Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 791

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 791

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This is the grave of John Glenn.

Born in 1921 in Cambridge, Ohio, Glenn grew up in the working class. His father was a plumber. The young boy got super into airplanes as a kid, but then what kid of the 20th century didn’t? Nothing too special there. He played football, basketball, and tennis in high school and then went onto Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio, where he had grown up. He played football there. He also continued with his interest in flying, acquiring a pilot license.

Then World War II happened. Any young guy with a pilot’s license was instantly a valuable member of the military. Glenn left school and joined the Navy as an aviation cadet. He completed his flight training in 1943 and became a second lieutenant. He flew 57 combat missions in the Pacific without being shot down, a big achievement in itself. He continued in the military after the war, was assigned here and there over the next several years, and then was sent to the Korean War in 1952, flying 90 total combat missions before the end of the war in different planes. He received a boatload of ribbons and medals for all this.

Now a leading military pilot, Glenn joined the Naval test pilot program in 1954. He became one of the top test pilots in the Navy, flying the first transcontinental supersonic flight in 1957. By 1959, he was a minor celebrity, having been promoted to lieutenant colonel, had a nice profile of him in the New York Times, and appeared on the game show Name That Tune.

When the space program started in response to the Soviet Sputnik success, Glenn was one of the first volunteers. After winnowing the possibilities down, the military named Glenn one of the 7 men who would train to go to space. A charismatic, photogenic, news friendly guy with Marine experience was the perfect person from a media and public relations perspective. Glenn, who was always a ham, played this up big time. While Glenn was not the first selected for space travel in the Project Mercury program, he got to go to space in February 1962, making three orbits around the Earth. The first American to orbit the Earth, the telegenic astronaut was seen as a national hero and feted as such. He received a ticker-tape parade, got to know JFK well, and became so valuable to the nation’s public relations effort that he was too important to send back to space. Let the less media friendly astronauts handle that. Unfortunately, Glenn also spoke out against the idea of sending women to space, testifying before Congress:

“I think this gets back to the way our social order is organized, really. It is just a fact. The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.”

OK, it was 1962. But this was pretty bad.

Glenn already had political ambitions. He was getting too old to go to space. Robert Kennedy suggested he run for the Senate as a Democrat in 1964. He thought that was a good idea. He announced his candidacy. But then he suffered a fall while fixing a mirror. He had a pretty nasty concussion from that and had to drop out. But he kept those ambitions and decided to run in 1970. He took on Howard Metzenbaum for the primary. He lost a very close race to Metzenbaum, who himself lost to Robert Taft Jr. in the general. But Glenn was now a leading Ohio Democrat. He chaired the Citizens Task Force on Environmental Protection for Ohio in 1970, tasked with figuring out how to clean up that incredibly polluted state. This led to the creation Ohio’s state level Environmental Protection Agency. Glenn also went into the hotel business, buying a Holiday Inn near Disneyworld that did great. He and his partners bought up more hotels and a mini-business empire was born.

Finally, Glenn reached the Senate in 1974. After the Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon tapped his ally, Ohio Senator William Saxbe to take over as Attorney General. Why you would choose at that point to leave the Senate to go serve Nixon is beyond me, but that’s beside the point here. He and Metzenbaum ran against each other again for the Democratic nomination. It was a bit of a dirty campaign. Metzenbaum had the support of labor. Glenn ran strictly on patriotism and his military background. This time, Glenn won.

Glenn was immediately seen as a rising star. Carter considered him as his VP candidate in 1976. He was given the keynote address at the 76 Convention. But he had to speak after Barbara Jordan. No one wanted to speak after Jordan. She blew everyone away. His speech was dull. Carter chose Mondale instead. There have long been rumors that Rosalynn Carter also opposed Glenn because his wife Annie stuttered and that would look bad in the media.

But Glenn was still a pretty important Democratic senator in a large swingy state. So he remained a big national figure. He easily won reelection in 1980. He decided to run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984, bolstered by the release of the film version of The Right Stuff, about the original astronauts, with Ed Harris playing Glenn. But Glenn believed the film actually hurt his campaign, reminding people that the only thing Glenn had ever actually done that was interested was a quarter century ago. After he lost in both Iowa and New Hampshire, Glenn dropped out of the race.

Glenn went on to win the 1986 and 1992 Senate elections. As a senator, Glenn was basically decent. He introduced key legislation to stop nuclear proliferation and fought for environmental issues. He was also big on reducing government waste. He and Carter really did not get along. Glenn supported continuing the B-1 bomber program while Carter wanted the B-2. Glenn, now on the Foreign Relations Committee, was skeptical about SALT II, thinking that the ability to monitor the Soviets was dicey. He said so publicly. That led Rosalynn Carter to call him out directly in a public speech, criticizing for taking his concerns public. Of course, SALT II never went into affect after the Soviets invasion of Afghanistan torpedoed the whole thing. In 1992, Glenn ran for reelection in the shadow of getting caught up as one of the Keating Five, taking loans from the despicable savings and loan grifter Charles Keating. Mike DeWine ran against him, but Glenn still beat him. Finally, Glenn decided to not run for a fifth term in 1998.

But Glenn did still have one big public moment left. He went back into space in 1998, at the age of 77. This made him by far the oldest person ever in space. This did not rejuvenate the dying space shuttle program like Glenn wanted. The nation’s love affair with space travel had basically collapsed since the Challenger disaster and still has not recovered, minus Elon Musk’s idiocy. Some people criticized this as a stunt that was not really concerned with researching the impact of space travel on the elderly. There’s probably something to that. But if you believed in a vigorous space travel, the PR benefits were obvious. Alas, too many critics, believing that science is just this process outside of human society and therefore pure, simply didn’t get that.

Glenn continued to fly planes until he was 90. In 2014, he had a successful heart valve replacement. But he declined after that and died at the end of 2016. He was 95 years old. He had been married to his wife Annie for 73 years before he died.

John Glenn is buried on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader donations, from my recent trip to the South. Many thanks to all of you that made it happen! If you would like this series to visit other astronauts, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Wally Schirra is in San Diego and Alan Shepard is in East Derry, New Hampshire. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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