By JOHN FINERAN
A day after we remembered that day which has lived in infamy for 75 years now, America lost a true hero from that greatest of generations.
Godspeed, John Glenn.
When the news alert came across this computer announcing the Thursday afternoon death of the 95-year-old Glenn, a fighter pilot in two wars, an astronaut and four-term U.S. Senator in his native state of Ohio, I cried.
Then I lifted my right hand off the keyboard, turned to look at the middle of the palm and I found it.
Barely visible now after 54 years, the lead mark left by the pencil that broke the skin on the palm of my right hand reminds me still of Glenn – the first American to orbit the Earth on Feb. 20, 1962 in his Friendship 7 space capsule.
On the morning of March 1, 1962, then barely 11 years old, I somehow managed to stick a pencil into my hand on the day New York City held a ticker-tape parade to honor Glenn.
My parents had decided to allow my sister Diane and me to skip school that day, understanding that even a brief glimpse of a true American hero would be better than anything we would learn in school that day.
Even my tomfoolery would not jeopardize their plans. Ever the quick thinker, Mom washed the wound and called the family doctor, who assured her that a tetanus shot would be order but it could wait until the next day. So off to New York we went and Dad made sure we got that quick glimpse through a mob of humans and flying paper.
“You’ll never forget this day,” he told Diane and me as we made another deposit in our memory bank that included seeing in person Roger Maris hit his record-breaking 61st home run on Oct. 1, 1961.
Before there was a book written by Tom Wolff and a movie of the same title, my parents always tried to make sure Diane and I encountered people with “The Right Stuff.” No matter what others might say or believe, Maris had it. And, of course, Glenn certainly had it in bunches – as a fighter pilot, twice an astronaut, public servant and devoted husband and father.
Born in Cambridge, Ohio, and raised in the nearby small college town of New Concord, Glenn attended Muskingum College but quit to enlist following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He used a private pilot license he earned for a physics class to become a Marine Corps fighter pilot and flew 149 missions in the South Pacific at the end of World War II and during the Korean War, earning the first of several Distinguished Flying Cross medals.
Glenn was fearless, earning the nickname “Magnet Ass” because his plane seemed to attract enemy fire just like the plane of his wingman in Korea, Ted Williams. Yes, that Ted Williams, arguably the greatest hitter the game of baseball has ever had. Glenn was a Marine Corps major when Williams, who was a flight instructor in World War II and never saw combat, was called up from the reserves in 1952.
“By luck of the draw, we went to Korea at the same time,” Glenn remembered during an MLB.com tribute to Williams when he died in 2002. “We were in the same squadron there. What they did at that time, they teamed up a reservist with a regular to fly together most of the time just because the regular Marine pilots normally had more instrument flying experience and things like that. So Ted and I were scheduled together. Ted flew as my wingman on about half the missions he flew in Korea.”
Williams was in awe of his commander. “Oh … could he fly an airplane!” Williams told former Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene. “Absolutely fearless. The best I ever saw. It was an honor to fly with him.”
Following the two wars, Glenn became a test pilot, flying jets to high altitudes to check their armaments and also setting transcontinental speed records, once flying from California to New York in three hours, 23 minutes and 8.3 seconds.
After Russia launched Sputnik in late 1957 to begin the Space Race, Glenn became the oldest of NASA’s seven original Mercury astronauts. Alan Shepherd and Virgil “Gus” Grissom were the first Americans into space, flying sub-orbital flights before Glenn finally rocketed into space and circled Earth three times in early 1962 after several postponed liftoffs due to weather and mechanical issues.
“This was a man destined for something great; it was an intuitive feeling I had,” Williams wrote in a special 1962 column for the Boston Globe. “John always had exceptional self-control and was one of the calmest men I have ever met, no matter how perilous the situation.”
Indeed, if not for John Glenn, we might have lost Ted Williams over Korea in early 1953. According to Richard Sisk, a former sports writer for the New York Daily News, Williams told him this story shortly before the 77-year-old Glenn traveled back into space on the Space Shuttle Discover on Oct. 29, 1998.
During a mission on Feb. 16, 1953, Williams’ plane was hit and on fire, with damage to its hydraulics and radio. Glenn flew close enough to his wing mate and pointed up with his finger. Williams nodded and followed Glenn to a higher altitude where the thin air and lack of oxygen would soon extinguish the fire.
Later, unable to deploy his landing gear, Williams landed his plane on its belly, exited it when it stopped and ran as it caught fire. Another Marine Corps pilot yelled at Teddy Baseball: “Hey, Ted, that’s a lot faster than you ever ran around the bases.”
That pilot? Jerry Coleman, a New York Yankees infielder and later a Hall of Fame broadcaster career with the Yankees, Angels and finally the San Diego Padres. Coleman, who enlisted after Pearl Harbor and flew missions in World War II and Korea, the only MLB player to do so.
Jerry Coleman, Ted Williams and John Glenn – they are making fewer and fewer of them these days, to which the disappearing mark on the palm of my right hand will attest. Now they are wing mates forever among all the stars in Heaven.
“Godspeed, John Glenn. Ad astra,” NASA stated in its release. Ad astra? Latin for “to the stars.”
(John Fineran has covered sporting events for more than 40 years for newspapers in Michigan, Indiana, Florida and his native New Jersey. He has written about everyday heroes and quite a few others you might now — Roger Maris, Ara Parseghian, Mario Andretti, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Yogi Berra to name drop just a few.)