“It was quite a day. I’m not sure what you can say about a day in which you see four beautiful sunsets in one day, but it’s pretty interesting.”—John Glenn, February 20, 1962
October 29, 1998, was a Thursday. John Glenn, about to become a former U.S. Senator, was on board the space shuttle Discovery, and if all went according to plan, he was going to shatter the records for longest time between trips into orbit, oldest person to travel into space, and probably a few other things. He was 77 and had orbited Earth on February 20, 1962, thirty-six years earlier.
However many weeks that Life magazine published editions in the 1960s, my family seemed to have more copies of Life than that. They were in boxes. I loved them, especially the issues that detailed developments in America’s space program—Mercury to Gemini, Gemini to Apollo. Life specialized in great photojournalism, so the space program was a special focus. It was an over-sized publication: opened up, those magazines covered my legs; I could sleep under an issue when I was a boy.
John Glenn was an American hero. His bow-tie and matching grin smiled from many of those issues of Life. Ohio’s governor, John Kasich, and NASA (with the photo at top) announced John Glenn’s death about an hour ago. Senator Glenn was 95.
On October 29, 1998, Discovery launched without a hitch and returned Glenn to space. I was working for an independent bookseller in New Paltz, New York, that day and we did not have a television set in there. I delayed my lunch until it was not going to qualify as a lunch any longer. I sat in a restaurant across the street from our store and watched CNN with the patrons there—the restaurant had turned every TV set in the place to CNN for the moment.
This was a rowdy place, usually. A noisy bar-restaurant. Only important sports events could hold a crowd’s attention in there, and even then—and I sometimes witnessed this—even then, people would sometimes loudly complain that their favorite show was being pre-empted in favor of whatever World Series game the bar had turned all the TVs to.
The countdown for Discovery approached single digits and then zero. Someone turned up the volume on one of the TVs. It was the only sound in the place. No one was ordering food. No one was ordering drinks. The waitresses and the bartender had their backs to the patrons anyway, as they were watching the sets, too. The cloud of steam billowed and the shuttle began that strangely slow-at-first climb. It cleared the tower. A couple seconds later, the cameras were looking straight up at the distant space shuttle, now a couple miles up.
Spontaneously, applause and cheers rang out through the bar. That was when I realized it had been pin-drop silent in there. Everyone was rooting for John Glenn, an elderly U.S. Senator whose photo in Life magazine everyone in that restaurant grew up staring at. Everyone was cheering.
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