We were behind the Russkis.
While we were busy lobbing softballs into space, Yuri Gagarin circumnavigated the globe and turned the United States into a second class citizen.
And then John Glenn trumped him by making three circuits around this mortal coil and then everything was good again, for a while anyway.
The sixties started with the election of John F. Kennedy. This was a big deal, he was young and he was Catholic and he wasn’t supposed to make it but he did, and we immediately had hope.
Heroes. Our country needs ’em.
Ironically, our biggest hero today is an immigrant, Elon Musk. Damned if I don’t believe he’ll take us to Mars. Because he beat Detroit at its own game, even the Asians too. While Toyota was selling hybrids, while Nissan was selling the anemic Leaf, Musk came up with a purely electric car as fast as a Ferrari that didn’t pollute. How did he do that?
That’s what we wondered way back when, how they did it. There was one scientific breakthrough after another. Not just apps spewing cash, but great leaps forward that benefited society. And the truth is the space program delivered so many of them. Back when taxes were not a bad word and we were all in it together.
No, I don’t want to candy-coat the early sixties, it was tough to be an African-American, or a woman, but there was this belief…that we were going somewhere, that we could make it.
And the spearhead for all of this was NASA and the initial seven astronauts.
Today, we’ve got the Super Bowl.
Back then, we had Cape Canaveral.
Remember, this is when airplanes still crashed, when navigation was based on what you could see, when most people hadn’t been far from home base, when Florida was a country away and you tuned in on your black and white to see…was the rocket gonna blast off?
Oftentimes it didn’t. There’d be a countdown, and then it would be stopped. A delay. Could be days before the rocket ultimately went up.
And yes, there was the Apollo fire in ’67, but it wasn’t until the eighties that the Challenger blew up. We were on a winning streak, but success was not taken for granted. You could push a man up into space and he could come back? Really?
So on February 20, 1962, we were all watching. We were all listening. This was our chance, to reclaim our glory as a country. Could we do it?
And our faith was all placed in one man, John Glenn.
Forget the “Right Stuff,” the book and the movie, which made him out to be a choirboy disliked by his compatriots. To those of us at home, he was an All-American risk taker, the only man who could do the job.
AND HE DID!
And only seven years later we put a man on the moon. And watched from our living rooms. How great is that?
But that was an eon later in the culture. The youth had revolted, the old men were out of touch, the establishment was hated, funny how everybody wants to cozy up to corporations today. But the astronauts… No one had a bad word to say about them. They may have been in the military, but they were light years from Vietnam. They were cowboys, prepared for the mission…and the mission was to save America.
Oh, how far we’ve fallen.
We’ve given up the big dreams.
Problems are always extant. Solutions? The public wants to circle the wagons, keep the foreigners out, just so they can survive.
But survival is not enough. You’ve got to have hope. You’ve got to believe.
After the astronauts it was the musicians. They were the only ones left who believed the rules did not apply.
And then the bankers took over and America no longer made anything and infighting was the national sport.
But one man soldiered on.
John Glenn went to Congress. He went up in the space shuttle. He was living proof that…you could make it.
I want to make it, do you?
I want to believe if I put my nose to the grindstone things will work out. I want to live a life so full I have no regrets.
And John Glenn led a full life. Of which I can only be envious.
I actually had dinner with him a bunch of times, he was a friend of Felice’s family. He expounded upon politics, I didn’t ask him about the space race, but others did, and he told it like it was, straightforwardly, after all, he was from Ohio.
But even more than John I enjoyed his wife Annie. They were grade school sweethearts. They’ve been together this long. Now Annie’s alone.
There were kids. Who lived through the sixties and had the same issues we all did, it’s fascinating to talk to them, what was it like to have John Glenn as your dad?
Tough, as you can imagine.
Because he was everybody’s hero. Beloved by all. The guy with the can-do spirit who executed on his vision. He said yes when everybody else said no.
And it’s weird with all the icons dying. Leon Russell and Greg Lake just now. Bowie and Frey earlier in the year.
But those memories are personal. Of listening and being transformed.
But John Glenn’s success was everybody’s. He shot into space on a mission, showing the power of one man to transform society.
He’s gone now, but his legend lives on.
And his lessons too.
It’s all right to be a straight arrow. It’s all right to keep your eye on the prize. It’s all right to keep going after your big success. It’s all right to live to the ripe old age of 95 and look back and say…
I squeezed every single ounce out of life, I did it.
Shall you do the same.