Monday, President’s Day, will pull double duty and mark the 50th anniversary of uber-astronaut John Glenn becoming the first man to orbit the Earth.
And though Glenn’s heroics in February 1962 made him an historic global figure, he was also, at the time, an Arlingtonian.
Revisiting the early spaceman’s footprint on our soil, I was recently reminded of some drama that unfolded here in an era far more romantic than ours.
When Ohio-born Marine Lt. Col. John Glenn was completing his three-year preparation to pilot the “Friendship 7” spacecraft, he resided at 3683 N. Harrison St. That’s across from my old junior high, now Williamsburg Middle School, which Glenn’s children also attended.
Williamsburg’s current librarian, Adela Eannarino, agreed to show me her John Glenn memorabilia, even though it wasn’t on display.
Today’s kids may be less enthralled with space than their predecessors, she suggests. So it’s vital we recall Glenn from a time when the space program was new and exciting and wrapped in life-and-death competition against the Russians.
Glenn’s nearly five-hour flight began atop an Atlas rocket at Cape Canaveral, Fla. – after numerous frustrating postponements – and took him to a velocity of 17,500 miles per hour and an altitude of 162 miles before he splashed in the Atlantic near Grand Turk Island.
The feat would make him “more famous than Elvis Presley,” as a reporter said in one of the library’s laminated news clippings. The collection also includes Glenn on the covers of Parade and Newsweek, as well as a signed portrait reading, “Best regards to the faculty and students of our favorite school, July 27, 1962.”
Glenn became so famous President Kennedy rode with him to address a joint session of Congress. Daughter Lyn Glenn, according to the March 30, 1962, issue of the Williamsburg Patriot, was thrilled when walking with her parents to see onlookers “stand there, with their mouths wide open, and stare.”
Glenn went on to be a Royal Crown Cola executive and a U.S. senator (D-Ohio). In 1998 at age 77, he would return to space for a nine-day mission.
Little known until later, when author Tom Wolfe published The Right Stuff in 1979, was the family struggle inside Glenn’s home the month before his epic flight.
With the astronaut down in Florida rigged up for a January 1962 flight that would be delayed, Glenn’s wife Annie was holed up on Harrison Street dodging an obtrusive press corps. Though eager to be a model patriotic wife, she was terrified of speaking on camera because she stuttered. So she sat in her living room with a few friends, other astronauts’ wives and one reporter, Loudon Wainwright of Life magazine, while journalists and voyeurs teemed outside.
“The lawn, or what was left of it, looked like Nut City,” wrote Wolfe. “There were three or four mobile units from television networks with cables running through the grass. It looked as if Arlington had been invaded by giant toasters.”
A few blocks away in a limo sat Vice President Lyndon Johnson. Feeling left out of the hoopla, he was pulling strings with NASA to be allowed in the home to comfort Annie Glenn on the stresses of space exploration. Both she and her husband refused him.
LBJ was so furious, Wolfe wrote, “You could hear him bellowing and yelling over half of Arlington.”
Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at email@example.com