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by William H. Benson

September 20, 2012

     When a King is in his court and requires a miracle, he calls for his wizard. When he needs someone to protect his kingdom and vanquish the enemy, he calls for his knight, but when he needs to laugh, he calls for his jester. In the September 7 edition of the magazine, The Week, there were two obituaries, that of Neil Armstrong and also that of Phyllis Diller, two very different personalities, but the citizens living in the kingdom of the United States forty years ago knew Neil and Phyllis very well.

      In the late 1960’s, Neil Armstrong was our country’s predominant wizard, the man who was capable of flying a contraption called a rocket to the moon, and once there, he walked upon the moon’s surface and then flew that same rocket back to Earth, where he was welcomed home with wild unabashed public acclaim. Prior to that in the early 1950’s, as a Navy jet pilot he was a knight who climbed into his special suit of armor, into the cockpit of a fighter jet, and “flew 78 combat missions” over Korea.

     Phyllis Diller was the kingdom’s jester, a lady who could produce a laugh amongst the most jaded of audiences. The late 1960’s were difficult years: Walter Cronkite’s news of the war in Vietnam was grim, anti-war demonstrators ran wild in the streets, and the disenfranchised demanded that now was the time they receive their civil rights. Yet, when Phyllis Diller strode onto the stage, all that was momentarily forgotten, swept aside. The New York Times said that she had a “hard-hitting approach to one-liners.”

     Her jokes, “her rapid-fire wit,” overpowered audiences. Women working at home for a husband and children identified with her persona as a middle-aged housewife worried about her looks and stuck in a dreary marriage with a husband she called “Fang.” She asked, “What exactly causes wrinkles?” She answered, “Worry and stress! That’s why my face has been perennially selected as poster girl for the Ohio State Fair Whipped Prune Festival.” She said, “Whenever someone suggests that we get together and chew the fat, I start squirming.”

     There you have it—the roles people play: the King seated atop a throne wearing a jeweled-crown, the White Knight suited in glistering armor, the Wizard with his books of enchantments and his tall cone-shaped pointed hat, and the Jester with his jester’s goofy hat. Each plays a part in life’s grand acts.

     And where do you go to watch this play? Before the days of television, radio, movies, and twenty-four hour on-line news, people observed it via the newspapers, pamphlets, and magazines. Thomas Paine, writing in 1775 in the Pennsylvania Magazine, called a magazine “as a kind of bee-hive, which both allures the swarm, and provides room to store their sweets. Its division into cells gives every bee a province of its own.” In Time, Newsweek, and The Week, an inquisitive soul can read of books, houses, art, political developments, obituaries, sciences, and of kings, queens, wizards, knights, and jesters.

     Paine said that “a magazine, when properly conducted, is the nursery of genius, . . . a kind of market for wit and utility,” and that “The two capital supports of a magazine are utility and entertainment.”

     Phyllis Diller provided the entertainment. Of wit, Thomas Paine observed, that it, “like the passions, has a natural wildness that requires governing. Left to itself, it soon overflows its banks, mixes with common filth, and brings disrepute on the fountain.” Phyllis governed her comedy well.

     Neil Armstrong offered plenty of utility, that talent to accomplish amazing things. Of utility, Paine wrote, “Something useful will always arise from exercising the invention. . . . We owe many of our noblest discoveries more to accident than wisdom. In quest of a pebble we have found a diamond, and returned enriched with the treasure.” Paine was correct. The U.S. space program sought for moon rocks but in that process produced dazzling technological skills.

      On February 29, 2000, Armstrong described himself: “I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector nerdy engineer—born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in the steam tables, in love with free-flow dynamics, transformed by Laplace, and propelled by compressible flow.”

     Armstrong was the modern Merlin who lived his life according to his structured notes, namely his checklists. After landing on the moon, he grabbed the checklist which spelled out to him what he should do next. Because the checklist reduces error, pilots, astronauts, and even surgeons live by the checklist. Armstrong’s commitment to that list made life difficult though for his wife Janet. In 1989, after 38 years of marriage, she left him, saying, “The fact was it took a whole year to get on his schedule to go away for a weekend! In a sense, I resented it.” The checklist ruled Neil Armstrong’s life.

     Phyllis Diller had her checklist too, her memorized list of one-liners that she had properly arranged for producing maximum laughs from an audience, and she dared not deviate from that checklist.

     She passed away on August 20, at the age of 95. Neil Armstrong died five days later on August 25, at the age of 82, and last Friday, on September 14, his ashes were scattered at sea, in a ceremony aboard a U.S. Naval vessel upon the Atlantic Ocean.