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--ere 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.
Dad was twenty-two years old when he went away, with a sixth-grade education acquired in a one-room country school. When he came back, he had seen the world and was by all accounts a different man. His roots still were deep in the farms and small towns of eastern Ohio, in the values of a mutually supportive community. But his perspective had broadened, and he saw the need to know and understand the world beyond the cornfields.
He worked as a fireman on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad when he came home. Mother continued to teach elementary school in Cambridge. The B&O's locomotives were coal-fired. Dad shoveled coal on the westbound trains until they reached Newark or Columbus. It was hot, dirty work, constantly swinging between a coal tender and a firebox that glowed like the mouth of Hades. He'd go to sleep exhausted in a railroad workers' barracks, and the next day do it again in a train headed home. The work was hard, but that wasn't what he minded. He was gone about half the time, and it stuck in his craw that he had to be away from home and his beautiful young wife that much.
So he quit the railroad and what was then a lifetime job with guaranteed security. Times were good, there was quite a bit of building going on, and Dad decided to take up the plumbing trade. His apprenticeship took us from Cambridge to Zanesville and back again. By August 1923 he knew his way around a pipe wrench pretty well, and joined up with Bertel Welch, a plumber in New Concord. I was two years old.
The move to New Concord was a homecoming of sorts for Mother. She had attended Muskingum College there, riding the train from Lore City through Cambridge to New Concord and back home every day until she earned the two-year degree required of schoolteachers at that time. Her father had been a teacher, too. New Concord was smaller than Cambridge. Even when the population doubled with students during the school year, it was barely larger than two thousand. But New Concord was no backwater. Muskingum's concerts, art exhibits, speeches, theatrical productions, and debates were open to all. Townspeople could use its library. It was a United Presbyterian Church school, and some of the housing on campus was set aside for church missionaries home on sabbatical from their work overseas. At any given time, there were families who had spent time in China, Africa, and South America, and the missionaries gave talks on their experiences.
Excerpted from John Glenn: A Memoir by John Glenn. Copyright© 1999 by John Glenn. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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