By Terry Boers–
(CBS) The passing of John Glenn last week brought out emotions from millions and millions of grateful, albeit aging, Americans, many of whom characterized him as one of the last of the great American heroes who’d led “a uniquely American life.”
I can’t give you the number of people in history who’ve flown anything that traveled at a mere 17,500 miles per hour and made five revolutions around the earth and at the same time let the Russians know they weren’t winning the space race after all.
Aside from the being the first American to orbit the earth, Glenn was a decorated Marine Corps fighter pilot in World War II and Korea, a three-time senator from Ohio and a guy who decided in his late 70s that he wanted to be launched into space one last time to check the effects of aging. He did that in 1998 at the age of 77 aboard the space shuttle Discovery.
He even made a run for the presidency in 1984, although that proved to be a short-lived campaign. He then found himself embroiled in the so-called Keating Five scandal in the late ‘80s, as was John McCain. While Glenn, McCain and the others were eventually absolved of any wrongdoing, I remember feeling revulsion at the idea Glenn actually took a bribe. That this towering figure in American history was no better than the assorted crooks and other ne’er-do-wells who’d stoop to any level for a fast buck.
Thank God, he wasn’t.
And one other thing that’s been repeated many times is that Glenn remained a genuinely nice guy, that despite his high-flying exploits of derring-do, his feet always remained firmly planted on terra firma.
I even heard this story the other day from a kid who claimed to have called Glenn at his home in Ohio and got the great man on the phone. How did this happen you might ask? Glenn’s number was reportedly listed in the phone book.
The bottom line is that Glenn told the kid to come to his house, that he looked forward to meeting him.
The kid did it, appearing at Glenn’s door within an hour. He was supposedly invited in, given a quick tour and then presented with an autographed picture.
An apocryphal tale? Perhaps. But the point is that through all of his fame and glory Glenn remained well-grounded, easily connecting to the common man as readily as he did his fellow Mercury astronauts.
And somehow I managed to miss most of it at the time.
I was 11 years old and in the sixth grade when Glenn scrunched himself in that Mercury space capsule and prepared for takeoff in February 1962 as a nervous JFK watched on a White House TV that seemingly had the screen size of one of today’s phones.
Only later would I find out that JFK was, to put it mildly, a bit uptight before Glenn’s capsule went outta sight. But then so was Glenn’s wife, Annie, who admitted to being terrified. So, by the way, was her husband.
Nothing back then was guaranteed in space flight, not really all that much different from the present day. But the last thing Kennedy wanted was a monumental failure. The same goes for millions of Americans who’d long been experiencing the Cold War chills.
All of them were aware of the unmanned test rocket, with a simulated crew capsule, that had exploded at 40,000 feet. Yet, somehow, the event wasn’t big enough for my school.
I have no recollection of knowing anything about this until the next day, long after Glenn had returned to the earth’s atmosphere in one piece, a moment when Americans could at least draw a most-welcome sigh of relief.
It’s possible my memory is faulty, that there was a TV in my classroom that remarkable day, but I don’t think so. I wasn’t exactly growing up in what you’d call a privileged area. But I never knew or even thought about the difference between Steger and anywhere else.
And while millions were worshipping Glenn, thinking of someone as my hero would have been completely foreign to me. Sure, I loved Mickey Mantle above all others, but you have to remember back then about all you had from MLB on a national level was the game of the week, the All-Star Game and the World Series.
So yes, at least for the most part, poor Terry grew up without heroes. And the guy I loved was a drunken, often-angry lout.
But that isn’t to say I have such awful regrets. Like most everyone, I came to admire and respect John Glenn, as did countless others who’ve popped up over the years. And he most assuredly isn’t the only one who’s earned my love and admiration.
During the ensuing years, I’ve come to accept that hero worship is fine, having gone through it with all four of my boys. It’s just a natural part of being a kid — make that a great part of being a kid.
But as the ancient knight in “Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade” once said, “Choose wisely, for as the true Grail will bring you life, a false one will take it from you.’’
I wish I’d understood better back in the ’60s that the real heroes in my life were right in front of me. There was my dad, who worked most days from 7 in the morning until 8 at night keeping the fleet of trucks at Dixie Dairy running. He never complained. Same goes for my mom, who seemingly spent every waking hour dedicated to making sure that I became a responsible adult. Now that was a monumental task if I’ve ever seen one.
I’ve learned over the years that The Greatest Generation was exactly that, people who survived under extreme conditions and came home from World War II to build a life.
Right now there’s a 19-year old kid from California named Rishi Sharma who’s spent the bulk of his last two years driving all over Southern California, in search of every World War II combat veteran he can find. He sits them down, interviews them about the war and then gives the recording to their families, who probably don’t know many of the stories they hear, if any. I’ve mentioned before my dad would never talk about it.
Sharma’s count has raced past the 200 mark, and now that he’s out of high school, his trips will be even longer as he’ll criss-cross the country.
“It’s amazing how much history and knowledge is encased in each one of these individuals and how much is lost when one of them dies without sharing their story,’’ Sharma told CBS News. “The fact is I wake up every day to obituaries, guys who I wanted to interview and I have to find out they died.”
And no, Sharma doesn’t hail from a military family. He just gets it.
John Glenn got it to. And when you do, the view is tremendous.