You can learn a lot from a guy who lives to 95 despite a lifetime of insane risk-taking.
John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, has died at 95.
This is a remarkable feat. Not just because he lived to 95, although that’s difficult enough in today’s world. It’s remarkable because living to 95 when you’re an American badass like John Glenn is nothing short of a miracle.
Here’s a sentence that John Glenn likely heard numerous times during his life. “You are lucky to be alive right now, you crazy bastard.”
This is a guy who, at just 8 years old, got into an open-cockpit biplane with a stranger because it sounded like fun.
Can you fathom something like that happening today?
Parents get arrested for letting their kids play unsupervised in back yards, or walk home alone from a park. But a young John Glenn climbed into a plane with a pilot who promised to try really hard not to kill them both by crashing into a barn.
In his teens, Glenn liked to race his 1929 Chevy at suicidally high speeds down a one-lane railroad bridge at night. It’s the equivalent of a 2016 teen driving while texting on three different phones simultaneously. Which is to say, it was amazingly stupid.
But John Glenn didn’t die in his ‘29 Chevy.
He went on to fly 149 combat missions during World War II and the Korean War, and was hit 11 times by enemy fire. He got the nickname “Old Magnet Ass,” because he liked flying low to the ground to get a better aim at his targets, even though it gave them a better aim at him.
He didn’t die in either war.
John Glenn became a test pilot in the 1950s, and in 1957 set the transcontinental airspeed record, flying a Vought F-8 Crusader from LA to New York in 3 hours and 23 minutes.
It sounds amazingly badass on paper, but if you were in the plane with him when it happened, you would’ve been the one screaming, “Are you out of your goddamn mind? Slow the fuck down, you crazy freak! I don’t want to die like this!”
Spoiler alert, he didn’t die. Again.
John Glenn wasn’t satisfied with taking absurd risks that should have resulted in him dying young, leading to a funeral in which everybody was sad but not entirely surprised, whispering things to each other like, “Well, we all kinda saw this coming.”
He wanted more. When you run out of insane challenges on your home planet, what’s the next logical step? Well, deep space, of course.
In 1962, he circled the globe three times in a space capsule called the Friendship 7, reaching speeds of 17,545 miles an hour. That’s 16,995 miles an hour faster than a Boeing 747.
The trip took 4 hours, 55 minutes, and 23 seconds. Or, roughly the flight time from Los Angeles to Miami, in which your biggest concern is whether the attendants will come back a second time with the beverage cart.
John Glenn didn’t drift softly back to Earth, and then taxi to his gate. He plunged with extreme force into the Atlantic Ocean. The exact opposite of a happy ending for any other flight.
No offense to the rest of us, but our brains can’t fathom that kind of courage. Nothing happens in our lives that even comes close.
Imagine getting on a plane, and the pilot tells you, “I should warn you, what we’re about to do, nobody’s ever done it before. There’s a pretty good chance we’ll die. We might be fine, but that’s based on nothing but my optimism. We really don’t know.”
You ask for the best case scenario.
“Well,” he says, “best case, we re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and our bodies don’t disintegrate, and we crash into the ocean. Then we wait for somebody to find us and hopefully we don’t get eaten by sharks. Or maybe we land in Manhattan and we’re splattered on Times Square, I really don’t know. Have I mentioned that nobody’s done this before?”
Do you still get on that plane? If you’re John Glenn, you absolutely do. And then you ask for a window seat, because this is gonna be awesome.
That should have been enough for one lifetime, but John Glenn wasn’t done. In the late 1960s, he became the president of RC Cola. Which isn’t dangerous, but it’s still badass.
It’s like Buzz Aldrin going, “You know what? Going to the moon was cool, but what I really want to do is run my own Wendy’s franchise.”
He served as a U.S. Senator for over two decades, and then he went back into space in 1998, at an age when most people are content to sit in comfortable chairs, watch daytime TV, and complain about the cost of beta-blockers.
John Glenn joined the crew of the Space Shuttle Discovery when he was 77 years old.
You know what the rest of us hope to be doing at 77? We just want to be alive. We want to not be getting bad biopsy results from our doctors.
That would be cool. That would be a victory.
But John Glenn was like, “I’ve cheated death this long, let’s keep the party going. What’s the worst that can happen?”
Here’s the reason he’s a true American hero. You can’t tell an ambitious kid, “You could grow up to be the next John Glenn.” Because honestly, no offense to this kid, but that’s a pretty big long shot.
He could grow up to be an astronaut. That’s entirely doable.
He could even become the next president. Sure, why not? He could be a doctor, a lawyer, a movie star, a scientist, anything he or she wants. But you don’t say, “You’re going to be the first.” Unless you’re a jerk parent.
It’s rare for a human being to have a chance to do something that no other human being has ever done before. Those experiences don’t come along very often.
We’ll have another John Glenn someday. Somebody’s going to be the first astronaut to make it to Mars, or beyond.
But whoever makes that next big cosmic step, they’ll need to have John Glenn-size balls. They’ll need to be the kind of person who makes life choices that make sensible people mutter, “He’s doing what now? Huh. He does know he’s gonna die, right?”
And maybe he or she will. You don’t become John Glenn by making the safe choices, and doing the pragmatic things that give you a decent statistical probability of living to 95.
You have to be a crazy fucker who isn’t afraid to die tomorrow because, what the hell, let’s see what’s around this next blind curve.
Rest in peace, John Glenn. Thank you for leaving the bar so impossibly high.
[This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in Men’s Health.]