On The Passing of Astronaut John Glenn
There have been several momentous celebrity passings over the course of the last year, and I was touched by many of them. It wasn’t until this afternoon however that news of a well-known man’s departure from Earth’s mortal trappings moved me very nearly to tears.
John Glenn was many things in his life, and many of us would be entirely grateful to accomplish an iota of what he did in 95 years on Earth and in space. I believe it is safe to call him a lifelong adventurer -- from his early days in flight training and transport and combat missions in World War II and Korea, to his test pilot career and subsequent selection into the Mercury astronaut program, serving aboard the space shuttle, and his tenure in the U.S. Senate, it seems to me that John Glenn craved the thrill of doing what he loved, and doing his duty in the service of others.
My own experience with Colonel Glenn is a lightly fictionalized one. There were two double-VHS tape sets owned by my parents in the house that I grew up in: one was a fantastic film starring George C. Scott as the most widely feared and respected military officer in American history, and the other was a copy of the greatest American film ever made.
The latter, no doubt you’ve already guessed, was The Right Stuff. Based on the Tom Wolfe writing of the same name, it chronicles the genesis and infancy of American manned spaceflight with particular focus on the Mercury 7 astronauts -- military test pilots that survived the peculiar and slightly pernicious selection program to become the first seven Americans to fly in space. Glenn’s character is masterfully portrayed by a strapping young Ed Harris, and he was always my favorite growing up. While his fellow fighter jocks found themselves drinking too much, being a little too open to the advances of the space groupies of the era, or perhaps letting their celebrity interfere with their moral compasses in other ways, John Glenn remained ever focused on the mission. He was never afraid to fight for what was right. Sometimes it was making sure the astronauts got their window in the Mercury spacecraft capsule, sometimes it was making sure his wife knew that she never had to do anything she was uncomfortable with, even if that was letting the Vice President of the United States into their home. Other times it meant sternly reminding his colleagues of their collective responsibility and the weight that it carried. “Mr. Clean Marine” they called him.
I’m sensitive to the fact that I may seem to be eulogizing a film character instead of the real-life man the character was meant to represent (and there is no doubt much more to him than is depicted in a film from the 1980s), but I’d argue that the various eulogies you’ll see across the web over the next couple of days will be doing a similar thing. One can read widely on the historical ins and outs of the life of John Glenn, the verifiable facts of which would no doubt regale and amaze. But some men grow so mighty in their presence in the national and global conscience so as to become legends, the stuff of myth. If one of the first men to usher in an era of discovery and advancement unlike the world has ever seen doesn’t rise to that status, I’d argue no one can.
"Godspeed, John Glenn.”