"My dad talked to me about coming back and taking over the plumbing business, but I wasn't interested," John Glenn says, rather tersely. He speaks expansively about growing up in New Concord, Ohio, tells about planting the vegetable garden, hoeing it ("mainly my job"), of canning, "putting up all the garden stuff." It's a story of small town life in the 1930s, in a small town that seems almost too good to be true, just as John Glenn sometimes seems almost too good to be true.
New Concord is not a typical Ohio small town. Half of its population in John Glenn's youth were students at Muskingum College. It was, he says, "a United Presbyterian school and a religious town," where "almost everyone went to church." It was more prosperous and prettier than the average small town.
John Glenn's father sought it out: he came off a farm nearby, worked on the railroad a short time, decided he didn't like that and worked for a plumbing business in Cambridge--a more typical small town, with a courthouse square surrounded by Victorian buildings and lots of plain, sometimes unpainted frame houses and small factory buildings on lots at the edge of the farm fields. Then he decided to start his own business in New Concord.
He had only a sixth-grade education, but he married a teacher. "He was the biggest proponent of education, and he wound up as president of the school board." It was taken for granted that John, the only son, would go to college at Muskingum and he did, until the war came along.
He says he hadn't thought much about a career when he was growing up, but the war gave him one: flying. He had made model airplanes as a kid, and he enrolled in the Civil Pilot Training Program in college-- preparing himself, as he has throughout his life, for what turned out to be his next step. He got college credit for flight training and soloed a 65-horsepower plane over New Philadelphia, Ohio: "You had to pedal fast."
"I loved flying," he says simply, and when the war came along he enrolled in the Navy Aviation Cadet Program and, after flight training, applied to the Marines, which, he says in his aw-shucks manner, "needed pilots badly enough" to take him.
And so John Glenn became a fighter pilot. His charm was of no import: it's a job in which "you're either aggressive, or you better get into another line of work." He flew in the Pacific in World War II, and got hit five times, "small arms fire." Later he flew in Korea--as a volunteer--and got hit seven times, "some big hits." He assures you he's not a romantic about war: "It's hard, tough stuff. You see some of the guys go down, and you try to cap 'em and get the helicopters in." But sometimes, as happened on his first mission, "all we found was an oil slick." He remembers fights in the air in eerie detail, and describes them so articulately that you imagine that, if he had just dictated a few such stories, he could have had a best-seller like "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo."
His determination to get the other guy-- the determination that enabled him to down three MiGs in Korea in the nine days before the armistice--sounds savage. Yet he tells even more vividly how he kept circling to protect and bring one of the wing planes in his squadron back to base when it was disabled. By every account he was a superb fighter pilot; one of his wing men was Ted Williams, whose hand-eye coordination and peripheral vision are legendary.
Glenn was not just skilled at piloting fighter planes; he was also skilled at piloting his own career. It was clear to him at the end of the war that the way up was through the Marine Corps, not the plumbing business in New Concord. He looked to see if there were other things he could go into, and talked about buying a war surplus plane and setting up a cargo service.
He saw a lot of the world for a young man who had been no farther away from Ohio than Chicago and the East Coast before 1941: he went to China with Gen. Marshall's mission, and his devotion to wife and family didn't prevent him from seeing a lot of Korea. But most of his life was on military bases: after Korea he became a test pilot at Patuxent River in Maryland. In a desk job later, he got the idea of flying the F8U Crusader across the country, and became the first pilot to make a transcontinental supersonic flight.
In retrospect that looks like a nice publicity stunt, but it's worth remembering that test piloting was an exacting and dangerous business. Glenn explains why he did it as he does his volunteering in Korea: "You felt you were doing good for your country."
In "The Right Stuff," Tom Wolfe shows how Glenn made sure to assemble the credentials that would make him a good candidate for the astronaut program, starting years before he or anyone else envisioned it in the form it turned out. Much is made of the scene in the book where he bawls out other astronauts for sleeping around; his objections seem to have been both moral and prudential--the astronauts were in the public eye, national symbols, and they should live up to their responsibilities. What struck me more is the discipline with which Glenn went about the task of becoming the best possible astronaut, to the point that, when he went up in the rocket, his pulse rate was no higher than the pulse of an ordinary man sitting quietly in a room.
As Wolfe tells it, it was a surprise that Glenn--the third astronaut to go up, but the first to make an orbital flight--would become a national hero. But Wolfe also makes it clear that of all the first seven astronauts, only Glenn had the ability to articulate basic American values in an attractive way. You have to ask: was it the orbital flight that made Glenn the hero, or wassit Glenn's heroism that made orbital flight the key event?
Almost certainly Glenn was looking beyond the astronaut program, to politics. Much is made, rightly, of Glenn's backing up his wife when she didn't want Vice President Lyndon Johnson inside her house on launch day. But it was not too long after that the Glenns asked the Johnsons over to their house in Arlington to celebrate John's birthday, the four of them, and everyone had a good time. He also became a favorite at the Kennedy White House.
He kept his legal residence in Ohio, which was the base for his successful business ventures that gave him the "financial independence" he wanted before going into public office. He ran for the Senate as early as 1964, but had to withdraw from that race after a household accident; he lost the 1970 race too, in the Democratic primary. He wasn't named to be the first astronaut to go up, and one of his post-astronaut business ventures almost failed. So he's had his setbacks. But for the most part things have worked out well for him.
In conversation, he is charming and articulate; he studs his sentences with corny phrases and a few cuss words, but they all parse just fine. People say he stands for the old values of the traditional small town, yet he himself has led a life of great adventure. He values tradition and family, both in the abstract and in the particular, but he has been propelled forward by an ambition as powerful as the engines that sent his rocket into space.
He understands that he is a symbol for many people--the corn-fed lad who is a national hero--but he understands that he wouldn't be much of a symbol if he weren't a lot more than that. The young man who wasn't interested in going back to the plumbing business, who designed the cross- country F8U flight, was calculating, but he wasn't cynical; he was just in a hurry to move up very fast, in any direction where he could find an opening. Most other men with similar talents stopped somewhere: went back into civilian life and made unremarkable careers, retired from the military after their 20 years and played a lot of golf, became consultants to aerospace companies after their astronaut service. John Glenn, finding the openings, just kept moving up.