Oden: John Glenn showed us how to soar


I had not heard about his passing. Don’t know how I missed it, the death of one of my boyhood heroes and icons. Finally a friend sent me the link to a poignant newspaper editorial cartoon.

Against a dark and star-speckled sky, a rocket’s contrail arced over an Appalachian farmhouse and barn. “Godspeed, John Glenn… 1921-2016,” the caption stated. It was a simple but fitting tribute to someone who defined American exceptionalism at a time when we needed it the most.

American exceptionalism has not a politically correct phrase for many years. Many consider it effrontery to argue that there is something special about our nation, making it different – even better – than any other.

Tell that to a generation of old geezers like me, youngsters in 1962, when Col. John Glenn blasted off from Cape Canaveral to become the first American to orbit the earth.

It wasn’t just the science fiction aspect of Glenn’s feat; the fact that he could have burned up during re-entry due a faulty heat shield on Friendship 7 (the cramped space capsule he piloted); or because the entire nation was glued to black-and-white TV sets while CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite narrated the life-or-death adventure.

America was in a race. The “Space Race,” to be exact. Our opponent was the Soviet Union, whose leaders had threatened to bomb us into oblivion, among other things. They were ahead of us in several areas of manned rocketry, but not for long after Friendship 7 safely splashed down.

The effect was electric. John Glenn became a national meme before there was an internet, so that every little boy – and many girls – wanted to grow up to become astronauts. The next Christmas, model sets of Glenn’s space capsule and anything to do with test pilots, rocket technology or outer space exploration was at the top of Santa Claus wish lists.

Later in life I became a NASA nerd, even to the point of filling out an application to become a civilian passenger on one of the space shuttles. (I have, by the way, collected the mission patches, crew photos, signatures and other memorabilia of that glorious era.) Among my best friends is a current NASA public relations specialist.

I truly was bitten by the bug at an early age, thanks to John Glenn. But there is more to thank him for, especially if you are a son or daughter of Appalachia. The memorial cartoon’s farmhouse and barn I described? Pure Appalachia. In fact, it’s an accurate representation of the landscapes to be found in the community of New Concord, nestled among the rolling hills of Muskingum County in Southeast Ohio.

This is where Glenn and his wife grew up, where the high school is named for him and where the John and Annie Glenn Museum is located. This is where voters propelled him to a sterling career in the U.S. Senate, where he drew strength to run for a presidential nomination.

I have been there many times. Not only do I have friends who live in and around New Concord, the John Glenn connection drew me like a magnet. New Concord is actually a village, population around 2,400, home of Muskingum College, where the young Glenn received his BS degree in engineering.

The Foundation for Appalachian Ohio recognized John and Annie in 2007 with the prestigious “I’m a Child of Appalachia” honor. In an interview before they accepted the award, Glenn said, “You can start from here and go anywhere, do anything and compete with anyone in any field. But it’s more than just ‘going’ somewhere…”

My interpretation of his remark is a simple admonition for Appalachian generations, present and future. The root stock is strong, the traditions firmly founded… and despite educational challenges and poverty, you can achieve escape velocity to free yourselves from the gravity that has held down the region.

John Glenn showed us how.

Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor in Tennessee and Alabama. His column, "Appalachian Notebook," appears in the Independent Herald bi-weekly.