Monday, July 18, 2005

The debt I owe to John Glenn


John Glenn, from www.firstflight.org

Today is the birthday of astronaut/U.S. Senator John Glenn, and that got me thinking about how a brush-with-fame moment launched me (appropriate wording, eh?) on my journalism career, at the tender age of ten.

The year was 1967--five years after Glenn's orbiting the earth in "Friendship 7." Astronauts were heroes to kids my age...bravely and literally going where no one had dared to go before.

My parents were missionaries in Beirut, Lebanon, and I was a student at the American Community School there (having spent the first year and a half of my education in Lebanon at a British school, Manor House.)

John Glenn was visiting Beirut to tend to some business dealings he had there at the time. (My memory is foggy, but I think it had to do with PepsiCola or some other soft drink). Someone persuaded Glenn to put in an appearance at the American Community School, and he was to appear at an all-school assembly.

The appearance would be in the form of a sort of press conference. Two kids, a boy and a girl, would be chosen from each grade to get their chance at "interviewing" the former astronaut. I was the girl chosen from my fifth-grade class. We sat in chairs on the stage, facing Mr. Glenn.

Actually, each of us would be allowed to pose just one question to Mr. Glenn, but we could form our own questions. Mine: was he ever scared or nervous when he was in outer space?

For the first time in my life, I realized the thrill of asking a famous person a question, having that famous person treat my question as valid and worthy of answering, and having them reply well.

Many times in my career in radio, I've been one of several reporters at a news conference at which the focal point is someone quite famous. I'm not naturally an aggressive person, so it takes some nerve to ask a question loudly and clearly enough to let it be known that this is my moment, my chance to ask my question.

How will the person respond? Will he/she deride the question or de-value it in some way? That's always a possibility. So it's great to hear the person say something like "Great question," or even just to hear them go on to answer it in solid and substantial fashion. Especially when it may be a tad controversial. And I'll admit, I've gotten a little thrill as I think, "This is going to sound great on the radio." And I'm even gratified when I see it on TV later, and realize the sound bites used were from the reply to my question.

John Glenn treated a little ten-year-old girl's question with respect and consideration. He admitted to being nervous and even a little lonely in space--but went on to say that he was so busy working the controls and doing his job, that he had little time to dwell on such things. At least, that's how I remember his reply.

I had always loved reading and writing, but that experience was a turning point for me. I had discovered the thrill of asking questions and getting answers.

From then on, I interviewed everyone from fellow students to siblings and relatives. I spent my junior high and teen years with a portable tape recorder always at hand. I was a reporter and then an editor on my high school newspaper staff, and then my college newspaper staff. From there, it was a short hop to radio news, which I've been doing for over 25 years now.

I still love interviewing. I love satisfying my curiosity by delving into other people's stories and, with my questions, guiding them in the process of revealing their thoughts and feelings.

So, happy birthday, John Glenn. And thanks.

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