roar and rumble of the Saturn V as it thundered off the pad and into the sky on its journey to the moon. He and Blackford witnessed the launch from the VIP stands with people like Spiro Agnew, Lyndon Johnson, Barry Goldwater, Johnny Carson and other celebrities.
After the excitement of the moon landing, Armstrong moved his family to a farm in Lebanon, Ohio, and began his work as an engineering professor at the University of Cincinnati. Solacoff began to see Neil and his wife, Janet, more regularly. They golfed and went on skiing trips to Aspen.
Some describe Neil in these years as reclusive, but Solacoff says he was not reclusive at all.
“He did stay away from newspapers and television,” he said. “Mainly because they were asking the same questions over and over and over. So he more or less avoided them. And he was so much in demand to give speeches. Not just here, but all over the world.
“Basically he was a quiet guy. He wasn’t shy.”
Neil signed autographs for years but then decided to give it up sometime in the 1990s, when the internet started to create a whole new world of commercializing autographs. He would take a picture with you, Solacoff said, but he stopped signing autographs.
Nevertheless, some amazing offers continued to come his way.
“I read an article that talked about how he had been offered a million dollars to sign 100 pictures, and he turned it down,” Solacoff said.
“And I wasn’t sure about that. The story sounded a little funny to me, maybe wasn’t true. So the next time I saw him I asked him. I said I saw this story about getting offered a million dollars. I said is that true? He said there were three of four people who had offered him the same thing. Three or four million dollars! Turned it all down. Didn’t want to take advantage of it that way.”
Solacoff and his wife, Doris, saw Armstrong through the tough times following his divorce. They were also with him when he suffered a heart attack at Aspen in 1991.
When he married his second wife, Carol, in 1994, the Solacoffs were glad to see a happier Neil.
“She was very good for him,” Solacoff said.
Neil Armstrong’s days in Upper Sandusky are not readily apparent to the curious visitor. The house he lived in at 446 N. Sandusky Ave. is still standing. Solacoff says nothing has changed about it. The porch is the same. Nothing has been added on.
There is no marker or sign. Nothing to signify that the first man on the moon lived there.
What’s important is that we know it.
Michael Cole is a Findlay resident and author of numerous books on space exploration for young people. He currently covers spaceflight news for SpaceflightInsider.com.