A ninety-five year old guy died of cancer in an Ohio hospital a few days ago. Seems like a rather expected thing. So why all the fuss? I guess you almost have to have gone through those farcical exercises of hiding under your school desk to understand.
Did we really believe such actions would save us from atomic bombs? Maybe so, but it is hard to relate now to those Cold War fears and lack of hope.
After we lost a quarter of a million military personnel in World War II and fifty-eight thousand more in Korea America was about warred out. But the Soviet Union and “Red” China still loomed over us.
When Yuri Gagarin orbited Earth in 1957 we did not have a space program that could get off the ground. Then in April of 1961 our C.I.A. stumbled its way into the disastrous Cuban Bay of Pigs Invasion. This was followed by the closest the world has come to blowing ourselves up during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
America was tired, back on our heels and scared. We were in the crosshairs of enemies on several sides and at a crossroads of ennui. What we needed was what the Greeks needed during the Trojan War. We needed an Achilles to inspire us, a hero whose confidence, ability and bravery could take our minds off of our fear and fire us with a will to win. Enter John Glenn.
This Midwestern, small town, normal sized unassuming product of the Great Depression, World War II, Korea and the Cold War climbed aboard an exploding cannon and rode it around the Earth less than one year after Gagarin thrilled the world and sent us under our desks.
To those of us who lived through the Cold War John Glenn represented the ability to fight back. So when Senator Glenn appeared with Presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy at the Indiana University Auditorium on April 24, 1968, we students who packed the place to boo Kennedy for running against Gene McCarthy turned into hero worshipers when John Glenn appeared.
That’s what a true hero brings out, gratitude and respect. If John Glenn thought Bobby was okay, then he was okay with us. Some might say we were fickle; I say we were converts.
A national hero is an extremely rare person. Adrian Peterson is a great football player and Madonna is a great entertainer, but to call them heroes is to miscomprehend the term. As commentator Charles Krauthammer said, we may have had only two true national heroes in the last one hundred years, Charles Lindbergh and John Glenn. That’s why the old guy’s passing is such a big deal.