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Mack Williams: John Glenn, my mother, and me

This column originally appeared in the Salisbury Post in 2014 and is being reprinted in memory of the late Senator John Glenn.

No, this is not about some “surprise” in my family tree. This relates instead, to the early days of NASA’s Project Mercury Space Program and its influence on me back then.

One day, not long ago, a fellow employee of the science museum where I work brought in a special, encased commemorative coin which her grandparents had purchased for her mother back in the early 1960s. It commemorated Major John Glenn’s Friendship 7 orbital spaceflight. Not long afterward, in the mid-60s, I carried both a “Project Mercury” and a “ President John F. Kennedy” stamp in the clear, plastic picture section of my wallet. The Mercury stamp was carried celebratorily and commemoratively, and the latter stamp carried in memoriam.

The time of this recollection is Feb.20, 1962. I was in my home in my bed on the Old Concord Road, and Major John Glenn was in a space capsule many miles above, there actually being more room to move around in my bed than there was in his space capsule (he was truly “encapsulated”).

In the 1960s, TV game shows and soap operas were pre-empted for almost the whole day of a manned space shot (with nary a gripe from either of these genre’s devotees). Nowadays, the television networks seem to ignore space launches, even those involving astronauts, only cutting away, if at all, to catch the last ten seconds of the countdown, or an even briefer showing during “News at Eleven.” Unfortunately, the tragedies of the space shuttles “Challenger” and “Columbia” brought back a sad semblance of that “old style” day long coverage.

I was at Granite Quarry School on the day of Alan Shepard’s brief, sub-orbital flight on May 5, 1961, only hearing the launch over the school intercom, via the courtesy of Principal C.L. Barnhardt. (On November 22, 1963, Mr. Barnhardt did likewise in the news coverage from Dallas, but that was, I’m sure, a courtesy he sadly extended.)

In the several days leading up to John Glenn’s launch, the television networks made mention of the pre-empting of their regular broadcast schedules so as to provide ample coverage of America’s first manned orbital spaceflight.

I then made up my mind that I would not miss this one, even if it would be taking place during school hours.

On the morning of February 20, just a few moments before the arrival of my school bus, I immediately came down with a case of “school bus stomach,” not some singular type of motion sickness, but instead, an “affliction” occurring with the knowledge that the bus is about to come into sight, hopefully preventing my riding of it altogether (at least for that particular day).

My mother, good soul that she was, believed what I said and stayed home from work to look after me. She called in to her job at W.T.Grants and told them of my “sickness.” If there is such a thing as “work stomach,” in the same nature as that of “school bus stomach,” I don’t think my mother was ever afflicted with it, since “dependability” for her, was not just a work trait, but one of life itself. Actually, her excuse for her absence from work was basically truthful, unlike my excuse for my absence from school, which wasn’t.

Before the launch, I enjoyed watching all of the detailed “artist’s conceptions” of the booster rocket falling away, the positioning of the capsule for orbit, the diagram of the orbit itself, the simulated firing of the retro-rockets and how the blazing-hot heat shield would look upon re-entry. (At my previous house, we had a wood stove. One winter night, I stoked it to such a degree, that its its sides glow red-hot; but with an intensity much less than that of “re-entry”).

I recently googled up the launch of Friendship 7, seeing it for the first time in color, as it was originally filmed. Although on “youtube,” the launch is in color, back then, on “mytube,” it was in black and white.

So I stayed home on February 20, 1962 and watched the flight’s pre-coverage, the coverage of the launch, complete with live film of Glenn inside his space capsule, and the after-coverage (coverage “before, during, and afterwards” kind of like the coverage of the Superbowl). All the while, my mother kept me supplied with soft drink and chicken soup.

During the commentators’ speculations of how long it would be before the human race got to the Moon and planets, I lay there in bed and looked through my astronomy books at pictures and paintings of those worlds in space, even the further distant galaxies.

Several decades later, I made a confession of that day of “hooky playing” to my mother, to which she appeared genuinely, but not too disturbingly surprised. She also seemed to be just a tiny bit disappointed, but maybe that’s just me.

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