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Perth Turns on Lights for Glenn

October 31, 1998 GMT

PERTH, Australia (AP) _ People switched on lights in their homes early Saturday morning, companies lit up office towers and spotlights at cricket and football fields brightened the sky _ recreating the electric glow that John Glenn saw when his spacecraft flew over Australia in 1962.

It was a gesture rich with history, and it did not disappoint.

During Glenn’s first trip into space, Perth residents lit up their houses and every street lamp and neon sign in a greeting to Glenn. Thirty-six years later, Perth again transformed itself into a city of lights for Glenn, 77, during his historic return to space.

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Residents gathered in King’s Park, overlooking Perth. Some held up flashlights; others who remembered the joy in 1962 brought their grandchildren to share the experience. At 12:50 a.m. (11:50 a.m. EST Friday), everyone cheered when Glenn’s voice was broadcast live from the space shuttle Discovery.

``I think it looks even better now than it did back then. They really got them lit up tonight,″ Glenn said. He promised to send Perth pictures taken by the shuttle crew.

One local radio broadcaster let out a spontaneous, on-the-air whoop. According to Tom Wolfe’s book ``The Right Stuff,″ Glenn watched clouds part in 1962 to reveal ``an absolute mass of electric lights″ in two groups _ one in Perth and the other in Rockingham to the south.

``The lights show up very well,″ Glenn radioed to astronaut Gordon Cooper, who was at a tracking station in Australia at the time. ``Please thank everybody for turning them on, will you?″

Perth, on Australia’s southwest coast, has kept the title ``City of Lights″ ever since.

This time, Glenn’s flight path took him farther north, 530 miles from Perth. But that didn’t discourage residents or the state government, which asked everyone to turn on their lights for him.

They did so, then turned out into the streets.

Perth Mayor Peter Natrass, who spoke to Glenn via a telephone link-up, said the city had adopted the astronaut as one of their own.

``We have a great feeling of rapport with John Glenn which resulted of course from 1962,″ Natrass told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio. ``This event still captures the imagination of everyone here.″

The U.S. Consul-General in Perth, Sally-Beth Bunbury, said the city’s reaction to Glenn’s return to space was an example of the strength of the relationship between Australia and the United States.

``We are all proud of Perth tonight and the symbolism of the Australian-American relationship,″ she said.

``I have never met Senator Glenn, but I feel through this _ like so many residents of Perth, I guess _ that I know him. He is a very special person to Americans.″

The light-up got a boost from the BP Oil refinery, which received permission from the state’s Environmental Protection Department to fire up its gas flare.

Perth has its own John Glenn, a 76-year-old who in 1962 fashioned a beacon from a spotlight, bed sheets and a clothesline to send a salute to the American who shares his name. This time, he kept his greeting simple. ``I’ve left the porch light on,″ Glenn told Channel Nine TV.

As nightwatchmen began switching off lights floor by floor in the city’s office towers, Natrass summed up the evening: ``The three words that describe it are nostalgia, great excitement and great pride in our city.″