In Orbit Over John Glenn


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March 1, 1962, Vol. VII, No. 19

Rocket to the Moon

By Jerry Tallmer

The most extraordinary piece of writing in many months, and I mean this, occurred in the New York Times of last Sunday, five days ago, February 25, 1962. It was on the editorial page and was by James (Jimmy, Scotty) Reston, seasoned, sophisticated commentator of the Washington bureau. But now, as during most of the previous week, he was at Cape Canaveral. His column was about the hero of the day and it was headed: “Is the Moon Really worth John Glenn?” It was the second Reston dispatch about Glenn-the-man since the famous Tuesday that was February 20. The first article, which seemed to me odd enough at the time, was sort of an attack on loose living (you know, kicks, adultery, divorce, glue-sniffing) in terms of the obvious (or apparently obvious) clean-livingness of Colonel Glenn. A triumphant return to First Principles, so to speak — what made America great and must do so again. If one thought in reading it of Thurber’s nice nasty short story about the egotistic Lindbergh-type aviator — ultimately they had to shove him out a window to get rid of him — well, one could only be accused of having a dirty mind. Then there is what happened to the actual Lindbergh, of course. But that is a true tragedy and not properly to be introduced here.

All that I have written so far and all that I shall write below are not to be taken in any sense whatsoever as some kind of urbane cynicism about Colonel Glenn.

I think he is a hell of a guy and I think Alan B. Shepard was a hell of a guy before him, and still is. I don’t care if they don’t sniff glue, they are men, and brave and complicated ones. I can’t imagine any male on the ground not envying them and, whenever they are up there, praying for them. I did and I do and I was among those who formerly (and perhaps, still) think the race for space was something for loonies. But now I do not think these men or their particular colleagues are loonies. It was staggering to find out, after his big first ride, that Alan Shepard was a subtle, grown-up American, and I can only tell you that on Tuesday last, when I dropped over to the delicatessen for a morning cup of coffee and heard the radio blaring forth in the first 10 heart-straining seconds after blast-off — I can only tell you that like everybody else in town and nation I was up there with Glenn in that ship, this Man Alone I knew only the publicity which means less than nothing about, and I was sweating if out for him and kept on that way until he got down and out of that capsule. Which hasn’t happened in 17, 18 years. So that’s all there is to say about that.

But Scotty Reston — oh lordy, Scotty Reston. Let us quote from article No. 2, the one that appeared last Sunday: “His departure from Cape Canaveral in a blaze of orange fire was a technical triumph, but his return was a human triumph. When he came back and saw his lovely wife, Annie, he put his head on her shoulder and cried. Thereafter nothing ruffled him, not the President, or the clamorous press, or the eager shouting crowds.” Over which a somewhat less dewey-eyed copy editor had jocosely inserted as subhed (those 8-point boldface lines that nobody reads): “All This and Annie Too.”

But our subject is not truly what happened when Colonel Glenn came back and saw his wife, nor what Mr. Reston makes of the incident…

…It shouldn’t take much of a probing of the above to determine that…the writer has just nominated John Glenn and Alan Shepard as co-presidents of the United States of America — because they are such brave lads and decent fellows. I have already said that they are that and a great deal more, but does that in itself prescribe them as the political answer for all our problems and the world’s morass? Would they themselves think so any more than I or you?

…Go up to Shepard and say: “Hello, you new generation of leaders of men,” and see what the response is. Or Glenn either, Glenn still more. Even if they are well-married soft-spoken officers and gentlemen, you may not be able to print it. Or Virgil Grissom. Has Mr. Reston forgotten Virgil Grissom? I know it isn’t going to happen again with Grissom, and that Grissom like the others is going to be called on for repeated incredible heroisms during the next decade to come, but remember how with the perfect young iron man, the country boy with no fears or foibles — how the hatch blew off wrongly and the suit got wrongly unplugged and in short how human error sneaked into that absolutely errorless equation? Which in a way was most gratifying: it is nice to know, as Mr. Reston has said, as I have said here, that our astronauts are human. So: how many more John Glenns and Al Shepards (and Virgil Grissoms) are hiding in this country? Thousands, hundreds of thousands, perhaps hundreds of hundreds of thousands — and all of them fallible, mortal, incalculable, whether or not they sniff glue or
are faithful to their wives…

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