Breaking Through Barriers: Glenn, Lincoln and Douglass
John Glenn passed away since I last wrote about him. He died last winter at age 95, and was buried in the spring of 2017 at Arlington National Cemetery. On this date in 1962, he was given an important task by his government, and one thing about John Herschel Glenn Jr. was that when his country asked, he always answered the call. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1942 and fought in World War II and the Korean War, became a NASA astronaut in 1959, served in the U.S. Senate from 1975 to 1999, and ran for president in 1984.
He didn’t win the Democratic nomination that year, and wouldn’t have defeated Ronald Reagan in any case, but when Barack Obama draped the Presidential Medal of Freedom around his neck in 2012, it was hard to think of an American who had earned it more.
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Fifty-six years ago today, at 8:35 a.m., retired USMC Col. John Glenn placed a phone call to his wife, Annie, from Florida’s Cape Canaveral. “Well,” he said with studied nonchalance, “I’m going down to the corner store and buy some chewing gum.”
The 40-year-old astronaut was speaking in code. Not government code, Glenn family code. “Chewing gum” was a phrase John and Annie Glenn employed to steady each other’s nerves as Glenn flew off on some dangerous assignment or another. There had been many in his storied career: the 59 sorties over open water in the South Pacific during World War II; the 90 combat missions during the Korean War; the 1957 flight from California’s Los Alamitos Naval Air Station to Bennett Field in New York in which he set the trans-America speed record.
But there had never been a flight like this one. At a time when the United States needed a Cold War icon, John Glenn was strapped into his capsule, Friendship 7, as an Atlas rocket prepared to launch him into orbit. At home in Arlington, Virginia, Annie Glenn sucked in her breath and replied simply, “Don’t take too long.”
The dutiful Marine obliged his wife, and a waiting nation, orbiting the Earth three times -- and traveling some 81,000 miles -- in just 4 hours and 55 minutes and 23 seconds. “Boy, that was a real fireball of a ride!” Glenn radioed as the capsule completed its nerve-wracking re-entry into the atmosphere.
By 4:10 that afternoon, Glenn was on the phone with John F. Kennedy. “I have just been watching your father and mother on television,” the president told him, “and they seemed very happy.” Why wouldn’t they? Their son was home safely after going into orbit. But parents don’t have to see their children fly off in spaceships or high-performance aircraft to worry about them -- or to have something terrible befall them. They can simply set off for school in the morning. No one is immune from tragedy, a point made recently by writer Thomas Mallon, in reference to that 1962 conversation between Kennedy and Glenn. “A hundred years earlier, almost to the hour,” he wrote, “the set of parents then occupying the White House, Abraham and Mary Lincoln, were being plunged into an extreme grief by the death of their third son, Willie, who was eleven years old.”
Lincoln’s grief is the subject of a well-regarded new novel. And, yes, as we contemplate another Presidents’ Day, it’s worth celebrating Americans’ innate passion to explore new frontiers. It’s also good to remember that this spirit extends to breaking the boundaries that exist only in the human heart or in our minds. Abraham Lincoln challenged the existing boundaries of race relations while confronting personal tragedies that would test the strongest of men.
It was in the summer of the following year that Lincoln met for the first time with the former slave Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist leader who passed away on this date in 1895. The historic 1863 encounter took place in the White House, in a meeting set up by Secretary of State William Seward to discuss the issue of black troops fighting for the Union.
“Long lines of care were already deeply written on Mr. Lincoln’s brow, and his strong face, full of earnestness, lighted up as soon as my name was mentioned,” Douglass wrote later.
“As I approached and was introduced to him, he rose and extended his hand, and bade me welcome," Douglass recalled. “I at once felt myself in the presence of an honest man -- one whom I could love, honor and trust without reserve or doubt. Proceeding to tell him who I was, and what I was doing he promptly, but kindly, stopped me, saying, ‘I know who you are, Mr. Douglass; Mr. Seward has told me all about you. Sit down. I am glad to see you.’”