Like many mothers, Imogene Clark gathered her children around the television Feb. 20, 1962, to watch John Glenn rocket into space.
She was so worried about what would happen when the rocket ignited that she worked herself into a stress headache. The astronaut was more than just an American hero; he was a childhood friend.
Mrs. Clark grew up in New Concord, Ohio -- population 1,500. She was a playmate with the astronaut and his future wife, Annie. She and the Glenns continued their friendship at Muskingum College. The friends and 12 other college classmates kept in touch decades after graduation through a round-robin letter.
"I think I took it all harder than Annie," Mrs. Clark told the Augusta Herald a day after the space shot.
Mrs. Clark told the newspaper reporter her children were late to school Feb. 21, 1962, because she overslept. She blamed it on a nervous headache and the aspirin she took to cure it.
Mrs. Clark's daughter Julia Cousin said she doesn't remember her mother's post-launch headache but recalls watching the space shot with her family.
"Everything came to a standstill," said Ms. Cousin, whose mother recently suffered a stroke and couldn't be interviewed for this story. "I do remember her being real nervous about it."
Mrs. Clark told the Herald she wouldn't have been so brave about sending her own husband into orbit.
"Of course, Johnny is very determined and very dedicated. He's been in two wars and he's been a test pilot, so they had an awful lot of growing up to do in these years," she told the Herald. "And Johnny probably goes over everything he's going to do with the family. He describes the care and thoroughness that have gone into the flight before he makes it.
"Still, I don't think I could be as strong as Annie."
Mrs. Clark remembered the Glenns fondly in her 1962 interview with the Herald. She talked about the couple's long romance and their talents.
"Both were very popular in school," she said. "Annie had musical ability, and Johnnie had a good tenor voice."
Mrs. Clark shared stories of the astronaut's more devilish side with her children.
"She has this scar on her foot, and she said John Glenn did that," Ms. Cousin said. "He pushed her into the pool."
When Mr. Glenn landed in the drink himself after his 4 hour, 55 minute orbital trip, three Augustans helped rescue him.
At 2:43 p.m., the Friendship 7 capsule splashed into the tepid Caribbean Sea, and within 18 minutes Mr. Glenn was picked up by the destroyer USS Noa. He then flew by helicopter to the USS Randolph, a destroyer large enough for about 3,000 sailors.
Rear Adm. John L. Chew, an Academy of Richmond County graduate, was commander of the Navy recovery forces in the Caribbean. Two sailors on the Randolph were also from Augusta -- Chief Petty Officer William Radford and Lt. Emerson B. Cochran.
Dr. Cochran, who is 64 and now lives in Marietta, Ga., was a surgeon on the Randolph. He was one of the first physicians to examine Mr. Glenn after the orbit.
"My initial job, so to speak, was ... to say nothing to him, take his vital signs and instruct my corpsmen to do an EKG and a chest X-ray," he said during a telephone interview. "Our job was to record any abnormal responses."
Despite the stress of the spaceflight, Mr. Glenn's "vital signs were unbelievably normal," Dr. Cochran remembered.
"He was very, very active. That's the best way to describe it. He was a little man and in unbelievable shape," he said. "He was like a fighter that had accomplished a championship."
Following orders from his commanders, Dr. Cochran said little to the astronaut during the examination, though he wanted to ask about the flight.
"I felt like it would have been pleasant to carry on a conversation," said Dr. Cochran, who recently retired after 30 years of general surgery practice in Marietta. "He was a very, very excited person at his achievement and had taken very lightly that he had risked his life to be the first to orbit the world.
"But he obviously was elated that he had finished it without mishap."
Don't remember what the world was like when John Glenn first traveled into space Feb. 20, 1962? Maybe these things will help take you back:
-- Top song on the Billboard chart -- Duke of Earl by Gene Chandler
Top monaural album on the Billboard chart -- Blue Hawaii soundtrack by Elvis Presley
-- Top stereo album on on the Billboard chart -- Breakfast at Tiffany's soundtrack by Henry Mancini
-- Top-rated television show for the 1961-62 season -- Wagon Train
-- Mayor of Augusta -- Millard A. Beckum
-- Chairman of Richmond County Commission -- Michael J. Padgett
-- Governor of Georgia -- Ernest Vandiver
-- Governor of South Carolina -- Fritz Hollings
-- Superintendent of Richmond County Schools -- Roy Rollins
-- Reigning Masters Tournament champion -- Gary Player
-- Reigning Miss America -- Maria Fletcher of Asheville, N.C.
Source: Billboard, Nielsen Media Research, The World Almanac, The Augusta Chronicle and Augusta Herald.
Amy Joyner can be reached at (706) 823-3339 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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