Americans living in today’s uncertain times lost a man yesterday easily recognized for who and what he was.
John Glenn was a hero in flight, who had proven himself in war twice, who had become part of a new breed of explorers and pathfinders. And with a single, precarious flight buoyed America’s shaky spirit like few people have done since.
Born July 18, 1921, Glenn, the 95-year-old former astronaut and four-term senator from Ohio died Dec. 8 in Ohio, the place where the solid center of his life could be located.
He was in his time and thereafter, a hero whose heroism could never be questioned, gainsaid or diminished, whose ability to inspire with deeds was self-evident. He was also that rarest of politicians — a man who gathered up experience and knowledge like a questing soul, curious about human beings and life as long as he was able.
It’s easy to pin Glenn in those days, look at his smiling, big-smiled, small-town handsome face and leave him there — in the rocket’s red glare of takeoff, circling the earth three times in a vehicle that appeared in retrospect something on the order of a smaller-than-usual Volkswagen.
It was a tiny space capsule called the Friendship 7, which he took to three orbits around the earth, the first American to do so, joining the likes of aviator Charles Lindbergh as the most intrepid explorer of the sky and beyond. (Glenn was the fifth person in space.)
With some shaky moments, he returned to earth — none of the things that could go catastrophically wrong did so. He splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean in 1962 to sudden acclaim, and lasting fame that would lead to the senate and then a failed presidential bid.
Thirty-six years after the ticker parade, Glenn went into space again in 1998, accumulating a wealth of expertise on aging by dint of getting older, in a space shuttle flight (STS-95), which conducted experiments using Glenn as a kind of guinea pig. He was 77, the oldest man ever to be in space.
Newsmen who had not been alive when Glenn circled the earth professed being shocked and moved by his death, as if suddenly, after a quiet later life, Glenn in his passing had resurrected Glenn, the hero and heroism all at once.
His was the kind of life—an upbringing in the small town (pop. 1,000, give or take) in Ohio, three-sport star in high school, marrying his high school sweet heart and staying married for all that wonderful life, becoming a Marine Corps fighter pilot with medals in World War II and the Korean War, becoming part of the early crews of test pilots, some of whom became our first astronauts.
He had a bearing, a big smile, not exactly humble, with a tote bag of ambition, but all-American nonetheless. For all his being a hero of flight, he always seemed firmly rooted to the ground, knowing where he was.
We lived then in a time of uncertainty, too, the country suffered from a certain vague loss of confidence because we had become engaged in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, which appeared with Sputnik and the flights of Yuri Gagarin to have passed us in the race to space. Glenn literally erased that unease in a dramatic way, with his achievement and his personality. President John F. Kennedy prevented him from taking another flight, lest an American hero be lost to accident, which frustrated Glenn to no end.
If you were young in those days and lived in Ohio in a small town of about a thousand people, as I did, you could feel proud in being an American — but also a Buckeye.
Glenn and his fellow astronauts had size and integrity and were almost mythic Americans. That first bunch, tested in war, busting with confidence, matched the size of the quest to get into space, which would end with Americans being the first to jump up and down on the dusty surface of the moon.
“John [Glenn] always had the right stuff,” said President Barack Obama. “He reminded us that with courage and a spirit of discovery there’s no limit to the heights we can reach together.”
Today, in the newspapers, there is a iconic image of John Glenn in a space helmet, looking straight ahead, unblinking that dominated the front page.
We had lost a hero, who, by dint of those three orbits, truly taught us to remember to look up.