I was twelve years old when Neil Armstrong said simply, “the Eagle has landed.” Barely able to breathe, I had watched as fuel ran low and dust boiled up near the lunar surface. I was as relieved as if it had been my father out there in space attempting the impossible.
Things did not always turn out well in these adventures. I had listened in horror two years earlier to the news that Grissom, White, and Chafee had died on the launchpad during training. I knew even then that audacity, confidence, and ability were required to pull off such a magnificent achievement as landing on the moon. What I did not know was that every time we slip the surly bonds of earth, a demon is loosed from hell to exact its price in terror.
My fascination with flight had started with the poem “High Flight.” A short film of an F-104 Starfighter was played regularly on TV in those days as the poem was recited. There were no words at the time to describe how watching that silver craft dance in the sky made me feel. I just knew deep, deep down that something supremely significant, almost holy, was happening when a man could put on a helmet, get in a jet, and experience heights that his ancestors could not even dream of.
Now, in real time, I watched as Armstrong came down the ladder and stepped on the lunar surface. I felt a little guilty for this, but for all the joy and admiration I felt, I also could not help but wonder what would happen if that lunar module failed to fire. Surely the image of death by suffocation on that lonely sphere had entered these astronauts’ minds. Why take that chance? Why not be content with life on Earth? Yet I knew that if there were a reason for our existence, this was it.
As I earned my private pilot license many years later, I experienced a pale reflection of what that terror must have been like. More than once, I nearly soiled myself as I hit a weird air pocket on final approach or had some mechanical problem in flight. There was no reason for me to fly. It would never save me money in travel, nor would I ever be a commercial pilot. I just wanted to experience, if even in a distant way, the feeling that Starfighter pilot had as he vaulted toward the heavens.
The demon of terror visits only those who invite him. He does not bother with that mass of people who betray their human heritage by always playing it safe. He knows that only the worthy rate his efforts. For you see, he is the only one who can grant the gift of achievement. A life worth living cannot be lived from the safety of a recliner. No terror, no victory.
We do not have to be one of the dozen who have beheld another world firsthand to ask the demon his blessing. We can do it as we confront our fears about life, love, wealth, and the scores of other things we live through each day. Choosing to be a better spouse is scary. Earning more money is scary. Following our dreams is scary. If we are not scared at least a little, we aren’t really living, and the demon waits for the next truly human soul to venture out and do something spectacular.
His gift? Ask the ghosts of Grissom, White, and Chafee. Ask the entrepreneur who has gone broke several times before succeeding. Ask the author who has languished in anonymity for years before writing a best-seller. They will tell you that the monstrous apparition that appeared as a demon left as an angel. They also know each of us must confront him alone. Will you?