Real Amer­i­can hero made his mark here, too

Maryland Independent - - Community Forum -

John Glenn, as­tro­naut and U.S. se­na­tor, who died last week at 95 sur­rounded by loved ones in an Ohio hos­pi­tal, was a gen­uine, out­sized Amer­i­can hero by any stan­dard.

And in a way, South­ern Mar yland can claim him as one of its own. He did two tours of duty at Patux­ent River Naval Air Sta­tion, the first in 1945 dur­ing which the Ma­rine was pro­moted to cap­tain. He even­tu­ally as­cended to the rank of colonel. In the 1950s, he and his fam­ily re­turned, liv­ing in the Town Creek Manor area of Lex­ing­ton Park for a few years when he was test­ing air­craft at the base. Like so many other Amer­i­can as­tro­nauts, he went through the U.S. Naval Test Pi­lot School at Pax River, grad­u­at­ing with Class 12 in July 1954. He came back to South­ern Mary­land on sev­eral oc­ca­sions, in­clud­ing dur­ing his un­suc­cess­ful 1984 bid to be­come pres­i­dent of the United States.

His legacy re­mains with the re­gion today. In 1986, 250 new town­homes for Pax River per­son­nel opened up on Wil­lows Road in Lex­ing­ton Park, called Glenn For­est — named af­ter Glenn. In 2005, a schol­ar­ship called the John Glenn Squadron was es­tab­lished at the base for South­ern Mary­land high school stu­dents study­ing for sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing or math de­grees.

One of the world’s great­est avi­a­tors, a much-dec­o­rated hero in both World War II and the Korean War, and both the first Amer­i­can to or­bit the Earth and the old­est ever to go into space, Glenn was a tran­scen­dent fig­ure. Es­pe­cially in the Amer­ica of the early 1960s, he was a risk-tak­ing, self-en­dan­ger­ing model of both ac­com­plish­ment and cool.

In his clas­sic 1979 book “The Right Stuff,” Tom Wolfe cap­tured the awe and the rev­er­ence ac­corded Amer­ica’s first as­tro­nauts and the courage the clean-cut, in­tensely fo­cused Glenn dis­played when he cir­cled above the Earth for nearly five hours in the tiny Friend­ship 7 space­ship on Feb. 20, 1962.

It was a mo­ment of na­tional pride for Amer­i­cans caught up in the Cold War space-race ri­valr y with the Soviet Union, which had al­ready placed cos­mo­nauts in or­bit the year be­fore. Four mil­lion peo­ple turned out to cheer him and the other Mer­cury as­tro­nauts at a New York City ticker-tape pa­rade af­ter his splash­down.

Glenn later said he didn’t care much for the 1983 movie made from the book — he felt ac­tor Ed Har­ris over­sold his pi­ous­ness — but he didn’t have to worry about his rep­u­ta­tion tak­ing a hit. He was in the mid­dle of a 24-year stint as a Demo­cratic se­na­tor in which he was held in high re­gard for his acu­men in de­fense, weapons and tech­nol­ogy is­sues.

His 1984 pres­i­den­tial bid went nowhere — he didn’t have the self-pro­mo­tion skills of the most suc­cess­ful politi­cians — but he re­sumed his leg­isla­tive ca­reer with­out re­grets or self-pity, see­ing it as the con­tin­u­a­tion of a devo­tion to serv­ing Amer­ica that he first dis­played when he en­listed in the mil­i­tary shortly af­ter the Pearl Har­bor at­tack in De­cem­ber 1941.

Thirty-six years af­ter his first visit to space, near the end of his Se­nate ca- reer, Glenn went back into or­bit again — this time on the shut­tle Dis­cover y. The 77-year-old was a test sub­ject to demon­strate the ef­fects of space travel on ag­ing. A photo of Glenn beam­ing with joy as he was prepped for the flight spoke vol­umes about how much it meant to him.

Even in re­tire­ment, the man who shat­tered the transcon­ti­nen­tal flight speed record as a test pi­lot never lost his love of fly­ing. Well into his 80s, he would fly his twin-en­gine Beechcraft Baron back and forth from Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to Ohio with his beloved wife, An­nie, a child­hood friend to whom he was mar­ried for 73 years.

When he was 90, he still had an ac­tive pi­lot’s li­cense.

The United States be­came a much more com­pli­cated, more self-crit­i­cal na­tion over the course of Glenn’s life­time, as is im­plied by Wolfe’s de­scrip­tion of him as “the last true na­tional hero Amer­ica has ever made.” But Glenn shouldn’t be marginal­ized as a sto­ried fig­ure from a sim­pler time. He was an Amer­i­can gi­ant who left an in­deli­ble mark on his­tor y.

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