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John Glenn

Posted by John Reed on

John Glenn’s funeral is today. People not aware of the wider world in 1962 probably wonder what the big deal was. Yes, he was an astronaut, but he was only the third American in space. Why would he be more famous than the first two? True, it was the first orbital flight, but no such difference in flight duration was ever such a big deal before or after.
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You had to be there. Those of us who were cannot articulate the difference between John Glenn and the first man in space Alan Shepard or the first man on the moon Neil Armstrong, But there is no doubt that Glenn was a bigger star on the day of his flight than Alan or Neil were on theirs.
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I remember hearing a cop say to another man that day, “How about our boy!” No further explanation was needed to know whom he was talking about. Nor is any possible as to why Glenn was “our boy,” but Alan and Neil were not.
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You had to be there.
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I think he was one of three such superstars who are unexplainable to those who were not there in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The other two were actor Fess Parker’s portrayal of Davy Crockett for Walt Disney and Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club undesignated star cast member Annette Funicello. Glenn was the only one of the three who did not need Disney.
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There were some other charismatic stars in that era, like Elvis, JFK, John Wayne, and Muhammed Ali, but there was a purity to Parker/Crockett, Annette, and Glenn that the others never achieved.
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I am not talking about Glenn’s career, which was amazing, but not unique. I am only talking about that one day February 22, 1962 and the utterly unanimous, national and international warm after-glow that met his return from orbit. It was a palpable national feeling that I only experienced a facsimile of on November 22, 1963—the day Kennedy was assassinated—and on 9/11. From what I hear, December 7, 1941—the day Pearl Harbor was attacked—produced a similar effect on the nation.
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It was not that Glenn was an astronaut, or a hero of two wars, or that he was the first to orbit for America or the first to ride the powerful Atlas rocket. Lots of men did things like those we can proudly claim. What made John this transcendant American hero was simply that he was John. It was something in his face, his voice, the way he carried himself, the lack of ego, something simple yet powerful enough to come through the tiny flickering black-and-white TV screens.
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You had to be there. I am sorry for you if you weren’t.

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