In a tiny mountain village in the remotest reaches of New Hampshire, the kind of rural crossroads found only by politicians desperately seeking the White House, one-time presidential candidate John Glenn encountered a set of 21year-old twins on the town square. They were born in 1962, the year he became the first American to orbit the Earth, and one of the men was named John, the other Glenn. In Amherst, N.Y., just across the border from Ontario, a book publisher has set up headquarters on John Glenn Drive. There are so many buildings, streets and schools named for John Glenn that his senatorial office has lost track of the number.
John Glenn is the first and last American hero of the postwar era. In the chilliest year of the Cold War, he donned the silvery suit of the Mercury astronauts, was hoisted above an Atlas booster, jammed into a space capsule the size of a washing machine and then was propelled—partly by liquid oxygen, partly by the hopes of his countrymen—into space. He very nearly didn’t return; his heat shield shook loose and, while the world watched on live television, mission control specialists worried that he might be consumed in a fiery re-entry that would have ended both his life and the U.S. prospects of reaching the moon by the end of the 1960s.
He survived to win a ticker-tape parade (three tonnes of it in lower Manhattan), a cameo role in the new Camelot (President John Kennedy, worried about re-election in 1964, stuck to Glenn like glue), a political career (four terms in the Senate from Ohio, one of the scorched-earth battlegrounds of American politics) and a reputation as shiny as his Mercury space suit. (All that, and he was not even the first man in space—that feat was achieved in the previous year by the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin— or, for that matter, even the first American in space, an achievement claimed nine months before Glenn by Alan Shephard.)
Now, Glenn, who turned 77 this summer, has won a new prize—a seat on the space shuttle Discovery with five men and a woman (one of whom wasn’t even born when Glenn first went into space) who, it turns out, think of him as less of a geezer along for the ride and more of—well, a hero. You’d think that, too, if you’d been training for a mission in a sophisticated spacecraft with 2,312 cockpit display components. Glenn’s primitive Friendship 7 had 143.
Glenn became a hero the first time around because, at a time of American self-doubt and international danger, he possessed all the colorful attributes of the classic American Everyman— which is to say, none at all. America’s one-man answer to the Soviet threat had no fancy pedigree. No regal bearing. No sparkling personality. No quips. Not, as I and other desperate correspondents found during his disappointing presidential campaign in 1984, a single anecdote of note. He was Everyman’s hero because he was Everyman, because he was so 99.44-per-cent pure Pepsi-guzzling, apple-pie eating, flag-adoring American. Born in the heart of the heart of the country. Son of a plumber. Brave, honest and true. Also modest. As a youngster in New Concord, Ohio, he was chums with the little girl who lived on his own street, Bloomfield Road. She was another certifiably normal American known then as Annie Castor, known for the past 55 years as Annie Glenn.
Glenn was a hero in two wars, the Second World War and Korea, and then became incontestably the least interesting, least tempestuous, least wise-cracking, least wild test pilot in history. A Puritan among pugilists, he was chosen as one of the first American astronauts, swiftly emerging as the rector among reprobates, and maybe the only one of the Original Seven (as they are regarded in mythology) ready for prime time when the Cold War got hot and heated up the space race. He was, and is, a below-the-49th-parallel Dudley Doright, a moniker that has fresh appeal in the Age of Monica.
Now, Glenn is called upon to be heroic again, to become the oldest space traveller ever. He relishes the role as hero, of course, knowing that his finest four hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds came aboard Friendship 7. He’ll be on Discovery to perform medical tests—some mumbo jumbo about studies on the human immune system and the similarities between what happens to the bones of old people and the bones of astronauts. (The last time he went into space, U.S. scientists, themselves so innocent and ignorant of the effects of space travel on the body, worried that his eyeballs would change shape in weightless orbit. They didn’t.)
But Glenn’s Discovery trip, like his Mercury voyage, isn’t about the human body. It’s about the human spirit. Which is why the Mattel Toy people just came out with a new Hot Wheels action toy, featuring John Glenn. And which is why, once again, on Oct. 29 the whole world will be watching John Glenn.
David Shribman, Washington bureau chief of The Boston Globe, has covered John Glenn’s political career closely for the past 15 years.
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