On February 20, 1962 I was in second grade at P.S. 186 in the New York City borough of Queens. Our teacher, a bubbly little delight with curly, dark brown hair, Mrs. Kantor, rolled in a TV set and we watched John Glenn become the first American in space orbit.
Once he touched down, our assignment was to write a “composition” relating our feelings about Glenn’s accomplishment.
I was already astounded by the pioneering sub-orbital flights of Alan Shepard and Virgil “Gus” Grissom, but this one rocked my world and touched my 10-year old heart. Instead of simply a summary of the event, my composition turned out to be a letter to Col. John Glenn. I told him how brave he was and how scary it must have been hurtling back down to Earth in a little capsule that had a suspect heat shield, leading TV commentators to wonder if after everything Glenn had gone through, he’d be burned to a crisp on his way back home. I told him how proud the country was of him and that I hoped, one day, to do something in my life as significant as he had just done.
That day stayed with me as I watched Glenn cruise down New York’s “Canyon of Heroes” in Manhattan during a celebratory ticker tape parade. I rooted for him during his down and up and down and up political career and hoped his bid for the Presidency would be successful.
Fast-forward to June 14, 1990. I was the CNN Detroit Bureau Chief and correspondent. There had been a terrible rainstorm causing a massive mudslide in a little Ohio River hamlet called Shadyside. 26 people died. My crew and I were quickly dispatched to cover the story. We hadn’t been on the ground more than 30 minutes when a couple of familiar looking figures arrived. I don’t often become starstruck since reporters often come in contact with celebrities. But I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of awe at my first site of Sen. John Glenn . Along with fellow Ohio Senator Howard Metzenbaum, he had arrived to survey the scene and give comfort to the citizens of this devastated little burg.
They both came up to our camera and agreed to a short interview. As February 20, 1962 came roaring into my brain, I was suddenly shaking hands with the man to whom I’d written that letter, but never sent, all those years ago. I was looking into the eyes of a genuine hero and he was looking at me. Given the tragic situation that triggered this encounter, it was no time for small talk or any sort of personal discourse. I asked my questions related to the story, which he answered directly and respectfully. I detected a glistening in his eyes that had moments ago teared up on hearing of the extent of the loss of life and structural damage to the town. What struck me was that unlike some other politicians I had interviewed over the years, the only reference to “I” in his comments related to his profound concern for his constituents and the promise to get whatever emergency services and funding they needed.
The interview probably lasted less than two minutes, but to have shaken the hand of my hero, spoken to him, well, in that short moment, a part of my life had come full orbit.