“Neil Armstrong Is A Big Fat Liar,” by Ken Pisani

Jun 2nd, 2010 | By | Category: Fake Nonfiction, Prose

The passing this week of Flushing delicatessen owner Fillmore Weinreb might have gone unnoticed were it not for his improbable claim nearly four decades ago that he, and not Neil Armstrong, had in fact been the first man on the moon, along with his cat, Max.

In his 1972 self-published memoir, “Neil Armstrong Is A Big Fat Liar,” Weinreb explained his “Eureka” moment, similar to the one in which he first teamed up tongue, salami and a pork cutlet to create the Galento sandwich:

Escape velocity: that was the equation the space program focused on, the basket our rocket scientists put all their deviled eggs in. While our fancy schmancy scientists worked on “escape velocity,” I worked around it.

In a nutshell Weinreb, an amateur science buff and weekend magician, knew that it takes 35,000 pounds of thrust per unit to escape Earth’s gravity; yet once in space, momentum requires the tiniest fraction of that output. Simply put, 90-percent of a rocket existed only to achieve escape velocity, requiring vast quantities of fuel — after which those lower stages were discarded like sardine bones. To Weinreb, this was disproportionately unsatisfying, like serving a sandwich with more bread than meat, and no pickle. His solution: lighter-than-air balloons to lift a capsule into the stratosphere, where a fraction of the fuel required for lift-off would propel it into space, and to the moon. Unless, of course, it exploded.

Weinreb set about building a prototype, procuring a vintage bathysphere cheaply from a man with too much nitrogen in his brain. Airtight and capable of surviving the crushing pressures of the deep, the steel chamber was further modified to withstand the shock of rocket propulsion and a possible rough landing. (He also put up some curtains.) But numerous technical and financial setbacks delayed his progress until April of 1969, when Weinreb further postponed his launch to attend Opening Day at Shea Stadium, a game the Mets lost to the woeful Expos, 11-10, despite scoring four runs in the bottom of the ninth. Disgusted by the disappointing start to what would surely be another hapless season by New York’s Metropolitans, Weinreb headed home and gassed up his balloons.

(As improbable as his story seems in the recounting, newspapers from the morning following his evening launch relate eyewitness accounts of an “unidentified flying object” drifting across the Queens horizon before achieving a vertical trajectory; there is also a report from a commercial Pan Am flight taking off from La Guardia Airport, whose pilot insisted a UFO had passed close enough for him to glimpse a large, ugly cat through a curtained porthole window.)

Weinreb wrote of his and Max’s ascent into the stratosphere, where he ejected the balloons that had carried him aloft and ignited the single rocket engine that would “free me from the miserly grip of Earth’s gravitational pull, propelling me into orbit, and history. Unless, or course, it exploded.”

With a catatonic Max for company, Weinreb settled in for the long journey to the moon, where, he explained in his book, they would be stranded. He had known all along that a return trip was impossible (the one advantage he was willing to concede to the NASA mission). However, his goal was simply to be the first man on the moon; after that, he would be happy for as long as his air held out, expecting his remains to be discovered by a shocked Apollo 11 crew or, if not them, future moon missions, or even visitors from other galaxies resembling characters out of Arthur C. Clarke, or mollusks.

The journey through space had its moments of wonder but was not altogether pleasant. Weightlessness produced in Max a bewildered state accompanied by near-constant mewling and the ejection at regular intervals of vomitous hairballs. Weinreb too upchucked the unsatisfying bologna paste he’d created himself, having mashed and squeezed a variety of deli meats into sausage skins. Both eventually grew accustomed to their weightless state and the serial vomiting became less frequent, although hairballs and globs of bologna paste commingled in the air like giant, bloated mosquitoes, and the smell of human and cat waste grew oppressive. After several days under conditions that would repel a cockroach, Weinreb was grateful to feel the tug of the moon.

Deploying his parachutes over the Sea of Tranquility, Weinreb was surprised to discover that, even under the lighter gravity of the moon, those chutes failed to slow his descent as much as he had hoped. He’d calculated his impact to be roughly equivalent to dropping off the roof of his garage (something he had attempted as a boy of ten, wearing a towel for a hero’s cape and escaping with minor injuries, except those later visited upon him by his father); instead, he’d plummeted like a falling piano. Fearing he might have broken bones, Weinreb lay inside his vessel for several long hours, gazing out his porthole window at the amazing lunar landscape outside and thinking, I made it to the moon. God, it stinks in here.

As he prepared to explore the lunar surface, climbing into the vintage diver’s suit that caused him to resemble an aquarium toy designed to amuse fish, he realized he’d made one great miscalculation: he had failed to account for an airlock. He couldn’t open the hatch without expelling his oxygen, and killing Max; yet he was determined that he hadn’t come all this way to die inside his tiny vessel. So, Weinreb wrote, he shared some bologna paste with Max and took a nap.

When he awoke hours later, Weinreb was surprised to find Max dead. Perhaps the vomiting of countless hairballs had proven too much for him, or maybe it was the bologna paste. He ultimately decided that Max had died purposefully, as if by willfully ingesting a cyanide mouse, so Weinreb could exit the bathysphere without remorse. Which Weinreb did. Venting the oxygen from inside his steel chamber, he opened the hatch and stepped onto the lunar surface. “One small step,” Weinreb thought. “I should have gone to the bathroom.”

Fillmore Weinreb wandered as far as his air-hose would allow, knelt, and carefully buried the remains of Max, first cat on the moon. He offered a Kaddish and, rising to his feet, was surprised to come helmet-to-helmet with Neil Armstrong. But not nearly as surprised as Commander Armstrong to find a Queens delicatessen owner in a deep sea diver’s suit on the moon.

Weinreb wrote about what happened next:

Reports to Mission Control of my presence on the moon were initially greeted with concern for Armstrong and Aldrin – that perhaps their suits were leaking oxygen, causing the shared religious hallucination of finding a Jew on the moon. Eventually Nixon administration insiders were briefed, and it was agreed to bring me home in secrecy. Calculations were made for my additional weight and, despite my protestations and allergy to Tang, I was squeezed uncomfortably between Aldrin and astronaut Collins for the journey home.

Weinreb claims to have been whisked to a covert prison cell located inside the pelvis of the Lincoln Monument, where he was offered a lifetime federal tax exemption in exchange for his silence, “for the good of the nation.” When it was further suggested that the same result could be achieved with his disappearance, Weinreb elected the course of a patriot.

But the decision would gnaw at him, starting with the launch of Apollo 12, whose real mission Weinreb knew was to erase all physical evidence of his lunar visit. And over the next few years, as the wonder of Apollo and Woodstock and the Amazin’ Mets gave way to Watergate, odd-and-even gas lines and the break-up of Steppenwolf, Weinreb’s disillusionment led him to damn the consequences, and self-publish the memoir of his improbable journey.

The publication of “Neil Armstrong Is A Big Fat Liar” might have passed unnoticed had it not been for a booking mix-up at the syndicated Mike Douglas Show in February of 1972. Instead of Phil Weinstein, the plate spinner, a booker had mistakenly contacted Fillmore Weinreb, the crackpot author. Further benefiting from the high ratings generated by co-hosts John Lennon and Yoko Ono (with whom he would form a life-long friendship), Weinreb told his incredible tale to an audience of millions.

In the ensuing weeks, Weinreb found himself embraced by Americans increasingly distrustful of authority in the era of Nixonian paranoia. He appeared on Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt; drunkenly flirted with Phyllis Schlafly on Playboy After Dark; and, mistaking Tom Snyder’s booming laugh for ridicule, punched the Tomorrow host in the face before storming off the set. Whatever plans the United States government might have had for the disposition of Fillmore Weinreb, his sudden disappearance was no longer an option.

Despite government denials and Armstrong’s refusal to comment, Weinreb pressed his case for years. In 1976 he even granted an interview to the Soviet newspaper, Pravda. Later realizing he’d been duped in a propaganda move to subvert America’s patriotic celebration of its bicentennial, and the movie Rocky, Weinreb issued a retraction of his claim and withdrew from the public eye. He refused further comment up to his death this week at the age of 78. It’s rumored that the reclusive Armstrong attended the private service, in disguise; although it remains unclear whether he might have done so out of respect for a peer with whom he shared an historic moment, or to be sure he was dead.

Over the years circumstantial evidence has surfaced to support portions of Weinreb’s story, including his government file released to a Huffington Post reporter under the Freedom of Information Act containing CIA and FBI documents from the summer of 1969 blacked out with the fervor of a graffiti artist trying to cover a wall. He had also earned a place on President Nixon’s “enemies list,” and it has been speculated that the missing eighteen-and-a-half minutes from the Nixon tapes had nothing to do with the Watergate break-in but were related instead to a recent Weinreb appearance on “Laugh-In” in support of Pat Paulsen’s candidacy for president.

Regardless of the validity of Weinreb’s claim, or the circumstances of his subsequent recant, there is one final passage in his long out-of-print book that could someday prove conclusively the veracity of his tale:

Whatever you believe, there’s one irrefutable fact that Apollo couldn’t cover up, because I never told them: someday, some schmendrick looking for moon rocks is going to do a little digging around Mare Tranquillitatus, and find Max. At first, they’ll think they’ve discovered an alien life-form… but when they figure out it’s really a common housecat, they are going to plotz.


Ken Pisani writes and produces for television and has earned two Emmy nominations. (He remains bitter about losing.) He has optioned features and sold network pilots, events that expired with little fanfare. Ken also dabbles as a playwright and is a published fiction author. His short story, “My Brother Died And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt,” was collected in the anthology More Tonto Short Stories, published last year in the U.S. and U.K. An earlier effort, “The Failing,” was a short fiction winner at Cedar Hill Press in 2007. The windfall from both those literary triumphs will offer small comfort in retirement. Ken is a former cartoonist, art director, stand-up comic, and sports producer. Let’s face it, some people have a career path, Ken’s resume is more like the trail of a serial killer— appearing random and chaotic but on closer examination, arbitrary and confused. A former New Yorker, Ken currently lives in Los Angeles with his beautiful wife, Amanda, and is allergic to dogs. To enjoy more of Ken’s writing (such as it is), visit eatthepoor.com, where Ken blogs occasionally if not lucidly about the economy, politics, media, and other topics of little interest.

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