Another tribute

Any tribute that I could write for John Glenn would pale in the avalanche of memorials, eulogies, and articles that are filling the media at the news of his death yesterday at the age of 95. The actual cause of death has not been released, but he did suffer a stroke after heart-valve replacement surgery in 2014. And he was 95. And he lived his life at a pace that was far faster than his contemporaries. The first US astronaut to orbit the earth, he was the last of the original 7 Mercury astronauts to die.

He was just six months younger than my father. The both served as Army Air Corps pilots during World War II. Although my father at one time aspired to be a test pilot, his career and life took a far different direction than that of John Glenn, but he kept a close eye on all of the early astronauts and paid close attention to their activities.

I can remember the day that Glenn circled the earth three times in just under five hours in “Friendship 7” and then splashed down and bobbed in the capsule in the Atlantic east of the Bahamas for 21 minutes before being picked up by a US destroyer. In those days our television stayed on and we watched the flights of the astronauts from before launch to after recovery. And the television was new in our house and not left on for long amounts of time for any other type of programming. The next time our television stayed on that long was for the coverage of the death of President Kennedy.

It has already been said and it will be said over and over in the weeks to come, but the death of John Glenn really feels like the end of an era in our nation’s history. Perhaps it is just a reflection of my age, but I am intensely aware that the figures we had to look up to were vastly different from those who are in the public eye as my grandson nears the age I was when Glenn was given a visit by the President and a ticker tape parade in New York City.

Today’s youth have plenty of fictional heroes - the product of computer aided animation and the fervent imaginations of teams of people who produce entertainment. Today’s youth have plenty of idols - people who make the headlines for sports prowess, or entertainment success whose life paths cannot be replicated by any one else. Both fictional heroes and idols fail to show others what they can become. Instead they are an illustration of what one can never become. In the end they disappoint by the huge differences they display.

Today’s youth have plenty of anti-heroes - those who achieve success and fame and wealth by gaming the system - who cheat an lie and claw their way to the top by making personal attacks against others. They demonstrate a path that no parent would choose for their child.

John Glenn was different. He complied an amazing life story: 149 combat missions in two wars, Distinguished Flying Cross (six times!), Air Medal with eighteen award stars, first pilot to fly faster than the speed of sound, first American to orbit the earth, four consecutive terms in the US Senate, a return to space as a payload specialist aboard the Space Shuttle at the age of 77 . . . the list goes on and on.

The list, however, isn’t solely the thing that made John Glenn a hero. Despite all of his accomplishments, he never lost the virtue of humility. He didn’t count himself as above other people. He never tried to pretend that he was anything that he wasn’t. And, after living a long a full life, he now has shown us that he was mortal - a flesh-and-blood human being.

Instead of showing us what we could never achieve, he showed us what we could become. Real heroes show us what we might become. They inspire us to live lives with meaning and purpose.

Dale Butland, in a New York Times op-ed piece yesterday, told a story that I had not previously heard. After he retired from the Marine Corps, Glenn took a position as president of a major American corporations’ international division. “We were living in New York, and they were paying me $100,000 a year, which at that time was real money,” he told Butland. “For the first time in our lives, Annie and I didn’t have to worry about putting our kids through college or helping our parents financially as they got older.”

When John Kennedy decided to run for president, John Glenn, a friend of his brother Robert, agreed to campaign for him. John Glenn was summoned to an emergency meeting of the corporate board where a resolution barring any board member from “engaging in partisan politics in 1968” was proposed. John Glenn rose from his seat and said there was something his colleagues should know before taking their vote. “Bob Kennedy asked me to campaign for him and I told him I would. And I will, because he is my friend. And if keeping my word means I can’t be associated with this company any longer, I can live with that.” No vote was called the the meeting was quickly adjourned.

Politics aren’t the point of the story. What stands out is the fierce determination to keep a promise to a friend, even at the expense of sacrificing financial security. It is just one more story that reveals the integrity and courage of the man. And integrity and courage are in short supply in our country these days. Quite frankly, unpredictability, personal attack and fear mongering are poor substitutes for integrity and courage.

It leaves me wondering where the heroes for my grandchildren’s generation will arise. While we search and wait for genuine heroes, we could do worse than to tell the stories of some of the real heroes we have known.

John Glenn was certainly a hero.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!