John Glenn: A Memoir

John Glenn: A Memoir

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by John Glenn

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He was the first astronaut to orbit the Earth. Nearly four decades later, as the world's oldest astronaut, his courage reveted a nation. But these two historical events only bracketed a life that covers the sweep of an extraordinary century.

John Glenn's autobiography spans the seminal events of the twentieth century. It is a story that begins with his childhood

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He was the first astronaut to orbit the Earth. Nearly four decades later, as the world's oldest astronaut, his courage reveted a nation. But these two historical events only bracketed a life that covers the sweep of an extraordinary century.

John Glenn's autobiography spans the seminal events of the twentieth century. It is a story that begins with his childhood in Ohio where he learned the importance of family, community, and patriotism. He took these values with him as a marine fighter pilot during World War II and into the skies over Korea, for which he would be decorated. Always a gifted flier, it was during the war that he contemplated the unlimited possibilities of aviation and its frontiers.

We see the early days of NASA, where he first served as a backup pilot for astronauts Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom. In 1962 Glenn piloted the Mercury-Atlas 6 Friendship 7 spacecraft on the first manned orbital mission of the United States. Then came several years in international business, followed by a twenty-four year career as a U.S. Senator-and in 1998 a return to space for his remarkable Discover mission at the age of seventy-seven.

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Editorial Reviews

Hugh McDiarmid

Oh, it's not cosmic.

Or especially revealing.

Or in tune with the flashy, sometimes hyper prose used 20 years ago by Tom Wolfe in his famous book on the Mercury astronauts, The Right Stuff

Instead, it's just plain old John Herschel Glenn Jr. (with New York writer Nick Taylor), offering a steady, sober, Boy Scoutish and - especially for those captivated when he became the first American to orbit the Earth - absorbing memoir.

It stretches from his modest childhood in New Concord, Ohio, and marriage to his onetime playmate, Annie, through World War II and Korea as a Marine combat pilot, to his years as a test pilot and astronaut and finally - though briefly - to his 24-year stretch as a US senator from Ohio, until he retired at the end of 1998.

And, oh yes, wasn't Glenn, at age 77, the guy the space agency allowed back in orbit last year for the sake of geriatric science? Yes, that too is covered.

What's unusual, even refreshing, is that it's the unembellished, upbeat story of a lifetime of sometimes difficult, often heroic public service, without a hint of scandal or prurience save for the mild Senate rebuke Glenn suffered in 1991 for involvement in the so-called Keating Five loan scandal (a rebuke he describes as ''the low point of my life'' - and also ''unjustified''). In short, Glenn recounts his extraordinary life in frank, sometimes folksy but never extraordinary terms.

To be sure, parts of the book - thanks mostly to Wolfe's ''Right Stuff'' - are familiar. And Glenn's political life, including two failed tries for the Senate (he finally won election in 1974) and a clumsy presidential bid in 1984, are compressed into a mere three (of 26) chapters.

But what's clearly most important to Glenn are those patriotic ''right stuff'' years as a combat pilot, test pilot, and astronaut - as well as being a faithful husband and good father. And Glenn doesn't grind axes, spread rumors, dig around in anyone's closet, or revel too much in the public adoration that followed his orbital heroics. This book could well be entitled ''The Straight Stuff.'' When was the last time you read that kind of memoir?

Boston Globe
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Glenn's utterly plainspoken yet thrilling autobiography will put a lump in readers' throats. The astronaut and four-term U.S. senator from Ohio seems to embody the best old-fashioned American values of integrity, personal discipline, love of country, honesty, courage and responsibility. At 37, Glenn was a frustrated navy bureaucrat stuck in a Washington desk job. Just four years later, in 1962, he became the first American to orbit the earth, piloting the Friendship 7 capsule and restoring national pride during the space race with the Soviet Union. Before that flight, he deadpanned to his wife: "Hey, honey, don't be scared. Remember, I'm just going down to the corner store to get a pack of gum." Glenn says he acquired a sense of unbounded possibility from his mother, an elementary schoolteacher, and his father, a coal-shoveling railroad worker who squeaked through the Depression and built up his own plumbing supplies company. Glenn's exploits as a pilot during WWII and Korea, as well as his high-altitude feats as a test pilot in the 1950s, are re-created with hair-raising immediacy in a gripping first-person narrative written with an assist from Taylor (whose books include the memoir A Necessary End). On a personal note, Glenn writes affectingly of his 56-year marriage to organist Annie Castor, with whom he played as a toddler; the strains of being a military family often having to move on short notice; his friendship with Robert Kennedy. The book closes with a heart-stopping account of his momentous return to space at age 77 in 1998 aboard space shuttle Discovery, an event that helped redefine the meaning of "old age." Told without an ounce of pretension, this is a memorable autobiography by a man who embraced public life and held it with a unique blend of Roman virtue and American confidence. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
John Glenn's life story reads like a Frank Capra movie: Small-town Ohio boy weathers the Depression nurtured by conservative patriotic values, marries his high school sweetheart, flies combat missions in two wars, is selected as one of the original Mercury astronauts, becomes an instant national hero as the first American to orbit the earth, is elected to the Senate, and, after serving for four terms, improbably returns to space aboard the Shuttle at age 77. Glenn's account of his storybook life rings as true as his All-American Boy Scout image that Tom Wolfe caricatured in The Right Stuff. Yet even Glenn's long career was not totally immune from the hint of scandal, as he recounts his tangential role in the Keating S&L scandal. Still, in the current national climate, Glenn's account of his life and times provides a refreshing contrast to the public cynicism that all too often attaches to public figures. Recommended for public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 8/99.]--Thomas J. Frieling, Bainbridge Coll. Lib., GA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Gr 7 Up-In his memoir, Glenn takes listeners through the grueling tests and preparations for the flight, as well as through the enormous differences between his solo flight of just under five hours in 1962 and his voyage of 36 years later as part of the team of seven aboard the shuttle Discovery. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

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Random House Publishing Group
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4.40(w) x 7.00(h) x 1.50(d)

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Patriotism filled the air of New Concord, the small eastern Ohio town where I grew up. Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Armistice Day were flag-waving holidays of parades and salutes to the United States and to the soldiers, living and dead, who had fought for freedom and democracy.

My father was one of those soldiers. He served in France during World War I, delivering artillery shells to the front on trucks and horse-drawn caissons, and he came home partially deaf from a cannon blast but otherwise unharmed. He also was a bugler. He blew the bugle for reveille and taps, for mail call and mess call, and when the flag was raised.

At home, on those patriotic days that I remember, Dad was again called upon to play the bugle. He marched in the parade formations when the local veterans from the Thirty-seventh Ohio Division marched down Main Street on Armistice Day, and played the colors when they raised the flag at the American Legion hall at the end of the parade. But the bugling I remember best was the taps he played on Memorial Day. It was still called Decoration Day then, and families dressed in their Sunday best would regather at the town cemetery after the parade, carrying bundles of gladioli, irises, and peonies, red, white, and blue the dominating colors. The marching soldiers also would regather. They presented arms and fired three volleys in salute as the flags flanking the Stars and Stripes were dipped. Then my father raised his war-battered brass bugle and played those drawn-out, mournful notes in memory of the soldiers killed in action, and the sound drifted across the gravestones and sent chills up my spine. As the last notes faded into silence the families of the soldiers and descendants of men who had died in other wars moved among the gravestones and placed flowers on the graves.

We had a town band in New Concord. I was nine or ten when I joined the band and learned to play the trumpet. At home, Dad taught me the military calls. And one day after I learned to play them well enough, he came to me with a request. "Bud," he said, "Decoration Day is coming up, and I want you to play taps with me."

I hardly knew what to say. Dad was my hero. He had fought in the war. The playing of taps was a special moment in the ceremony, a final, haunting valediction for the men who had made the supreme sacrifice. To play it was a great responsibility. Dad obviously had a lot of confidence in me. That meant a great deal, but it meant even more to participate as a young boy in the remembrance of men who had fought and died for our country. It was something bigger than I was, something momentous.

Dad and I practiced at home as the end of May approached. He played in the kitchen, and I stood in another room. When the day came, I was a little scared. Before, I had always watched the parade with Mother and my sister, Jean, or marched in the band. But this spring day I went alone to the cemetery, ahead of the others. I walked across the sloping grounds, and waited out of sight in the woods where the terrain fell away beyond the graves.

Soon I heard "Present arms" as the soldiers' honor guard re-formed. Peeking through the leaves, I saw them raise their guns to fire the three volleys in salute. Then my father lifted his bugle, and the first sad notes rose in the spring air. The first phrase ended, and I was ready. I put the trumpet to my lips and echoed the clear notes. We played through taps like that, my trumpet echoing his bugle phrase by phrase, until the last notes died.

That impressed me then, as a boy, and it's impressive to me to this day. Echo taps still gives me chills. It recalls the patriotic feeling of New Concord, the pride and respect everyone in the town felt for the United States of America. Love of country was a given. Defense of its ideals was an obligation. The opportunity to join in its quests and explorations was a challenge not only to fulfill a sacred duty, but to join a joyous adventure. That feeling sums up my childhood. It formed my beliefs and my sense of responsibility. Everything that came after that just seemed to follow naturally.

A boy could not have had a more idyllic early childhood than I did. Sometimes it seems to me that Norman Rockwell must have taken all his inspiration from New Concord, Ohio. My playmates were freckle-faced boys and girls with pigtails. We played without fear in backyards and streams and endless green fields, and climbed trees to learn the limits of our daring. The adults—most of them—were concerned and reliably caring, and we respected them. Boys learned the company of men—the way they talked and held themselves, and their concerns—at the town barbershop and hunting in the woods. Saturday afternoons were for fifteen-cent sundaes at the Ohio Valley Dairy (nuts on top cost an extra nickel), Sunday mornings were for Sunday school and church, and Sunday afternoons were for family dinners and outings. These were the orderly rituals of my early years, and I never doubted even once that I was loved.

New Concord is the hometown I remember, but I was born a few miles away in Cambridge, in my parents' white frame house. The date was July 18, 1921. A doctor attended the birth. I weighed nine pounds and had my mother's red hair.

My father, John Herschel Glenn, had been home from the battlefields of France for two and a half years. He and my mother, a schoolteacher whose maiden name was Clara Sproat, had married just before he went to war. Mother was a very beautiful woman in some of the pictures made when she was young. She had a vivacious smile and lustrous hair, although its auburn tones were lost in the old photographs. They had met at the East Union Presbyterian Church near his parents' farm outside of Claysville. The farm was eighty or so acres, too small for anything but corn, garden vegetables, and a few hogs and chickens. She was from another little town not far away, Lore City. He had been seeing her for about two years, and I imagine he didn't want to let her get away. She rode a train to Montgomery, Alabama, where he was training at Camp Sheridan, and they got married on May 25, 1918. Two weeks later he left on a troopship from Newport News, Virginia.

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