After the January 27 delay, on February 20, 1962, Glenn was once again squeezed inside the Mercury capsule on top of the Atlas rocket, lying on his back, whiling away the holds in the countdown by going over his checklist and looking at the scenery through the periscope. If he closed his eyes it felt as if he were lying on his back on the deck of an old ship. The rocket kept creaking and twisting, shaking the capsule this way and that. The Atlas had 4.3 times as much fuel as the Redstone, including 80 tons of liquid oxygen. The liquid oxygen, the "lox," had a temperature of 293 degrees below zero, so that the shell and tubing of the rocket, which were thin, kept contracting and twisting and creaking. Glenn was at the equivalent of nine stories up in the air. The enormous rocket seemed curiously fragile, the way it moved and creaked and whined. The contractions created high-frequency vibrations and the lox hissed in the pipes, and it all ran up through the capsule like a metallic wail. It was the same rocket lox wail they used to hear at dawn at Edwards when they fueled the D-558-2 many years before . . .
There they were, thousands of them, off on the periphery as Glenn looked out. He could see them through the periscope. They looked very small and far away and far below. And they were all wondering with a delicious shudder what it must be like to be in his place now. How frightened is he! Tell us! That's all we want to know! The fear and the gamble. Never mind the rest. Lying on his back like this, with his legs jacknifed up above him, stuffed blind into the holster, with the hatch closed, he couldn't help but be aware of his own heartbeat from time to time. Glenn could tell that his pulse was slow. Out loud, if the subject ever came up, everyone said that pulse rates didn't matter; it was a very subjective thing; many variables; and so on. It had only been within the past five years that biosensors had ever been put on pilots. They resented them. Nevertheless, without saying so, everyone knew that they provided a rough gauge of a man's emotional state. Without saying so -- not a word! -- everyone knew that Gus Grisom's pulse rate had been somewhat panicky. It kept jumping over 100 during the countdown and then spurted up to 150 during the lift-off and stayed that high throughout his weightless flight, then jumped again, all the way to 171, just before the retrorockets went off. No one -- certainly not out loud -- no one was going to draw any conclusions from it, but . . . it was not a sign of the right stuff. Add to that his performance in the water . . . In his statement about people who get panicky over the flight test business, Glenn had said you had to know how to control your emotions. Well, he was as good as his word. Did any yogi ever control his heartbeat and perspiration better! [And, as the biomedical panels in the Mission Control room showed, his pulse never went over 80 and was holding around no more than that of any normal healthy bored man having breakfast in the kitchen.] Occasionally he could feel his heart skip a beat or beat with on odd electrical sensation, and he knew that he was feeling the tension. [And at the biomedical panels the young doctors looked at each other in consternation -- and then shrugged.] Nevertheless, he was aware that he was feeling no fear. He truly was not. He was more like and actor who is going out to perform in the same play yet once again -- the only difference being that the audience this time is enormous and highly prestigious. He knew every sensation he would feel once the event began. The main thing was not to . . . "foul up." Please, dear God, don't let me foul up. In fact, there was little chance that he would forget so much as a word or a single move. Glenn had been the backup pilot -- everyone said pilot now -- for both Shepard and Grissom. During the charade before the first flight, he had gone through all of Shepard's simulations, and he had repeated most of Grissom's. And the simulations he had gone through as prime pilot for the first orbital flight had surpassed any simulations ever done before. They had even put him in the capsule on top of the rocket and moved the gantry away from the rocket, because Grissom had reported the odd sensation of perceiving the gantry as falling over, as he witnessed the event through his periscope, just before liftoff. Therefore, this feeling would be adapted out of Glenn. They put him in the capsule on top of the rocket and instructed him to watch the gantry move away through his periscope. Nothing must be novel about the experience! On top of all that, he had Shepard's and Grissom's description of variations from the simulations. "On the centrifuge you feel thus-and-such. Well, during the actual flight it feels like that but with this-and-that difference." No man had ever lived an event so completely ahead of time. He was socketed into the capsule, lying on his back, getting ready to do precisely what his enormous Presbyterian Pilot self-esteem had been dying to do for 15 years: demonstrate to the world his righteous stuff.
It was all very smooth, much smoother than the centrifuge . . . just as Shepard and Grissom said it would be. He had gone through the same g-forces so many times . . . he hardly noticed them as they built up. It would have bothered him much more if they had been less. Nothing novel! No excitement, please! It took 13 seconds for the huge rocket to reach transonic speed. The vibrations started. It was just as Shepard and Grissom said: it was much gentler than the centrifuge. He was still lying flat on his back, and the g-forces drove him deeper into the seat, but it all felt so familiar. He barely noticed it. He kept his eyes on the instrument panel the whole time . . . All quite normal, every little needle and switch in the right place . . . No malevolent instructor feeding Abort problems into the loop . . . As the rocket entered the transonic zone, the vibration became intense. The vibrations all but obliterated the roar of the engines. He was entering the area of "max g," maximum aerodynamic pressure, in which the pressure of the shaft of the Atlas forcing its way through the atmosphere at supersonic speed would reach almost a thousand pounds per square foot. Through the cockpit window he could see the sky turning black. Almost 5 g's were driving him back into his seat. And yet . . . easier than the centrifuge . . . All at once he was through max g, as if through a turbulent strait, and the trajectory was smooth and he was supersonic and the rumble of the rocket engines was more muffled than ever and he could hear all the little fans and recorders and the busy little kitchen, the huming little shop . . . The pressure on his chest reached 6 g's. The rocket pitched down. For the first time he could see clouds and the horizon. In a moment -- there it was -- the Atlas rocket's two booster engines shut down and were jettisoned from the side of the shaft and his body was slammed forward, as if he were screeching to a halt, and the g-forces suddenly dropped to 1.25, almost as if he were on earth and not accelerating at all, but the central sustainer engine were still driving him up through the atmosphere . . . A flash of white smoke went up past the window . . . No! The escape tower was firing early -- but the JETTISON TOWER Ilight wasn't on! . . . He didn't see the tower go . . . Wait a minute . . . There went the tower, on schedule . . . The JETTISON TOWER light came on green . . . The smoke must have been from the booster rockets as they left the shaft . . . The rocket pitched back up . . . going straight up . . . The sky was very black now . . . The g-forces began pushing him back into his seat again . . . 3 g's . . . 4 g's . . . Soon he would be 40 miles up . . . the last critical moment of powered flight, as the capsule separated from the rocket and went into its orbital trajectory . . . or didn't . . . Hey! .fs. All at once the whole capsule was whipping up and down, as if it were tired to the end of a diving board, a springboard. The g-forces built up and the capsule whipped up and down. Yet no sooner had it begun than Glenn knew what it was. The weight of the rocket on the launch pad had been 260,000 pounds, practically all of it rocket fuel, the liquid oxygen. This was being consumed at such a furious rate, about one ton per second, that the rocket was becoming merely a skeleton with a thin skin of metal stretched over it, a tube so long and light that it was flexing. The g-forces reached six and then he was weightless, just like that. The sudden release made him feel as if he were tumbling head over heels, as if he had been catapulted off the end of that same springboard and was falling though the air doing forward rolls. But he had felt this same thing on the centrifuge when they ran the g-forces up to seven and then suddenly cut the speed. At the same moment, right on schedule . . . a loud report . . . the posigrade rocket fired, throwing the capsule free of the rocket shaft . . . the capsule began its automatic turnabout, and all the proper green lights went on in front of him, and he knew he was "through the gate," as they said . . .
Glenn went sailing over Florida, over the Cape, starting his second orbit. He couldn't see much of anything down below, because of the clouds. He no longer cared particularly. The attitude control was the main thing. One of the small thrusters seemed to have gone out, so that the capsule would drift to the right, like a car slowly skidding on ice. Then a bigger thruster would correct the motion and bounce it back. That was only the start. Pretty soon other thrusters began acting up when he was on automatic. Then the gyros started going. The dials that showed the angle of the capsule with respect to the earth and the horizon were giving obviously wrong readings. He had to line it up visually with the horizon. Fly by wire! Manual contol! It was no emergency, however, at least not yet. As long as he was in orbit, the attitude control of the capsule didn't particularly matter, so far as his safety was concerned. He could be going forward or backward or could have his head pointed straight at the earth or could be drifting around in circles or pitching head over heels, for that matter, and it wouldn't change his altitude or trajectory in the slightest. The only ciritical point was the re-entry. If the capsule were not lined up at the correct angle, with the blunt end and the heat shield down, it might burn up. To line it up correctly, fuel was required, the hydrogen peroxide no matter whether it was lined up automatically or by the astronaut. If too much fuel was used keeping the capsule stable while it sailed around in orbit, there might not be enough left to line it up before the re-entry.
In any case, he was not particularly worried. He could control the attitude manually if he had to. The fuel seemed to be holding out. Everything hummed and whined and buzzed as usual inside the capsule. The same high back ground tones came over the radio. He could hear the oxygen coursing through his pressure suit and his helmet. There was no "sensation" of motion speed at all, unless he looked down at the earth. Even then it slid by very slowly. When the thrusters spurted hydrogen peroxide, he could feel the capsule swing this way and that. But it was like the ALFA trainer on earth. He still didn't feel weightless. He was still sitting up in his chair. On the other hand, the camera -- when he wanted to reload it, he just parked it in the empty space in front of his eyes. It just floated there in front of him . . .
Glenn was now over Africa, riding over the dark side of the earth, sailing backward toward Australia. The Indian Ocean capcom said: "We have message from MCC for you to keep your landing-bag switch in off position. Landing-bag switch in off position. Over."
"Roger," said Glenn. "This is Friendship 7."
He wanted to ask why. But that was against the code, except in an emergency situation. That fell under the heading of nervous chatter.
Over Australia old Gordo, Gordo Cooper, got on the same subject: "Will you confirm the landing-bag switch is in the off position? Over."
"That is affirmative," said Glenn. "Landing-bag switch is in the center off position."
"You haven't had any banging noises or anything of this type at higher rates?"
"They wanted this answer."
They still didn't say why, and Glenn entered into no nervous chatter. He now had two red lights on the panel. One was the warning light for the automatic fuel supply. All the little amok action of the yaw thrusters had used it up. Well, it was up to the Pilot now . . . to aim the capsule correctly for re-entry . . The other was a warning about excess cabin water. It built up as a by-product of the oxygen system. Nevertheless, he pressed on with the checklist. He was supposed to exercise by pulling on the bungee cord and then take his blood pressure. The Presbyterian Pilot! He did it without a peep. He was pulling on the bungee and watching the red lights when he began sailing backward into the sunrise again . . .
He was now four hours and 21 minutes into the flight. In 12 minutes the retro-rockets were supposed to fire, to slow him down for re-entry. It took him another minute and 45 seconds to go through all the "do you reads" and "how me's" and "overs" and establish contact with the capcom on Hawaii. Then they sprang their surprise. "Friendship 7, said the capcom. "We have been reading an indication on the ground of segment 5-1, which is Landing Bag Deploy. We suspect this is an erroneous signal. Hwever, Cape would like you to check this by putting the landing-bag switch in auto position, and seeing if you get a light. Do you concur with this? Over."
It slowly dawned on him . . . Have been reading . . . For how long? . . . Quite a little surprise. And they hadn't told him! They'd held it back! I am a pilot and they refuse to tell me things they know about the condition of the craft! The insult was worse than the danger! If the landing bag had deployed -- and there was no way he could look out and see it, not even with the periscope, because it would be directly behind him -- if it had deployed, then the heat shield must be loose and might come off during the re-entry. If the heat shield came off, he would burn up inside the capsule like a steak. If he put the landing-bag switch in the automatic control position, then a green light should come on if the bag was deployed. Then he would know. Slowly it dawned! . . . That was why they kept asking him if the switch were in the off position! - - they didn't want him to learn the awful truth too quickly! Might as well let him complete his three orbits -- then we'll let him find out about the bad news!
On top of that, they now wanted him to fool around with the switch. That's stupid! It might very well be that the bag had not deployed but there was an electrical malfunction somewhere in the circuit and fooling with the automatic switch might then cause it to deploy. But he stopped short of saying anything. Presumably they had taken all that into account. There was no way he could say it without falling into the dread nervous chatter.
He reached forward and flipped the switch. Well . . . this was it --
No light. He immediately switched it back to off.
"Negative," he said. "In automatic position did not get a light and I'm back in off position now. Over."
"Roger, that's fine. In this case, we'll go ahead, and the re-entry sequence will be normal."
The retro -- rockets would be fired over California, and by the time the retro-rockets brought him down out of his orbit and through the atmosphere, he would be over the Atlantic near Bermuda. That was the plan. Wally Schirra was the capcom in California. Less than a minute before he was supposed to fire the retro-rockets, by pushing a switch, he heard Wally saying: "John, leave your retro-pack on through your pass over Texas. Do you read?"
But why? The retropack wrapped around the edges of the heat shield and held the retro-rockets. Once the rockets were fired, the retropack was supposed to be jettisoned. They were back to the heat shield again, with no explanation. But he had to concentrate on firing the retro-rockets.
Next to the launch this was the most dangerous part of the flight. If the capsule's angle of attack was too shallow, you might skip off the top of the earth's atmosphere and stay in orbit for days, until long after you oxygen had run out. You wouldn't have any more rockets to slow you down. If the angle were too steep, the heat from the friction of going through the atmosphere would be so intense you would burn up inside the capsule, and a couple of minutes later the whole thing would disintegrate, heat shield or no heat shield. But the main thing was not to think about it in quite those terms. The field of consciousness is very small, said Saint-Exupery. What do I do next? It was the moment of the test pilot at last. Oh, yes! I've been here before! And I am immune! I don't get into corners I can't get out of! One thing at a time! He could be a true flight test hero and try to line the capsule up all by himself by using the manual controls with the horizon as his reference -- or he could make one more attempt to use the automatic controls. Please, dear God . . . don't let me foul up! What would the Lord answer? (Try the automatic, you ninny.) He released and reset the gyros. He put the controls on automatic. The answer to your prayers, John! Now the dials gibed with what he saw out the window and through the periscope. The automatic controls worked perfectly in pitch and roll. The yaw was still off, so he corrected that with the manual controls. The capsule kept pivoting to the right and he kept nudging it back. The ALFA trainer! One thing at a time! It was just like the ALFA trainer . . . no sense of forward motion at all . . . As long as he concentrated on the instrument panel and didn't look at the earth sliding by beneath him, he had no sense at all of going 17,500 miles an hour . . . or even five miles an hour . . . The humming little kitchen . . . He sat up in his chair squirting his hand thruster, with his eyes pinned on the dials . . . Real life, a crucial moment -- against the eternal good beige setting of the simulation. One thing at a time!
Schirra began giving him the countdown for firing the rockets. "Five, four -- "
He nudged it back once more with the yaw thruster.
" -- three, two, one, fire."
He pushed the retro-rocket switch with his hand.
The rockets started firing in sequence, the first one, the second one, the third one. The sound seemed terribly muffled -- but in that very moment, the jolt! Pure gold! One instant, as Schirra counted down, he felt absolutely motionless. The next . . . thud thud thud . . . then jolt in his back. He felt as if the capsule had been knocked backward. He felt as if he were sailing back toward Hawaii. All as it should be! Pure gold! The retrolight was lit up green. It was all going perfectly. He was merely slowing down. In 11 minutes he would be entering the earth's atmosphere.
He could hear Schirra saying: "Keep your retropack on until you pass Texas."
Still no reason given! He couldn't see the pattern yet. There was only the dim sense that in some fashion they were jerking him around. But all he said was" "That's affirmative."
. . . They weren't going to tell him! Not so much the thought . . . as the feeling . . . of the insult began to build up.
Three minutes later the Texas capcom tracking station came in: "This is Texas capcom, Friendship 7. We are recommending that you leave the retropackage on through the entire re-entry. This means that you will have to overide the zero-point-oh-five-g switch, which is expected to occur at 04:43:53. This also means that you will have to manually retract the scope. Do you read?"
That did it.
"This is Friendship 7," said Glenn. "What is the reason for this? Do you have any reason? Over."
"Not at this time," said the Texas capcom. "This is the judgment of Cape Flight . . . Cape Flight will give you the reason for this action when you are in view."
It was really unbelievable. It was beginning to fit --
Twenty-seven seconds later he was over the Cape itself and the Cape capcom, with the voice of Alan Shepard on the radio, was telling him to retract his periscope manually and to get ready for re-entry into the atmosphere.
It was beginning to fit together, he could see the pattern, the whole business of the landing bag and the retropack. This had been going on for a couple of hours now -- and they were telling him nothing! Merely giving him the bits and pieces! But if he was going to re-enter with the retropack on, then they wanted the straps in place for some reason. And there was only one possible reason -- something was wrong with the heat shield. And this they would not tell him! Him! -- the pilot! It was quite unbelievable! It was --
He could hear Shepard's voice.
He was winding in the periscope, and he could hear Shepard's voice: "While you're doing that . . . we are not sure whether or not your landing bag has deployed. We feel it is possible to re-enter with the retropackage on. We see no difficulty at this time in that type of re-entry.
"Glenn said, "Roger, understand."
Oh, yes, he understood now! If the landing bag was deployed, that meant the heat shield was loose. If the heat shield was loose, then it might come off during the re-entry, unless the retropack staps held it in place long enough for the capsule to establish its angle of re-entry. And the straps would soon burn off. If the heat shield came off, the he would fry. If they didn't want him -- the pilot! -- to know all this, then it meant they were afraid he might panic. And if he didn't even need to know the whole pattern -- just the pieces, so he could follow orders -- then he wasn't really a pilot! The whole sequence of logic clicked through Glenn's mind faster than he could have put it into words, even if he had dared utter it all at that moment. He was being treated like a passenger -- a redundant component, a backup engineer, a boiler-room attendant -- in an automatic system! -- like someone who did not have that rare and unutterable righteous stuff! -- as if the right stuff itself did not even matter! It was a transgression against all that was holy -- all this is a single limbic flash of righteous indignation as John Glenn re-entered the earth's atmosphere.
"Seven, this is Cape," said Al Shepard. "Over."
"Go ahead, Cape," said Glenn. "You're ground . . . you are going out."
"We recommend that you . . ."
That was the last he could hear from the ground. He had entered the atmosphere. He couldn't feel the g-forces yet, but the friction and the ionization had built up, and the radios were now useless. The capsule was beginning to buffet and he was fighting it with the controls. The fuel for the automatic system, the hydrogen peroxide, was so low he could no longer be sure which system worked. He was descending backward. The heat shield was on the outside of the capsule, directly behind his back. If he glanced out the window he could see only the blackness of the sky. The periscope was retracted, so he saw nothing on the scope screen. He heard a Thump above him, on the outside of the capsule. He looked up. Through the window he could see a strap. From the retropack. The strap broke! And now what! Next the heat shield! The black sky out the window began to turn a pale orange. The strap flat against the window started burning -- and then it was gone. The universe turned a flaming orange. That was the heat shield beginning to burn up from the tremendous speed of re-entry. This was something Shepard and Grissom had not seen. They had not reentered the atmosphere at such speed. Nevertheless, Glenn knew it was coming. Five hundred, a thousand times he had been told how the heat shield would ablate, burn off layer by layer, vaporize, dissipate the heat into the atmosphere, send off a corona of flames. All he could see now through the window were the flames. He was inside of a ball of fire. But! -- a huge flaming chunk went by the window, a great chunk of something burning. Then another . . . another . . . The capsule started buffeting . . . The heat shield was breaking up! It was crumbling -- flying away in huge flaming chunks . . . He fought to steady the capsule with the hand controller. Fly -- by -- wire! But the rolls and yaws were too fast for him . . . The ALFA trainer gone amok, inside a fireball . . . The heat! . . . It was as if his entire central nervous system were now centered in his back. If the capsule was disintegrating and he was about to burn up, the heat pulse would reach his back first. His backbone would become like a length of red-hot metal. He already knew what the feeling would be like . . . and when . . . Now! . . . But it didn't come. There was no tremendous heat and no more flaming debris . . . Not the heat shield, after all. The burning chunks had come from what remained of the retropack. First the straps had gone and then the rest of it. The capsule kept rocking, and the g-forces built up. He knew the g-forces by heart. A thousand times he had felt them on the centrifuge. They drove him back into the seat. It was harder and harder to move the hand controller. He kept trying to damp out the rocking motion by firing the yaw thrusters and the roll thrusters, but it was all too fast for him. They didn't seem to do much good, at any rate. No more red glow . . . He must be out of the fireball . . . seven g's were driving him back into the seat . . . He could hear the Cape capcom:
" . . . How do you read? Over."
That meant he had passed through the ionosphere and was entering the lower atmosphere.
"Loud and clear; how me?"
"Roger, reading you loud and clear. How are you doing?"
"Oh, pretty good."
"Roger. Your impact point is within one mile of the uprange destroyer."
On, pretty good. It wasn't [Chuck] Yeager, but it wasn't bad. He was inside of one and half tons of non-aerodynamic metal. He was a hundred thousand feet up, dropping toward the ocean like an enormous cannonball. The capsule had no aerodynamic qualities whatsoever at this altitude. It was rocking terribly. Out the window he could see a wild white contrail snaked out against the blackness of the sky. He was dropping at a thousand feet per second. The last critical moment of the flight was coming up. Either the parachute deployed and took hold or it didn't. The rocking had intensified. The retopack! Part of the retropack must still be attached and the drag of it is trying to flip the capsule . . . He couldn't wait any longer. The parachute was supposed to deploy automatically, but he couldn't wait any longer. Rocking . . . He reached up to fire the parachute manually -- but it fired on its own, automatically, first the drogue and then the main parachute. He swung under it in a huge arc. The heat was ferocious, but the chute held. It snapped him back into the seat. Through the window the sky was blue. It was the same day all over again. It was early in the afternoon on a sunny day out in the Atlantic near Bermuda. Even the landing-bag light was green. There was nothing even wrong with the landing bag. There had been nothing wrong with the heat shield. There was nothing wrong with his rate of descent, 40 feet per second. He could hear the rescue ship chattering away over the radio. They were only 20 minutes away from where he would hit, only six miles. He was once again lying on his back in the human holster. Out the window the sky was no longer black. The capsule swayed under the parachute, and over this way he looked up and saw clouds and over that way blue sky. He was very, very hot. But he knew the feeling. All those endless hours in the heat chambers -- it wouldn't kill you. He was coming down into the water only 300 miles from where he started. It was the same day, merely five hours later. A balmy day out in the Atlantic near Bermuda. The sun had moved just 75 degrees in the sky. It was 2:45 in the afternoon. Nothing to do but get all these wires and hoses disconnected. He had done it. . He began to let the thought loose in his mind. He must be very close to the water. The capsule hit the water. It drove him down into his seat again, on his back. It was quite a jolt. It was hot in here. Even with the suit fans still running, the heat was terrific. Over the radio they kept telling him not to try to leave the capsule. The rescue ship was almost there. They weren't going to try the helicopter deal again, except in an emergency. He wasn't about to attempt a water egress. He wasn't about to hit the hatch detonator. The Presbyterian Pilot was not about to foul up. His pipeline to the dear Lord could not be clearer. He had done it.
Annie Glenn had already had a taste of what it was going to be like. But the other six and their wives were not ready for it. It was as if some enormous tidal wave were heading for the Cape and the entire U.S.A. from out in the Atlantic, from the vicinity of Grand Bahama Island, where John was being debriefed. Riding the crest, like Triton, was the Freckled Face God, John himself. Word got back that the sailors on the Noa the ship that hauled the capsule, with John in it, out of the water, had painted white lines around his footprints on the deck after he walked from the capsule to a hatchway. They didn't want his footprints on their deck to ever disappear! Well, it just seemed like some sort of goony swabbo sentimentality. But that was only the beginning.
John did not merely get a parade through Washington and a trip to the White House and the medal from the president. Oh, he got those things, all right. But he also addressed a special joint session of Congress -- the Senate and the House met together to hear John, the way they had for presidents, prime ministers, kings. There was John standing up there at the podium, with Lyndon Johnson and John McCormack seated behind him, and the rest of them looking up at him from their seats. In absolute adoration, too! That was where the tears started! The tears -- they couldn't hold them back. John's great round freckled face was shining with glory. He knew just what he was doing. He was the Presbyterian Pilot addressing the world. He said some things that nobody else in the world could have gotten away with, even in 1962. He said, "I still get a lump in my throat when I see the American flag passing by." But he pulled it off! And then he Lifted his hand up toward the gallery -- this was in the House side of the Capitol -- and 500 pairs of congressional eyes swung up with his hand toward the gallery, and he introduced his mom and dad from New Concord, Ohio, and a few aunts and uncles for good measure, and then his children and, finally, " . . . above all, I want you to meet my wife, Annie . . . Annie . . .the Rock!" Well, that did it. That turned on the waterworks. Senators and representatives were trying to clap and reach for their handkerchiefs at the same time. They were dabbing their eyes and cheering through the fluttering ends of their handkerchiefs. Their faces glistened. Some fought back the tears and a couple let go. They applauded, cheered, snuffled, wheezed . . . A couple of them said, "Amen!" They said it out loud; it just came popping out of their good hardtack cracker evangelical dissenting Prostestant hearts as the Presbyterian Pilot lifted up his eyes and his hand to the Rock and the eternal Mother of us all . . .
Despite the tide of cheers and tears that had already started in Washington, none of them knew what to expect in New York. Like most military people, including those in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, they didn't really consider New York part of the United States. It was like a free port, a stateless city, an international protectorate, Danzig in the Polish corridor, Beirut the crossroads of the Middle East, Trieste, Zurich, Macao, Hong Kong. Whatever ideals the military stood for, New York City did not. It was a foreign city full of a strange race of curiously tiny malformed gray people. And so forth and so on. What they saw when they got there bowled them over. The crowds were not only waiting in the airport, which was not surprising -- a little publicity was all it took to get a mob of gawkers to an airport -- but they were also lining the godforsaken highway into the city, through the borough of Queens, or whatever it was, out in the freezing cold in the most rancid broken-down industrial terrain you have ever seen, a decaying landscape that seemed to belong to another century -- they were out there along the highway, anywhere they could squeeze in, and . . . they were crying! -- crying as the black cars roard by!
And what was it that had moved them all so deeply? It was not a subject that you could discuss, but the seven of them knew what it was, and so did most of their wives. Or they knew about part of it. They knew it had to do with the presence, the aura, the radiation of the right stuff, the same vital force of manhood that had made millions vibrate and resonate 35 years before to Lindbergh -- except that in this case it was heightened by Cold War patriotism, the greatest surge of patriotism since the Second World War. Neither the term nor the concept of the single-combat warrior did they know about, but the sheer patriotism of that moment -- even in New York, the Danzig corridor! -- was impossible to miss. We pay homage to you! You have fought back against the Russians in the heavens! There was something pure and rare about it. Patriotism! Oh yes! Here you saw it in a million-footed form, before your very eyes! Most of the seven had been around the Kennedys at one time or another, with Jack or with Bobby, and knew the way a crowd reacted to them -- but it was something different from this. Around the Kennedys you saw a fan's hysteria, involving a lot of shrieking and clutching, with people reaching out to grab souvenirs and swooning and squealing, as if the Kennedys were movie stars who happened to be in power. But what the multitudes showed John Glenn and the rest of them on that day was something else. They anointed them with the primordial tears that the right stuff commanded.
Not long after that, Kennedy brought the seven astronauts to the White House for a smaller, more personal visit. Kennedy's father was there, Joseph Kennedy. The old man had a stroke, and half his body was paralyzed, and he was sitting in a wheelchair. The president took the seven astronauts in to meet his father, and the first one he introduced him to was John. John Glenn! -- the first American to orbit the earth and challenge the Russians in the heavens. The old man, Joe Kennedy, reaches up with his one good hand to shake hands with John, and suddenly he starts crying. But the thing is, only half his face is crying, because of the stroke. One half of his face isn't moving a muscle. It's set, absolutely impassive. But the other half -- well, it's blubbering, that's the word for it. His eyebrow is curling down over his eyes, the way it does when you're really bawling, and the tears are streaming out of the crevice where his eyebrow and his eye and his nose come together, and one of his nostrils is quivering and his lips are writhing and contorting on that side, and his chin is all pulled up and pitted and trembling -- but just on the one side! The other side is just staring at John, as if he saw right through him, as if he were just another Marine colonel whose career had somehow led him briefly into the White House.
The president would lean down and put his arm around the old man's shoulders and say: "Now, now, Dad, it's all right, it's okay." But Joe Kennedy was still crying when they left the room.
Obviously if the mand hadn't had a stroke, he wouldn't have burst out crying. Until his stroke he had been a bear. Nevertheless, the emotion was there, and it would have been there whether he had a stroke or not. That was what the sight of John Glenn did to Americans at that time. It primed them for the tears. And those tears ran like a river all over America. It was an extraordinary thing, being the sort of mortal who brought tears to other men's eyes.