One of the first writing projects I ever completed was a middle school report about the U.S. space program and the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. As far back as I can remember, space and astronauts excited me—and terrified me, too. After all, I was sitting on the couch next to my grandmother when the Challenger burst into flames, and neither of us could do anything but stare glassy-eyed into the screen and watch metal plummet from the sky.
But for all the danger, there was so much possibility and so much excitement, and so I watched and read and listened to everything I could about space and astronauts. Like most children of my generation, I wanted to be one, for a time. When my family went to Florida on vacation, we went to Disney for my brother and we went to NASA for me. While at NASA, my teacher parents used their ID’s to pick up educational packets from the NASA library, full of documents, experiments, even technical drawings and outlines of mission plans for some of the country’s first ventures into space.
Because of this, I had all the information I needed when it came time to pick report topics. But I wanted more. So I went to the library, both at school and the community branch. I watched television specials. And, as one final moonshot, I wrote a letter to my senator, addressed to “The Honorable Senator John Glenn of Ohio.”
The first man to orbit the earth and a sitting U.S. senator didn’t have to respond. And even still, it would’ve been so easy to send a boilerplate document. From the vantage of age and hard-earned cynicism, I’m sure there was some level of templating involved, and I’m certain at least part of the thing was penned by an intern or staffer, but Senator Glenn wrote me back, addressing my by name and including a signature in blue ink—not a stamp. I didn’t particularly expect a response, and more than I expected responses when I sent letters to Cincinnati Reds players via the address of Riverfront Stadium.
But there it came, a couple days before the project was due: information directly from the source. I’d already learned that this was the best kind of information: solid gold for research. A primary document, and with a signature, no less.
This was a small maneuver on the Senator’s part, but it was inspiring to a child who was at the juncture of beginning to make out just how to step through life. I wasn’t a voter yet, and this certainly clear from both the quality and the text of the letter. In other words, I was of no use to him. He would be retired before I reached voting age, and I could bring him no benefit whatsoever. And yet, he put my name on the letter, signed it himself, and sent it.
Tiny acts can be inspiring. This is the inspiring moment I thought of last night when I read the John Glenn had died at the age of 95. It inspired me to keep learning about Mr. Glenn and other heroes. It inspired me to write clearly and accurately in a way that honored the intent of my source—something that would later serve me well as a reporter. It inspired me to keep daydreaming and continue to imagine things that others might not consider possible—something I continue to do every day when I write fiction. And now, it inspires me to take time for others who can offer me no benefit, even when there are other things I’d rather do with that time. I still have the letter. It occupies space in the same file where I keep my copy of the first publishing agreement I signed for a story, the fist book contract I signed, a cut out of my first published article, a copy of my first front-page story while writing for a metropolitan daily newspaper. The smallest things, it turns out, can become giants in someone's life trajectory.
John Glen was inspiring in a lot of ways. As I look around the cultural landscape, I see a lot of people who seek to entertain. I see plenty who seek to cultivate fear. And I see far too many who wish only to manipulate. I see very, very few cultural figures who seek to inspire. This generation would do well to cultivate a few more John Glenns: women and men who seek to accomplish the impossible and who, after shocking the world with their accomplishment, seek to lift others up, as Glenn did during his four terms as a U.S. Senator and as a writer of small letters to children on the brink of deciding how much hope and ambition with which to attack life.
Every major news outlet will recap his career as an astronaut during the next few days, and maybe touch on his political career. Want to know the truly inspiring things, though? Read about the intricate, lifelong partnership he shared with his wife Annie, and their advocacy for people with communicative disorders. Read about how he shunned special interest money in his 1984 presidential bid, placing faith in the common person above corporate interests. He lost, but his campaign pioneered new models that would later be used in successful state and national campaigns. Read about his philanthropy. And consider his small gestures, like the little one that made me want to read, write, and explore. When you’ve done all that, seek to lift someone up and inspire them today—to give them a little hope, because we all need that, no matter where we live.
Farewell, John Glenn, and Godspeed to the rest of us, who might follow in some small part of your orbit.
Fulbright Disclaimer: The views presented in this blog are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.