hen John Glenn orbited the Earth I devised a plan to wave to him. It wasn’t a very practical or intelligent plan, but who ever suggested earnestness squared up with either? That my wave would come late — he was launched and landed in of five hours — made no difference.
The flight had made me giddy. Mr. Miller the bus driver was overwhelmed. “That man Glenn in the sky!” he exclaimed. “Imagine that that: three times around the planet!” By the time I got back from school I knew a tribute necessary. But what kind? A telephone call would be too much, and I didn’t know his number. More to the point, I still wasn’t allowed to use the phone. A crayon drawing was another option but my red crayon was broken.
So I decided to wave. I’d wait until after the news and dinner, past my bedtime (or when my parents’ thought they’d put me to bed), and then climb out on the corrugated ledge that led to the top of the porch awning, that led to the slate slats, that rose triangularly to the summit: the small roof nook with its turret and weathervane.
So it was that on a Tuesday in February 1962 I began my tribute to spaceman Glenn by putting a coat over my pajamas and climbing ledge-to-ledge until I was ready to begin my final ascent.
By then it was very, very dark and I had to calculate every move with care. I also had to watch out for squirrels, which also liked ascents and probably also had Glenn in mind, at least on that day.
The cupped drain leading to the roof had pronged spouts I could hang on to as I climbed, and I did. The squirrels were clearly amazed, even the black ones. After 20 minutes of quiet scuttling I’d made it to the top of the known world.
It was then that I realized two things: the summit was cold, too cold for my pajamas and coat; the sky was vast and full of all sorts of starry percolations, making the precise choice of where to wave especially difficult. But wave I did, generally upward, one miniature human’s greeting to the indifferent night, which paid me no mind but which I forgave.
After the wave to John Glenn and to other nations of the Milky Way I decided it was time to go to bed, a bed that was suddenly far below me in the glowing world of the house I’d ignored on my way up. Now, the return voyage seemed daunting. So I sat still and overwhelmed. And I took deep breaths. And I pondered the nature of resolve. And I imagined John Glenn in space, crammed into a capsule. What would he do? I did all these things to motivate my descent. After which I started sobbing. I was at the summit with nowhere to go.
Hours later my occasionally wolf-like wailing caught the attention of my parents, who called the fire department, which well past midnight put up a ladder to extricate “boy on roof” (as I was called on radio) from his orbital trajectory.
“Son,” said the big fireman, once he’d reached me, “why on earth are you p here?” Between sobs I could only tell him the truth: “I came to wave to John Glenn.”
The fireman smiled and scooped me up like a puppy. “Well now, since Mr. Glenn has landed it’s time you landed too.”
Now, Mr. Glenn has landed for good. All the more reason, 54 years after squirrels and rooftops and firemen and parents, to wave at him one last time, and thank him for the peculiar inspiration one boy absorbed into his systems, making spontaneity into a lifelong elixir.