When I was a kid, the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union was a really, really big deal. It was such a big deal that for a short time my dreams and those of many of my grade school friends in San Diego shifted from wanting to be great baseball players to wanting to be great astronauts.
For Christmas in 1959, I received a Cape Canaveral rocket model I thought was even cooler than the chemistry set I also received. (Luckily, I didn’t create any poison gas, accidental bombs or set the house on fire. On the contrary, I was perfectly happy to just watch things bubble, fizz or stink. Actually, I thought the big stinks were the best.)
As all of us old enough to remember those days will recall, the Soviets took the early lead, but finally in 1962, John Glenn became the first American to obit the Earth, and our great land was suddenly back in the race for real. And we sure beat ‘em to the moon, didn’t we?
I don’t remember the first time I heard about John Glenn, but his name came up from time to time around the dinner table at my house long before he became an astronaut because my uncle Ted Williams served as his wingman on about half of his 90 combat missions in Korea. Ted enlisted during World War II, but was drafted from the reserves to fly jets in Southeast Asia. My uncle always said Glenn was the best pilot he’d ever seen.
So last Wednesday, I became more than a little concerned when I learned Glenn had been hospitalized for a week, and then the next day my fears were fully realized when I learned he had died.
My late brother Ted, his son Noah and I attended the celebration of my uncle’s life at Fenway Park in July 2002.
As we boarded the bus to take the dignitaries from the hotel to the ballpark, I was talking with the late Charlie Wagner, Ted’s first roommate in 1939 who still worked as a scout for the Red Sox even though he was 90 years old. I couldn’t help but notice Glenn sitting alone by the window a few rows behind us. I’m not the least bit star stuck, so I walked back, introduced myself as Ted’s nephew and shook his hand. We had a quick conversation; I just wanted to thank him for remembering my uncle and for his kind words after my uncle’s death. I found him to be an elegant, dignified and gracious man who was not the least bit full of himself, despite his many accomplishments.
Later, after a press conference at the ballpark, Red Sox players met with fans and signed autographs. But believe it or not, Glenn attracted the biggest crowd by far; especially the long, long line of Marines in full dress uniforms, participating in the event.
So today I’m saddened because our country has lost a true American hero — a patriot, a decorated, combat fighter pilot, a daring test pilot, one of the original Mercury astronauts, a U.S. senator and a presidential candidate — a man with whom my uncle had the honor of serving.
I salute you, John Glenn, and I want to thank you again for your kind words about my uncle and your service to our country. I believe as long as we are a nation, the American people will always remember and honor you.
What a great life you lived, one that should be an inspiration to us all. Well done, John Glenn, and Godspeed.