John Glenn: "If you can get that speed, you’re home-free.”
Perhaps more than anyone else on the planet, John glenn was known for the vehicles he was in. you won't believe the cars he chose.
Here at Drives Well in Park, we salute those who drive well in drive, no matter the vehicle. Sometimes they pass us at sensible speeds on the road, gallantly swerving past those of us who unintentionally regard lane markers as something of a fine suggestion. And sometimes they whizz along so fluidly and with such refinement –precisely in the right place at precisely the right time—that they take the rest of us with them, guiding us along, pulling in the next bend.
PICTURED: Good driver
John Glenn is most famous for his time in nearly every type of hot vehicle other than a car: F-4U fighters, F-86 Sabre, Mercury capsule, space shuttle. It seemed he was forever in motion, and the few times on planet he was actually still is now, as he lies in state at the capitol building in Columbus, Ohio.
Beaming back at a national spotlight as a game show guest and speed record holder even before he became an astronaut, Glenn looked about at his native Ohio, fed himself on its flat county lines which gave way to deep wandering curves at the lake to the north and the river to the south…and he left it. He left the nation, then he left the planet. Having underpinned a test pilot’s flashing charisma with the mineral grounding of an Appalachian village, he understood the importance of solid media messaging a good five decades before Twitter appeared.
In the 1959 NASA press conference introducing the world to America’s first astronauts, Glenn and his receding hairline slayed the world with entire verbal paragraphs dedicated to Sunday school, the Wright Brothers, his wife, and any and every other entry in the American Wholesomeness Olympics you can possibly imagine. When asked which of the seven would make the first space shot, two of them pointed their index fingers full-bore to the sky, four inched one palm into the air, but John Glenn, beaming, held both hands up to the cameras. Some men do this in surrender, others to show they have nothing to hide.
Opening Ceremonies of the American Wholesomeness Olympics, 1959
And, when one of the Mercury Seven was caught fraternizing with a prostitute, it was John Glenn who took shiny helmet in hand, spoke with the photographer, and crushed the story. Mission before manly urges, in and out of the cockpit.
“This guy had the halo turned on at all times!” Tom Wolfe wrote of him in "The Right Stuff," and by this, Wolfe did not mean an aura of virtuousness, but rather the impression that this particular pilot was in full command of any vehicle he happened to be operating, and should the machine or the conditions surrounding it go awry, this was to be regarded with an expression no more severe than extremely mild and temporary surprise.
This godly authority was supposedly born of one’s supreme skills as a pilot, and this righteous stuff transcended all poisons-- bodily, foreign and domestic. Such omnipotence was constantly put to the test in an all-machines-on-deck cycle Wolfe referred to as “Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving”:
“It seemed that every fighter jock thought himself an ace driver, and he would do anything to obtain a hot car, especially a sports car, and the drunker he was, the more convinced he would be about his driving skills, as if the right stuff, being indivisible, carried over into any enterprise whatsoever, under any conditions. A little proficiency run, boys! (There’s only one way to find out!) And they would roar off in close formation from, say, Nellis Air Force Base, down Route 15, into Las Vegas, barreling down the highway, rat-racing, sometimes four abreast, jockeying for position, piling into the most listless curve in the desert flats as if they were trying to root each other out of the groove at the Rebel 500…More fighter pilots died in automobiles than in airplanes.”
The knot binding early astronauts to a small-block V-8 was pulled tighter once candles began igniting in Cape Canaveral. A local Indianapolis 500 winner turned Chevrolet dealer, Jim Rathmann, leased cars to the Seven for the grand total of one dollar a year. Station wagons went to the wives and Corvettes to the astronauts, all the better to for racing along the sand flats of Cocoa Beach, which were then stone-flat, unlit, and devoid of anyone or anything hawking airbrushed tee shirts.
Brand-new Corvettes… to all but one.
Alan Shepard, first American in space, didn't so much drive a Corvette as his resume.
“On weekends [Glenn] would faithfully make his way home to his wife, Annie, and the children in an ancient Prinz, a real beat-up junker that was about four feet long and had perhaps forty horsepower, the sorriest-looking and most underpowered automobile still legally registered to any fighter pilot in America. A jock with any natural instincts at all, with any true devotion to the holy coordinates, either possessed or was eating his heart out for the sort of car Alan Shepard had, which was a Triumph, i.e. a sports car, or some kind of hot car, anyway, something that would enable you to hang your hide out over the edge with a little class when you reached the Driving juncture on the coordinates several times a week, as was inevitable for everyone but someone like John Glenn.”
A Prinz. Soundtrack by Benny Hill.
I haven’t the slightest idea what a Prinz looked like, so I Googled it, and found a hilarious rainbow of variations on a singularly undignified vehicle which is apparently 94% steering wheel and .00000000001% tire. Composer Bill Conti, in scoring the movie version of “The Right Stuff,” accompanied Glenn’s orbital liftoff with grand blasts from Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.” Bill Conti had never conceived of John Glenn driving a Prinz.
Why turn down the goody? Perhaps a rear sway bar did not appeal to John Glenn. Or perhaps, having grown accustomed to the strobe light show of flashbulbs, John Glenn did not want the American public lumping him with those lionized by Wolfe, who “burst… into downtown Las Vegas with a rude fraternal roar like the Hell’s Angels… the natives chalked it up to youth and drink and the bad element that the Air Force attracted. They knew nothing about the right stuff, of course.”
And that’s exactly what Glenn, future Senator and the oldest member of the Mercury team, understood better and faster than his fellows. Pilots knew about the right stuff. News magazines, which affected the matter of who flew what when, knew who was attending what church when, and whether or not America’s seven newest weapons against Communism were in their wives’ beds at night. John Glenn didn’t need a V-8 thrashing the hard edges of Cocoa Beach to prove himself. He had 59 missions in World War II and "Life" magazine for that.
John Glenn was on the cover of "Life", sometimes even with some sort of vehicle, at least seven times.
The worst part of all this for the cynical amongst us is that perhaps Glenn demurred this rude fraternal roaring simply because that’s who he was. For, after attaining Beowulf-level status an industry which ate marriages alive, he was survived by his wife of 73 years. That number is outstripped only by the estimated divorce rate at NASA in the days of the moonshot: 75%.
Glenn’s hard-earned, to-the-marrow reputation was perhaps protected too well: His cleanliness and godliness ended his astronaut career. Following his orbital flight, he was worshiped by so many so ardently that NASA couldn’t bear to risk his life again, and sat him. And that is how we Ohioans got an astronaut for a Senator.
This is not to say, however, that John Glenn wasn’t a fan of speed, properly distributed. When fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter wished Glenn “Godspeed” on his orbital flight, the farewell had less to do with God and more to do with orbital velocity. To reach orbit, his spacecraft had to boost higher and faster than those who had gone before on suborbital flights. “In those days,” Carpenter said, “speed was magic…and nobody had gone that fast. If you can get that speed, you’re home-free.”
As Jeremy Clarkson has pointed out, “Speed has never killed anyone. Suddenly becoming stationary… that's what gets you.” John Glenn, who turned the act of refusing to become stationary in the best possible manner at the best possible time, outlived all six of his Mercury brethren, and you will not be surprised to learn that this man, author of America’s first supersonic transcontinental flight, was climbing into cockpits even unto his final days.
Perhaps we can come to know Glenn best not in a dark capsule or a dark cockpit, but a dark laboratory room at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. He was right back where he began, his home state of Ohio, in the final psychological test phases of the astronaut selection process.
This particular portion slammed the candidates into an isolation room, free of sound, light, or human contact. The pilots were, however, given a pen and a notepad. John Glenn seized upon this: A potential avenue to prove his worth!
His notes from the three hours in that soundless, lightless, personless room consisted of first, a crisp recitation of his reaction to the conditions (“Make eyes wide to pick up any light”), then a few musings (“Couldn’t help but think of Helen Keller. She’s this way all the time”), and, finally, poetry (“To mankind’s ever broadening store of knowledge, each must give/His own peculiar talents, so that all may better live…”)
With his environs reduced to a chair and a pad of paper, Glenn drank deeply of all the Lord had set before him. He noticed that when he ripped pages from the notepad quickly, the static electricity created a light source.
John Glenn's page is finished, but not before creating sparks.
“If I could just tear off pages fast enough and had a big enough tablet,” he wrote, “I’d have this program knocked.” John Glenn had found the light, and the light was begat of speed.
This is perhaps a fine place to end a piece about the end of John Glenn, but, as always, he pressed forward. “That’s cheating,” he decided--him, the dark, and the notepad. “I’ll tear them off slow from here on.” He would not foul the hallowed name of speed. No, speed, this holy thing, must be reserved to its proper place with the sublime.
Photos: NASA, mlkshk, tinypic, Mayhem and Muse, library.osu.edu