This piece of mine came out on Medium’s Midcentury Modern right after John Glenn passed away in early December, but it seemed a fitting way to send off 2016 as a whole. Not because it was as great as John Glenn, but because we all need a little something to get us through the hard times:
It was 1975 and Nixon had left office the year before. A new, dark cynicism about our system of government had freshly hatched and was flailing around like a hungry mongoose, hissing and snappish. Saturday Night Live started that year, and began by openly mocking then-President Gerald Ford on a regular basis, and if it bothered Ford, the general public never found out. John Glenn, a military man and former astronaut, had just been elected senator for the state of Ohio.
I had just moved back to California to live with my father after a few years of making my mother miserable with her new husband in his home town of Milwaukee. Returning from an orderly suburban life that ticked along like Chinese water torture, I found myself living in a cabin that my father and a bunch of buddies slapped up in a forest clearing. It was a 10’ x 12’ redwood box, tar-papered and shingled, heated with a wood stove, no running water, and it was located around fifty feet from my dad’s own cabin in the middle of a dense bay forest. I couldn’t see his place from mine, and at night, once the sun went down, it was prehistorically unlit by anything but the flame of my small kerosene lamp. I was thirteen. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, had flown around the planet a couple of weeks after my birth and now I lived in my own little satellite beneath the stars.
Society was all at sixes and sevens in the Sixties and Seventies, people wandering off in different directions, and I occupied myself with reading a lot of science fiction. Heinlein, Bradbury, Asimov. Their casual misogyny and racism was dated, even then, but there was the pull of the great yonder. The film 2001: A Space Odyssey was already seven years old; Apollo 11 had landed on the moon six years earlier.
At the rate we were going, surely space colonies couldn’t be far off, soon enough to beat any population problems, nuclear wars or environmental disasters we might inflict upon ourselves. I wrote what would be my first publication, a letter to Co-Evolution Quarterly, offering to go off-world if it would help save the planet. I got an unexpected check for $25 in return, my first money for words.
My father wrote songs, and some of them came from dreams. He had a tape recorder at the head of his bed, and if a song came to him at night, he’d push the record button and sing,
still mostly asleep, at the machine while the little wheels of the cassette tape turned. We’d listen to the results over breakfast, which was always at his place, just after dawn.
I’d wake up and listen for him to whistle, which meant he was awake and I could come over. Sometimes it took a long time and I sat on my doorstep, looking out through ferns and bay trees and beyond, to Tomales Bay and the hills of Marin County, and thinking how hard it would be to fit that all even into the largest space station. How would we transport all this earthly wealth with us to barren planets? Maybe the moon was close enough. “Zero G, and I feel fine.” That’s what John Glenn said when they reached orbit and he became weightless for the first time. Sounded pretty good to me, I just wanted to take a few trees along.
One morning, the whistle finally came and I made my way up along the narrow path that wound between ferns, carefully using a stick to part the dewed spider webs strung across the way. We sat down in our respective chairs to tea and pancakes, and I reached over and pressed the rewind and play button the tape recorder to see if there was anything there. My dad’s voice sang a groggy ditty that was unintelligible except for a long, four-note “meeeeeee” at the end of two lines. “What the heck is that?”
My dad’s face brightened as the dream returned to him.
I was walking on the surface of Mars with the Colonel. There was nothing, just red wasteland, except for the compound behind us. We came to an enclosure, a fence around waist high.
‘This is where we keep them,’ said the Colonel.
‘The space monkeys.’
I looked down, and there, in a little space suit just like ours, was a chimpanzee. It stood right in front of us, and then it took off its own helmet. And it had the face of John Glenn. Smiling, beatific. It looked at us, and then at the sun, so far away. And John Glenn beamed. He started to sing!
Shinin’ on meeeee!
Shinin’ on meeeee!
My dad wore the same smile he must have seen on his dream version of John Glenn. The song instantly entered our lives as a way of expressing joy about anything that was really, really terrific, and we’d sing it, or just say that something was a ‘radiant sun’ moment. We were probably what most would have would called radical hippie types at the time, but if there was one thing pretty much everyone could agree on, it was that John Glenn was a good guy who flew higher than Cold War politics or partisan pettiness. You couldn’t not like him.
The song and the dream of John Glenn stayed in my life. I got my first truly soul-killing office job at Equitable Life Insurance in 1981. The supervisor parked me in a cubicle on the seventh floor of a high rise in downtown San Francisco, tasked with the Sisyphean job of transferring all the client paper files to the early mainframe computer system, and even though I knew from the first week that the job and I would never be a good match, I couldn’t quit. I had bills to pay. One day, after a particularly rough week of talking to a lot of very sick, broke people on the phone who hadn’t been paid because their files hadn’t yet been transferred, I arrived at work to find one small addition to the wall of my bleak cubicle: It was a postcard of John Glenn in his space helmet, his confident face radiating its goodness right down on me. It was signed, Courtesy of Your Fellow Inmates. Glenn got me through the next few months, before I quit to pursue another life.
Space colonies didn’t become a reality as quickly as expected. Instead, I left the country for other continents and other countries, and ended up spending most of my life far from my country of birth. John Glenn made his mark as a senator for the state of Ohio. Mostly he did a good job, an advocate for science and, more importantly, for enduring curiosity that lasted a lifetime. He had a knack for looking beyond borders.
So, now he’s left Earth’s orbit for good, and I find myself thinking that we need a John Glenn these days. Someone who inspires everyone, no matter their persuasion, to look beyond their own cynicism. Cynicism was rife under Nixon, and then Ford, and even under the artificial-honey reign of Reagan, but at least we could all agree that astronauts and the science that kept them aloft were objects worthy of admiration.
So farewell, John Glenn, and thanks for getting me through some hard times and inspiring more than just happy songs. It was radiant.
Thanks for visiting Champagnewhisky, and wishing all of you a wonderful 2017.