Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Hero Visits the City

I went on Friday to see the tribute to John Glenn program at Cleveland State University. It was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Glenn being the first American to orbit the Earth, which is a heavy sentence right there. One, 50 years is...well let's just say that this past week I've had trouble conceiving of spans of time longer than 20 years. Then there's the American part. Not the first human to orbit the Earth, that honor belongs to Yuri Gagarin. Last year was that 50yr anniversary, Yuri orbited the Earth on 12 April 1961. So John Glenn was the second human to orbit the Earth, which is pretty insanely impressive anyway. But no, he was the FIRST American, that's how we say it. Sidenote: the Russians first put a woman in space in 1962. The first American woman went up 1983. Just saying. Then, once you get past the 50 and the American parts, there's that whole Orbiting the Earth. A crazy thought, even now, half a century later. Maybe people in the 1960s just assumed the new century would mean we were all flying into space every other weekend. And frankly, probably someone from some nation is doing that. But it ain't me babe, it ain't me.

 So I went wandering down to the Wolfstein Center by myself. The security guard made me throw my breathmints away. Well, it was more like he was all " really can't have those..." and I was like "they're just breathmints". To which he made a really pained face, and I said "do you want me to throw them away?" and he apologetically replied "If they're not important to you." Well, that made me think. Because technically they aren't important to me, they only represent a 1.50 value. But emotionally, being a smoker, they're awfully important. About one hour into the ceremony, I had the worst movie theater breath. Also, you know 1.50 used to be a really good daily wage. Whatever, of course I just tossed them. Cause I'm American after all.

 Don't worry, this isn't going to be some anti-American rant, I don't think. I'm pretty happy I can just buy more breathmints.

 They played the Marine's Hymn at the beginning. The place was filled with the kind of adults you would expect to see at a NASA event, and their nice well behaved children, and school kids who didn't turn off their cellphones. Everyone was good and silent, and in the very front there were 2 lone Marines in the audience who stood at attention during the song. The whole thing was very proper and courteous. Everyone clapped at all the right points and during the Anthem we all sang quietly under our collective breath to not overshadow the choir. That's a strange and moving experience, to be with a large group of people, agenda-less, singing the Anthem. That doesn't happen a lot these days. There was a minute of silence to remember the Chardon school shooting, and once again, doing collective actions like that provides this strange sense of calmness and duty. The silence of a stadium is powerful, more powerful than noise.

 There was a roll call of all the atronauts in the audience, and everyone including me clapped extremely sincerely, cause goddamn it if you're an astronaut, if you've been in space, if you've left the safety of our planet and shot yourself up into the ether strapped onto a thousand pounds of explosives, how can you not clap? The word hero has negative connotations to a lot of us. Perhaps a leftover knee jerk reaction from our parents' generation and their own bad wars. Or maybe we just can't take the constant use of the phrase "American Hero" as propaganda, applied to every single person who does any kind of military service at all. It's as overplayed as a Spin Doctors song. But despite that, it's still a powerful idea - the Homecoming of a Hero, the Conquering Hero. And there can't be a more dramatic homecoming than for people coming back from space. Also, frankly, not to be anti-military, but it's nice to honor heroes who aren't soldiers. To acknowledge there are greater things you can do for your country than kill people. I think the thing I respect most about Glenn is that he convinced them to let him go back into Space one more time, even though he was on the far side of 70, just because he wanted to go. That's the aspect that makes me admire him.

 The whole event gave me a vision of a small town welcoming back a dragon killer. There was the same run of bureaucrat officials singing the same praises, of peers, the wealthy businessman who really runs the town (in this case, that was the CSU president, who did give the best speech, he is a charming man). There were the children singing, and the home guard paying respects, and standing ovation after ovation. There was a video put together by all the old geeks at NASA, cheesy, awkward, overly sentimental and extremely cute. It made me tear up, true story. Because cheesiness and sentimentality aside, Glenn is pretty close to St. George. Astronaut and Statesman and Devoted Husband, champion of the Intelligentsia. Did you know Glenn became an astronaut without a college degree? How many honorary degrees does he have now? Well, at least one more, cause CSU gave him that too. Everyone gave his wife props too, Dr. Annie. I know next to nothing about her, but maybe I should. At one point, someone referred to her as his bride, which made them sound like a very young newlywed couple, instead of the veteran couple of 68 years. Jesus, is that right? 2012 - 1943? That's insane. Another phrase that threw me was when they referred to the "Original 7", the first seven American astronauts. That sounds very alien and mythic doesn't it? The Original Seven. It conjures the best kind of hero connotations. Bringing Annie into it, over and over, gave the whole proceeding a very 60s space program glamour. It was easy to feel we were back on the cusp of a Golden Age, where family values and scientific rationality went hand in hand.

 Glenn's speech was very well done, as one would expect from a guy who'd been learning to give speeches for the last 60 years. It was alternately funny and serious. It was first an argument in favor of American curiosity, that doing things just to do them had been what made us great in the first place, and then moved into a plea to support the reinstallation of shuttle service to the International Space Station. He was of course talking to a room of people already converted - everyone in there believed in science, that was the one thing we could all agree on. And maybe that was my biggest emotional takeaway. Listening to a real hero speak was important and great, but being in a huge crowd of people who believed in Reason and Science, that was amazing. Watching the two little girls in pink fleece jackets sitting next to their mother, or the little boy sitting in between his mom and dad, all of them watching carefully, barely fidgeting at all during all the speeches, that was such a wave of heartwarming it swallowed my whole chest. If I'd had a camera with me, I would have gone around the whole stadium, taking pictures of the childrens' faces.

 I sometimes think the families of astronauts must be the superior families of this country, producing children that are not only the smartest, the most fit, but also the bravest. One of the astronauts that went on the shuttle trip the second time Glenn went into space told this story. A reporter asked this guy's father how he felt about his son going into space with Glenn, and his father replied "My son is not flying with John Glenn, John Glenn is flying with my son." People are fucking great, aren't they? Astronauts are just one more thing that reminds me that I love people.

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