Lafayette Vignettes, Part 1: The Astronaut Alumnus

Neil Armstrong statue!

Why did my wife want to go to college for her birthday? To see Neil Armstrong.

In addition to our annual road trips, my wife Anne and I have a twice-yearly tradition of spending our respective birthdays together traveling to some new place or attraction as a one-day road trip — partly as an excuse to spend time together on those most wondrous days, partly to explore areas of Indiana we’ve never experienced before. We’re the Goldens. It’s who we are and what we do.

Once upon a time in 2019 Anne decide she wanted to celebrate her birthday with a jaunt around the city of Lafayette, an hour northwest of our Indiana home. She cobbled together a short to-do list of things she wanted to see, not lengthy but enough for a leisurely afternoon — a bit of Indiana history, a bit of downtown tourism, and a bit of healthy walking.

Purdue Bell Tower!

The renowned Purdue Bell Tower, their most visible landmark.

The idea was ironic on one level. Though my son graduated from Purdue University, we didn’t explore much of the area during his four-year stay because he’d never expressed much interest in exploring the place himself. With him no longer up there to leave out, just the two of us spending a day in Lafayette now seemed a less awkward idea. As it happened, our first sightseeing stop on the list was a statue sitting in the heart of the Purdue campus itself. Longtime MCC readers know we do love our statues — frequently recommended attractions on travel sites such as Roadside America, and a prominent motif in our past photo galleries.

We figured we’d grab a parking space, grab a quick photo, and move on with our day. We didn’t want to attend Purdue; we simply wanted to see the one thing. Within minutes of driving onto campus, we realized we’d miscalculated rather grandly. Anne’s birthday weekend was also Purdue’s annual Homecoming weekend. As if that wouldn’t be intense enough, 2019 also celebrated Purdue’s 150th year as a beloved institution.


Banner advertising Purdue Homecoming and their online presence.

I’ve never been one for sports or intense school spirit. Consequently I’ve never understood the concept of “Homecoming” for any school or why it’s a Big Deal. The campus was crawling with thousands and thousands of students, alumni, family, and other visitors. (A disproportionate number of them were wearing furry costumes, a mystery we never solved even after asking my equally stymied Facebook friends for clues.) As with any major event, massive crowds bring with them many, many cars. Every parking lot was full. Every curbside parallel space was taken. The numerous garages were still open but charging $20 for event parking. We’ve overpaid for questionable travel purposes before, but considering the expensive year we’d been having, we were not overpaying for the privilege of viewing one (1) statue.

After driving several laps around Purdue in vain, dragged out longer by the plethora of pedestrians clogging every intersection, I quickly hatched a plan that would let Anne achieve her first objective of the day. It required some small sacrifice on my part. But this was for her birthday, not mine.

I pulled into a McDonald’s adjacent to Purdue’s northeast corner. Signs clearly dictated parking was for McDonald’s customers only, and that said rule would be strictly enforced. The unmanned police car in front of one sign was perhaps a symbolic reminder they weren’t kidding, especially not on this hectic weekend.

We took a cue from all the best team-oriented TV shows: we split up. I went inside, bought a snack and drink, grabbed a table, and dined as an official paying customer. While I technically legitimized my car’s presence on their property, Anne walked a few blocks west to her destination: the Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering.

Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering!

Real talk: Indiana doesn’t have many buildings named after objectively awesome people.

Dedicated in 2007, the hall is named after one of Purdue’s most famous alumni, a graduate of the Class of 1955. I trust I don’t need to explain Neil Armstrong’s identity, the American space program, the July 1969 moonwalk, the history books he’s shown up in ever since, or the immortal quote, “That’s one small step for [a?] man, one giant leap for mankind.” When my son and I took a college walking tour in 2013, we were guided past the south side of the building and therefore missed out on the prominent feature adorning its north face — a statue of Armstrong himself.

I still haven’t seen it in person. While I busied myself blocks away at the mobbed Mickey D’s, Anne made sure to take photos.

Neil Armstrong statue!

If we’re ranking de-mythologized portraits of a casual Armstrong outside his space suit, this statue is more inspiring than First Man.

One Giant Leap for Mankind!

The path leading to Armstrong and the entrance incorporates the quote.

Inside the Hall of Engineering is a selection of pieces celebrating Purdue’s successes in aeronautics, astronautics, and engineering in general. Most relevant to Anne’s tastes: possibly the best-looking smashed-penny machine she’s ever seen. Smashed pennies are her favorite kind of souvenir. I’m told the hanging spacecraft models were okay, too.

Armstrong smashed-penny machine!

Leave it to a premier engineering school to forgo the standard machine design and pay homage to the Bell Tower.

astronaut art!

Astronaut art.

Air Force model plane!

Air Force model plane.

space capsule model!

Model of a space capsule, how every astronaut ended their trips in those halcyon days.

Anne took the photos and got her fill of smashed pennies bearing images of the Bell Tower and the 150th anniversary. Minutes later she returned and we were reunited. We sped away to another locale in Lafayette where parking availability and prices were absolutely not an issue.

To be continued! Other chapters in this MCC miniseries:

Part 2: The Works on the Walls
Part 3: Drifting Around Downtown
Part 4: The Legacy of Tippecanoe
Part 5: Prophets and Poultry
Part 6: The Birthday Menu

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