In the Catbird Seat/Joe Kirkish
Heroes are sadly lacking today. Politicians to be worshiped, celebrities, sports figures – all but gone. But there are two exceptions that still stand out.
For half a century, we have applauded John Glenn as a heart-stirring American hero. He lifted the nation’s spirits when, as one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, he was blasted alone into orbit around the Earth. And yet, for all these years, Glenn has had a hero of his own, someone he has seen display endless courage of a different kind: his wife, Annie Glenn.
Married for 68 years, our hero is now 92 and his wife just made it to 93. Recently, there has been news coverage of the 50th anniversary of Glenn’s flight into orbit. He is still America’s hero, though he has never bought that as uniquely his, because the heroism he most cherishes belongs to the woman he has known longer than anyone else in the world.
John Glenn and Annie Castor first knew each other when they really shared a playpen in New Concord, Ohio. His parents and hers were friends, and when their families got together, the two children played together.
John – the future Marine fighter pilot, test-pilot ace and astronaut – was pure gold from the start. He wound up having what it took to rise to the absolute pinnacle of American regard during the space race. Imagine what it meant to be the young John Glenn in Ohio, a three-sport varsity athlete, most admired boy in town.
On the other hand, Annie Castor was bright, talented, generous of spirit, but rarely noticed. She had a serious physical difficulty. She could talk only with a severe stutter.
It haunted her. Her stuttering was so severe that it was categorized as an “85 percent” disability. When she tried to recite a poem in elementary school, she was laughed at. She was not able to speak on the telephone. She could not have a regular conversation with a friend.
Yet John Glenn loved her.
Even as a boy he was wise enough to understand that people who could not see past her stuttering were missing out on knowing a rare and wonderful person.
They married on April 6, 1943. As a military wife, she found that a life of moving around the country could be quite hurtful. She once wrote: “I can remember some very painful experiences — especially the ridicule.”
In department stores, she would wander unfamiliar aisles trying to find the right section, embarrassed to ask for help. In taxis, she would have to write requests to the driver, because she couldn’t speak the destination out loud. In restaurants, she would point to her selected items on the menu.
A fine musician, Annie, wherever she and John moved, would play the organ in church as a way to make new friends. But, she once wrote, “Can you imagine being afraid to use the telephone? I worried that my children would be injured and need a doctor. Could I somehow find the words to get the information across on the phone?”
John, as a Marine aviator, flew 59 combat missions in World War II and 90 during the Korean War. Every time he was deployed, he and Annie said goodbye in the same way. His last words to her before leaving would be, “I’m just going down to the corner store to get a pack of gum.”
And, with just the two of them there, she was able to reply, with some effort, “Don’t be long.”
On that February day in 1962, when the world held its breath and the Atlas rocket was about to propel him toward space, those were their words once again. And in 1998, when, at 77, he went back to space aboard the shuttle Discovery, she knew what he would say before boarding the shuttle. He did – and this time he gave her a present to hold onto: A pack of gum. She carried it with her until he was again safely home.
Many times in her life she attempted various treatments to cure her stutter. None worked. But in 1973, she found a doctor in Virginia who ran an intensive program for stutterers, so she traveled there to enroll and to give it her best effort. The miracle she and John had always waited for at last finally arrived. At age 53, she was able to talk fluently.
John has written: “I saw Annie’s perseverance and strength through the years, and it made me admire her and love her even more.” He has heard roaring ovations in countries around the world for his own valor, but his awe was reserved for Annie and what she accomplished.
Once again, on the last Mercury space shot, the press spoke of the heroism of Glenn the astronaut. But if you ever find yourself at an event where the two are appearing, and you want to see someone brimming with pride and love, wait until the moment that Annie stands to speak a few words to the audience.
And as she begins, take a look at her husband’s eyes.
Rotten Tomato averages: Double Feature, “Star Trek Into Darkness” and “World War Z” (total 268 minutes), B & B-; “Monsters University,” B; “Jobs,” C+