John Glenn: An American story
This story appeared in the August 1998 issue of Columbus Monthly.
On the morning of Feb. 20, 1962, John Glenn sat atop a smoldering Atlas rocket, perched on the precipice of history. He was strapped in a reclining position, inside a capsule so small his mother later would look inside it and say, “I would think your feet would go to sleep in that thing.”
Glenn, his family and his crew of 18,000 had endured 11 different weather-related and mechanical delays to reach this moment. Putting the first American into orbit already was a high-risk proposition. The delays only added to the tension.
Back home in Maryland, where Glenn was stationed as a Marine test pilot, his family and a small group of close friends gathered around a row of three television sets, each tuned to one of the major networks. His wife, Annie, nervously rubbed a necklace John had given her when they were dating. David, their 16-year-old son, passed the time by going over his father’s planned flight path on the family globe. Carolyn Glenn, 14, kept herself busy shining a pair of shoes.
In John’s hometown of New Concord, Ohio, about 75 miles east of Columbus, his parents watched from John’s boyhood home. “I’ll bet he’s cool as a cucumber,” his father told a reporter. His father was right. As the countdown neared zero, Glenn’s pulse rate registered between 60 and 80 beats per minute—closer to bored than apprehensive. In fact, the moments leading up to the launch seemed to be taking a greater emotional toll on the people around him than on the man who was about to be rocketed into space at the almost incomprehensible speed of 5 miles per second.
There was plenty of reason for concern. Although NASA had successfully sent two men into space, neither Alan Shepard nor Virgil “Gus” Grissom had been able to achieve full orbit. In order to get an astronaut into orbit, NASA made the controversial decision to replace the Redstone rocket that was used on its first two manned missions with the more powerful but, in the opinion of some, less stable Atlas rocket. Wernher Von Braun, the engineer behind the V-2 Redstone rocket, called the Atlas a “dangerous contraption.” He added that any astronaut who agreed to be launched into space by an Atlas rocket “should be getting a medal for just sitting on top of it before it takes off.”
Glenn was well aware of the dangers he faced. During unmanned test flights prior to his mission, he watched a capsule and an Atlas booster rocket explode at 40,000 feet over the launch pad. He also witnessed another test in which the booster and the capsule didn’t separate. Both crashed into the ocean.
Still, he was confident enough in his crew to move forward with the mission. (Years later, he was able to joke about the failures and potential danger of his trip to space. When asked how he felt listening to the countdown to launch, he said, “I felt exactly how you would feel if you were getting ready to launch and knew you were sitting on top of 2 million parts—all built by the lowest bidder on a government contract.”)
With just a few minutes to launch, Glenn asked his backup, Scott Carpenter, to place a call to Annie on a private line. He made a point of asking her if the audio tapes he had prepared had arrived at the house. He had recorded two messages—one for Annie and one for the kids—which they were to listen to if the worst were to occur. Annie told him the tapes had come.
In a brief conversation, Glenn excitedly described his view of the parting clouds over Cape Canaveral, and assured Annie that the groaning and screening noises she heard in the background were the normal noises emitted by a rocket about to launch. The Glenns ended the call with their own special way of saying goodbye, a routine for them when John was leaving on a dangerous mission. “Well, I’m going down to the corner store to buy some chewing gum,” John would say. “Don’t take too long,” Annie would reply, as the two parted. It was the small, private ritual of a couple who had faced the real possibility of death before.
His “trip to the corner store” took less than five hours. With three historic orbits in the Friendship 7 space capsule and a safe return to earth, the 40-year-old, freckle-faced redhead from Ohio created an unprecedented national euphoria. The week following Glenn’s flight was a whirlwind of parades and speeches. Four million people showered the Glenns with nearly 4,000 tons of ticker tape and other confetti in New York City. The week of national celebration ended in New Concord, where 75,000 people jammed the hometown streets to greet John and Annie and to catch a glimpse of the capsule. As John’s mother looked at all the gadgetry inside her son’s spacecraft, she asked him, “How did you learn to use all those things?”
John Herschel Glenn Jr., who through a long public life would prove himself the master of the understated response, replied merely, “Training, Mom.”
All you have to do is visit the MCL Cafeteria at the Kingsdale Shopping Center in Upper Arlington to see that they would fit right in, an attractive pair of grandparents looking for a comfortable place to eat, not far from their Grandview home. Yet, when John and Annie Glenn carry their trays of food from the cash register to their favorite table by the restaurant’s front window, they definitely turn more heads than the typical patrons.
“It’s unusual for them to make it to their table without somebody stopping them to say hello,” says Ben Vance, the restaurant manager. “Sometimes it takes them five minutes or more to finally get seated. They don’t seem to mind, though. I think they like it.”
They probably like it because it is refreshing to spend an evening acting like an ordinary pair of senior citizens. That may, however, be a more difficult trick to pull off in the coming months. In one of the more remarkable turns in an altogether extraordinary life, John is about to climb aboard the space shuttle Discovery for perhaps the most anticipated NASA mission since Apollo 11 put a man on the moon. In October, at 77, he’ll make a return to orbit as the oldest person ever to travel into space.
Even the people who know him best—people who have seen him make history before—are amazed by this latest feat. “At my age,” says Columbus attorney and Glenn family friend Bob McAlister, “I wouldn’t get any higher off the earth than a ladder. And here he is, putting himself through rigorous astronaut training preparing to return to space. He’s exceptional in a lot of ways, but this may be the most impressive thing he’s ever done.”
That’s high praise, considering all Glenn has done.
More than 50 years ago he emerged from military flight training to become a fearless pilot and decorated soldier, flying 149 combat missions in World War II and Korea. A member of Glenn’s squadron told a reporter he had never seen a better pilot. “He could fly alongside you and tap a wing tip gently against yours,” Glenn’s squadron mate said. Glenn earned a Distinguished Flying Cross in both wars and a total of 10 Air Medals.
Following his war service, Glenn conceived, planned and carried out America’s first supersonic transcontinental flight, an effort that required two dangerous midair refuelings. After covering nearly 2,500 miles at an average speed of 736 miles per hour, Glenn landed dramatically in New York, carrying only enough fuel to have made one more pass around the airport.
His military record and accomplishments as a test pilot were enough to make him a national hero. His work as an astronaut made him one of the most recognizable figures of this century. It has been more than 35 years since he became the first American to orbit the earth. Yet, if you asked the average person on the street to name three astronauts, John Glenn would make every list.
He went on to become a close friend of the Kennedys, President John F. and Senator Robert F., and was inspired and encouraged by them to run for office himself. He was elected a U.S. senator from Ohio in 1974, and today is the first senator from Ohio to be elected to four consecutive terms. He is currently the ranking Democrat on both the Governmental Affairs Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee, and he serves on the Special Committee on Aging and the Select Committee on Intelligence. Dale Butland, the manager of Glenn’s Columbus office and a longtime friend, says, “Almost nothing important has happened in the last half of the 20th century that John Glenn hasn’t been directly involved in.”
Soon Glenn will put an exclamation point on the end of the century as the most celebrated payload specialist ever to don the orange suit of an astronaut.
Glenn was born in Cambridge, Ohio, on July 18, 1921. His father, who ran a plumbing business, moved the family to New Concord, a few miles to the west, when John was 2. That same year, Homer Castor moved his family from Columbus to New Concord, where he established a dental business. The Glenns and the Castors, and their young children, John and Anna, became friends.
It has been nearly 75 years since John and Annie met, when they were “literally sharing a playpen,” John Glenn observes during a telephone interview this summer from his Senate office in Washington. “There’s never been a time in our lives when we didn’t know each other. Everything we’ve been through, we’ve been through together,” he says. By the first grade, the kids were pairing off at school dances. By the eighth grade, they were going steady. This year they celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary.
What they’ve been through hasn’t all been history-making. The Glenns also have faced personal challenges, played out publicly, including Annie’s battle with stuttering, John’s head injury suffered in a fall at home that ended his first run for political office, and his struggle with a multimillion-dollar campaign debt, amassed during his unsuccessful 1984 bid for the presidency. John says he and Annie always have been able to take the bad with the good. “That’s what partnership is all about,” he says. “It can’t all be ticker-tape parades.”
The people closest to the Glenns make it clear that the partnership has been at the core of the couple’s health and success. Questions about him almost always result in responses about them. “Theirs is truly a hand-in-hand kind of relationship,” McAlister says. “It’s a joint operation. There’s a respect, a love, a friendship that is so rare, and so commendable.”
It’s obvious, even to a casual observer like Ken McDowell, the doorman at the Glenns’ condo complex, that their relationship is special. He has watched the couple go out for walks in the early morning, smiling and unfailingly pleasant. “She’s just as sweet as she can be,” McDowell says. “And he’s just as proud of her as she is of him.”
Columbus always has been important in their lives. Annie was born here while her father was in dental school, and Columbus was where John fed his passion for aviation. No trip from New Concord to the big city was complete without a stop at the airport (on the site of the present-day Port Columbus, but differently named and configured) to watch the airplanes in flight. “I’d always heckle my parents to stop at the old field,” he says. “I just loved to go out there.”
Years later, he and Annie would make scores of trips into and out of that same Columbus airfield, commuting to Washington, with John at the controls of their Beechcraft Baron and Annie as co-pilot. They still travel back and forth that way, for throughout John’s Senate career, the Glenns have made Columbus their base of operations in his home state.
Even though he grew up during the Depression, John remembers a “wonderful childhood” in New Concord. He and Annie still own New Concord’s most famous house—John’s boyhood home on a street renamed Friendship Drive after his space capsule.
Both John and Annie attended Muskingum College in their hometown, studying on a campus that had been one of the playgrounds of their childhood. Annie majored in music. John studied engineering and, as a sophomore, learned to fly at the nearby New Philadelphia airport. The pair seemed destined to marry and stay in New Concord; it was likely that John would join his father’s plumbing business.
Then history intervened.
“I was driving to Annie’s senior recital,” Glenn says. Annie was to play “Be Still My Soul” on the organ at Muskingum’s Brown Chapel. She was and is an accomplished musician who was offered a scholarship to study at Juilliard in New York. “It was Sunday, December 7, 1941,” Glenn says. “A bulletin came over the radio. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.”
He sat in the audience pondering the consequences of what he had heard on the radio. After Annie’s recital, the two talked about what John had to do. A few days later, he enlisted in military flight training. Last year in Brown Chapel, announcing he would retire from the Senate, he pointed to the seat where he sat that day in 1941. “Brown Chapel is very meaningful to Annie and me because of the decisions we made there,” he says.
The day after he completed flight training in Texas and was commissioned into the Marines, John took a train home, and he and Annie were married in New Concord. With just three days before he had to report for duty in Cherry Point, North Carolina, they decided to honeymoon in Columbus, spending their first days as husband and wife at the old Deshler-Wallick Hotel at Broad and High.
For the next 23 years the Glenns traveled the world as a Marine couple. Annie played organ at local churches and base chapels, while John flew 59 combat missions in World War II, served as an aviation instructor, then flew another 90 combat missions in Korea.
Glenn’s plane was hit by enemy gunfire on five different occasions, but he was never injured in combat. He landed after one dogfight with so many holes in his plane that his fellow pilots renamed his fighter “the flying doily.”
In a letter home during the Korean War, Glenn described a duel with an enemy MiG, flying at speeds exceeding 700 mph, often no more than 50 feet from the ground. Finally, “I pulled up in a hard left turn,” Glenn wrote. “I looked back just as that MiG spread out over a hundred feet of ground.” He described the terrific fire caused by the crash of the enemy plane. Even in the midst of combat, he seemed driven by a boyish excitement and curiosity, observing in the letter, “It’s funny how the bullets sparkle when they hit a plane like that.”
Following the Korean Armistice, the Glenns returned to the States. John attended the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in Maryland. Lieutenant Colonel Glenn had gained a reputation as an accomplished pilot, and he continued to test the limits of flight. In 1957, he broke the transcontinental speed record, flying from Los Angeles to New York in three hours and 23 minutes, averaging a speed of Mach 1.1. Since he had set the flight path, he flew over New Concord, so his parents could hear the sonic boom as he went by.
The New York press surrounded Glenn as he emerged from his F8U Crusader aircraft. “How does it feel to hold the new transcontinental speed record?” they asked. “It’s a real kick,” he told them, in his all-American kind of way. The country began to get a closer look at this unaffected hero, since Glenn’s flight led to television appearances on a couple of popular game shows (“I’ve Got a Secret” and “Name That Tune”).
His understated charm, intelligence, bravery and flying ability made him a natural for the budding space program. At the age of 37, Glenn was chosen from among more than 500 applicants to be one of America’s original seven astronauts. He survived medical reviews, written tests, psychiatric and technical interviews and a “week of truth” at Dayton’s Wright Air Development Center, which included the acceleration, vibration, heat, loud-noise, balloon-blowing and feet-in-ice-water tests since made famous in The Right Stuff, the book by Tom Wolfe and later the movie starring Ed Harris as Glenn.
He was the senior member of Mercury Seven astronaut corps, in both age and military rank, and his friends say he was deeply disappointed when he was not selected to pilot the first Mercury mission. But he dutifully served as a backup to both Shepard and Grissom, awaiting his turn. He got his chance aboard Friendship 7, a capsule named by his family.
Following his successful flight, the spacecraft became nearly as famous as its pilot, going on its own celebratory tour. Millions of people stood in line, in 17 countries around the world, to catch a glimpse of it. When its tour was complete, the capsule took its place at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., next to the Wright Brothers’ original plane and Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis.
Glenn, meanwhile, found himself making acquaintances in national political circles, including the First Family, John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy. A close friendship developed, and John and Annie, often with the kids along, went sailing off Cape Cod and took part in the famous touch football games played at the Kennedy compound. The president considered Glenn such an important American hero—and political asset—that he forbade NASA ever again to risk his life with a mission to space, a fact Glenn learned only long after Kennedy’s death.
Kennedy and his brother, Bobby, saw great political potential in their heroic friend, and were instrumental in convincing him to run for office. Glenn moved ahead despite the 1963 assassination of the president, announcing early in 1964 that he was leaving the astronaut corps to pursue a seat in the U.S. Senate.
In his retirement speech, he noted, “It could very well be wishful thinking on my part to train for another six or seven years for flights for which I might be too old.” That was 34 years ago.
“I don’t think he would have retired from the space program if he thought he had any chance of going to the moon,” says longtime friend and campaign aide Warren Baltimore. “But, in the absence of that, he believed the Senate represented a way for him to continue in a role of public service.”
Glenn was in the process of setting up his campaign operations in Columbus and Annie was still packing their things in Texas when he fell in the bathroom of his new apartment on East Broad Street. The blow to his temple caused him to suffer from debilitating bouts of dizziness. Glenn was hospitalized for nine months, and his first campaign for the Senate was over just a couple months after it began.
The Glenns spent most of the next five years in Houston, John as a consultant to NASA and an executive with Royal Crown Cola. He and Annie also campaigned for Bobby Kennedy during Kennedy’s run for the presidency in 1968. The Glenns were at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the night Kennedy was shot.
In the chaotic hours after the shooting, Ethel Kennedy asked the Glenns to take her youngest children back East, as Bobby struggled for survival in the L.A. hospital. Just hours after they arrived at the Kennedy home with the children, John and Annie were informed of Bobby’s death. It was John who had to sit at the foot of each child’s bed and tell them their father had died. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life,” he says.
Today Glenn credits the passion and commitment Bobby Kennedy showed for government service and the democratic process for his own involvement. “He taught me that politics is not a dirty world. It’s a calling, almost like the ministry,” Glenn says.
Despite his personal popularity and his obvious enthusiasm for public service, Glenn’s political success did not come easy. He tried a second run at the Senate in 1970, but was defeated in the Democratic primary by Howard Metzenbaum. It wasn’t until his third run in 1974 that he was successful, defeating Metzenbaum in the primary and carrying all of Ohio’s 88 counties in the general election.
One of Glenn’s proudest moments of the last 25 years has had nothing to do with politics. It occurred when his wife dedicated herself to overcoming her stuttering. “I have met a lot of brave people in my life,” Glenn has said. “But none have been more brave than Annie.”
She enrolled in an intensive speech therapy program at Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia, in 1974. “Her stuttering made it impossible to just do the little things, like ordering a meal at a restaurant, or talking on the phone,” says Tom Kaplin, a former Columbus city councilman who has known the Glenns for more than 30 years.
After years of daily therapy and personal practice, she mustered up the courage to stand before a crowd and deliver a speech: Her first audience was a women’s group in canton, in 1980. She credited her husband with helping her overcome her stuttering. He was always patient with her, she told the audience, never hurrying her through the words she struggled with. And, most importantly, he always listened to her.
Annie will be on hand at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Oct. 29 to see her husband blast off “to the corner store.” John Glenn is poised once again to take the leap into space—not by way of a machine as dubious as that 1962 Atlas rocket, to be sure; but he is 77. Ironically, he used the very fact of his advanced age to get the seat aboard Discovery.
Glenn worked for two years to convince NASA and the National Institute of Aging that they ought to look at the similarities between the physical effects of weightlessness and the physical effects of aging. Astronauts of all ages suffer from a loss of muscle, bone and blood density, disturbed sleep patterns, balance disorders and decreased cardiovascular strength while in space. Although the physical side effects of weightlessness reverse themselves when the astronauts return to earth, Glenn sees value in monitoring how weightlessness will affect somebody who already has suffered through those symptoms as a part of the natural aging process. He says he hopes data collected on this mission may unlock some secrets to slowing the aging process.
His participation is not without critics. They say Glenn’s lobbying was more politics than science, and argue that if NASA, or the president, is sending Glenn back to space as a favor for his years of service to the country, they should just say no, rather than trying to hide behind some perceived scientific value. But Glenn says he would never be interested in simply going along for the ride. In fact, he hopes this mission is just the beginning of a long-term program of space-based research focused on reducing the effects of aging.
Glenn isn’t the average septuagenarian. He’s in exceptionally good shape, having maintained a lifelong regimen of running, power walking and weight lifting. He’s obviously proud of the fact that NASA has told him he has been put through the most rigorous physical examination of any astronaut in history. “NASA insisted from the beginning that there be no waiver on the physical,” he says. “That’s the only way I’d want it, too.” Still, why put himself through the strenuous training and the risks of space flight at his advanced age, whether it results in useful scientific data or not?
Curiosity. “Every bit of progress that has ever been made is the result of somebody being curious,” he says. It’s the reason he was so excited to take his first orbital space flight, he says, and the reason he campaigned so hard to return to space. “For some reason, we seem to lose our sense of curiosity as we age.”
Upon his return from space, he’ll finish out his final Senate term, which ends in January. He has donated his life’s records—including his NASA and senate years—to Ohio State University, and has agreed to serve as a volunteer lecturer and mentor to students at Ohio State and Muskingum College. His friends say both the Glenns and the students will benefit. “I think, at his core, he’s really a frustrated professor,” McAlister says.
At least, the senator makes it very clear that he and Annie have no plans to just kick back and watch the world go by. “There’s just way too much work to be done,” he says.
Jeff Lyttle is a free-lance writer.