Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoirby John McCain, Mark Salter
John McCain is one of the most admired leaders in the United States government, but his deeply felt memoir of family and war is not a political one and ends before his election to Congress. With candor and ennobling power, McCain tells a story that, in the words of Newsweek, "makes the other presidential candidates look like pygmies."
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John McCain is one of the most admired leaders in the United States government, but his deeply felt memoir of family and war is not a political one and ends before his election to Congress. With candor and ennobling power, McCain tells a story that, in the words of Newsweek, "makes the other presidential candidates look like pygmies."
John McCain learned about life and honor from his grandfather and father, both four-star admirals in the U.S. Navy. This is a memoir about their lives, their heroism, and the ways that sons are shaped and enriched by their fathers.
John McCain's grandfather was a gaunt, hawk-faced man known as Slew by his fellow officers and, affectionately, as Popeye by the sailors who served under him. McCain Sr. played the horses, drank bourbon and water, and rolled his own cigarettes with one hand. More significant, he was one of the navy's greatest commanders, and led the strongest aircraft carrier force of the Third Fleet in key battles during World War II.
John McCain's father followed a similar path, equally distinguished by heroic service in the navy, as a submarine commander during World War II. McCain Jr. was a slightly built man, but like his father, he earned the respect and affection of his men. He, too, rose to the rank of four-star admiral, making the McCains the first family in American history to achieve that distinction. McCain Jr.'s final assignment was as commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific during the Vietnam War.
It was in the Vietnam War that John McCain III faced the most difficult challenge of his life. A naval aviator, he was shot down over Hanoi in 1967 and seriously injured. When Vietnamese military officers realized he was the son of a top commander, they offered McCain early release in an effort to embarrass the United States. Acting from a sense of honor taught him by his father and the U.S. Naval Academy, McCain refused the offer. He was tortured, held in solitary confinement, and imprisoned for five and a half years.
Faith of My Fathers is about what McCain learned from his grandfather and father, and how their example enabled him to survive those hard years. It is a story of three imperfect men who faced adversity and emerged with their honor intact. Ultimately, Faith of My Fathers shows us, with great feeling and appreciation, what fathers give to their sons, and what endures.
From the Hardcover edition.
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Faith of My Fathers may also appeal to those who flocked to Saving Private Ryan and kept Brokaw's The Greatest Generation near the top of the bestseller lists." —Library Journal
"Faith of My Fathers is the powerful story of a war hero. In it we learn much of what matters most. As prisoner (and later Senator) McCain instructs us: Glory is not an end in itself, but rather a reward for valor and faith. And the greatest freedom and human fulfillment comes from engaging in a noble enterprise larger than oneself. Faith of My Fathers teaches deep truths that are valid in any age but that warrant special attention in our own." —William J. Bennett
"Faith of My Fathers is a gripping story of character and courage: character passed down from generation to generation by sterling examples of family bonds and devotion to duty; courage that ultimately comes from within, as John McCain learned in the brutual prison camps of North Vietnam. This is a sobering and glorious book that you won't be able to put down." —General Colin L. Powell (retired)
"A candid, moving, and entertaining memoir...Impressive and inspiring, the story of a man touched and molded by fire, who loved and served his country in a time of great trouble, suffering, and challenge."
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Read an Excerpt
Fifth from the Bottom
I am sure my disdainful contemporaries and disapproving instructors believed I would become a thoroughly disreputable upperclassman were I somehow to escape expulsion during my plebe year. Most of the time, my behavior only confirmed their low regard for me. For a moment, though, I came close to confounding their expectations. That moment began when I boarded the USS Hunt to begin my first-class cruise to Rio de Janeiro in June of 1957.
The Hunt was an old destroyer. It had seen better days. It seemed to me a barely floating rust bucket that should have been scrapped years before, unfit even for mothballing. But I was ignorant, a sailor's son though I was, and I overlooked the old ship's grace and sea-worthiness. I assumed the Hunt was suitable only for the mean task of giving lowly midshipmen a rustic experience of life at sea. I was wrong.
We lived in cramped quarters in the aft of the ship. We kept the hatch open to cool our quarters with the breeze blowing off the Chesapeake Bay. Once the Hunt left the bay and entered the Atlantic, the seas grew heavier and seawater washed in through the hatch. We lived in the pooled water for several days. The rough seas sent a good number of us running for the lee side to vomit. We had restricted water hours on the cruise, which meant there was only enough water to allow us to drink from the ship's water fountains during a three-hour period every day. We took saltwater showers.
We spent a third of the cruise in the engineering plant, a grim place that seemed, to the untrained eye, a disgrace. The boilers blew scorching hot air on us while we spent long hours in misery learning the mysteries of the ship's mechanics. That the ship sailed at all seemed to us a great testament to the mechanic's mates' mastery of improvisation. It was a hell of a vessel to go to sea in for the first time.
We spent another third of the cruise learning ship's navigation, and the last third on the bridge learning how to command a ship at sea.
The skipper was Lieutenant Commander Eugene Ferrell. He seemed to accord the Hunt affection far out of proportion to her virtues. More surprisingly, he seemed to have some affection for me. He expressed it in eccentric ways, but I sensed his respect for me was greater than I had lately been accustomed to receiving from officers. I appreciated it, and I liked him a lot.
I spent much of the cruise on the bridge, where the skipper would order me to take the conn. There is a real mental challenge to running a ship of that size, and I had little practical experience in the job. But I truly enjoyed it. I made more than a few mistakes, and every time I screwed up, the skipper would explode, letting loose an impressive blast of profane derision.
"Dammit, McCain, you useless bastard. Give up the conn right now. Get the hell off my bridge. I mean it, goddammit. I won't have a worthless s.o.b. at the helm of my ship. You've really screwed up this time, McCain. Get the hell out of here!"
As I began to skulk off the bridge, he would call me back. "Hold on a second. Come on back here, mister. Get over here and take the conn." And then he would begin, more calmly, to explain what I had done wrong and how the task was done properly. We would go along pleasantly until I committed my next unpardonable error, when he would unleash another string of salty oaths in despair over my unfitness for the service, only to beckon me back for a last chance to prove myself worthy of his fine ship.
It was a wonderful time. I enjoyed the whole experience. As I detected in Ferrell's outbursts his sense that I showed some promise, I worked hard not to disappoint him, and I learned the job passably well. I was rarely off his bridge for much of the cruise. No other midshipman on the Hunt was so privileged.
Inspired by the experience, I began to consider becoming an officer in the surface Navy, with the goal of someday commanding a destroyer, instead of following my grandfather into naval aviation. I told Ferrell of my intentions, and he seemed pleased. Fine gentleman that he is, he never rebuked me after I abandoned my briefly held aspirations for a destroyer command and returned to my original plan to become an aviator. Many years later, he wrote me, and recalled a chance encounter we had sometime in the early sixties. "I was surprised but pleased to see that you were wearing two stripes and a pair of gold wings. Your grandfather would have been very proud of you."
Years later, while serving as a flight instructor in Meridian, Mississippi, I realized that I had adopted, unintentionally, Lieutenant Commander Ferrell's idiosyncratic instruction technique. I took pride in the fact.
When a Navy ship at sea needs to refuel or take on supplies and mail, it must come alongside and tie up to a refueling or replenishing ship while both vessels are under way. The maneuver is difficult to execute even in the calmest seas. Most skippers attempt it cautiously, bringing their ship alongside the approaching vessel very slowly.
But the most experienced ship handlers are bolder, and pride themselves on their more daring form. They come alongside at two-thirds or full speed, much faster than the other ship. At precisely the right moment they throw the engines in reverse, and then ahead again at one-third speed. It's a spectacular thing to see when it's done right. An approximate image of the maneuver is a car traveling at sixty miles an hour as it approaches a parallel parking space; the driver slams on the brakes and pulls cleanly, without an inch to spare, into the spot.
Eugene Ferrell was a gifted ship handler, and he never considered coming alongside another ship in any other fashion, unless, of course, a green midshipman had the conn. I had watched him perform the task several times, and had admired his serene composure as he confidently gave the orders that brought the rushing Hunt abruptly but gracefully into place, moving at exactly the same speed as her sister ship. A seaman would fire a gun that shot a line to our bow. Soon the two ships, several lines now holding them in harness, would sail the ocean together for a time, never touching, but in perfect unison. It was a grand sight to behold.
One beautiful afternoon, the flagship of the destroyer division to which the Hunt was attached, flying the ensign of the commanding admiral, approached us for the purpose of replenishing the Hunt's depleted stores. Lieutenant Commander Ferrell gave me the conn, and without a trace of apprehension, bade me bring her alongside the admiral's flagship.
Ferrell told me to bring her up slowly, but offered no rebuke when I gave the order "All engines ahead two-thirds." At precisely the right moment, I ordered, "All engines back full." A few moments later, again well timed, I ordered, "All engines ahead one-third." Thrillingly and to my great relief, the Hunt slipped into place so gracefully that any observer would have thought the skipper himself, master ship handler that he was, had the conn.
Ferrell was proud of me, and I was much indebted to him. He had given me his trust, and I had had the good fortune to avoid letting him down. After the two ships were tied up, he sent a message to the admiral. "Midshipman McCain has the conn." The impressed admiral sent a message to the Superintendent of the Naval Academy, informing him of my accomplishment.
Many years later I learned that Ferrell had been a student and admirer of my father's. Perhaps that explains his kindness toward me. Whatever the reason for the care he took with me, I was grateful for it. His confidence in me gave me more confidence in myself, and greater assurance that I belonged at sea than I had ever experienced in the rigid, disapproving world of the Academy. Eugene Ferrell was the man who taught me the craft of my father and grandfather. He gave me cause to love the work that they had loved. Debts such as that you incur for life. I sailed for Rio de Janeiro a more contented young man than I had ever been before.
Liberty in Rio. My imagination could not have embellished the good time we made of our nine days in port, indulging in the vices sailors are infamous for, as if we had been at sea for months instead of weeks. After some excessive drinking, nightclubbing, and little or no sleep, I had exhausted my appetite for the joys of liberty and intended to return to ship. Chuck Larson persuaded me to accompany him to a party at a grand house on Sugarloaf Mountain. There I met and began a romance with a Brazilian fashion model, and gloried in the envy of my friends.
We danced on the terrace overlooking the bay until one o'clock in the morning, when I felt her cheek was moist.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"I'll never see you again," she replied.
I told her that we would remain in town for eight more days, and that I would gladly spend as much time in her company as she would grant me. But she rebutted my every assurance with "No, I can never see you again."
"Are you engaged?"
"Look, I'm going to be down at the gate of the shipyard at
one o'clock tomorrow afternoon. I'll be there, and I want you to be
She said nothing in reply, and an hour later she left the party with her aunt, who served as her constant companion and chaperone.
The next afternoon, I left the ship at about twelve-thirty and waited for her at the place I had designated. An hour passed, and she had not arrived. Another hour and still she had not appeared. An hour after that, I forlornly prepared to abandon all hope. Just as I was preparing to return to the ship in a state of deep despondency, she pulled up in a Mercedes with gull-wing doors. She honked the horn, and I jumped in, ecstatic.
I spent every free moment with her for the rest of my stay in Rio. She was very beautiful, stylish, and gracious—common attributes in her wealthy and socially prominent family. She took me to dinners and receptions where I toasted my extraordinary good fortune in the company of cabinet members, generals and admirals, wealthy aristocrats, and, on one occasion, the president of Brazil.
We spent my last evening on liberty together. She drove me to my ship the next morning. I emerged from under the open gull-wing door and kissed her to a chorus of rowdy cheers from my shipmates. I accepted their approval with an affected sheepish humility.
When we returned to Annapolis, I had a few weeks' leave, which I used to fly right back to Rio to continue my storybook romance. By the following Christmas, the distance between us, and our youthful impatience and short attention spans, brought an end to our affair. But it resides in my memory, embellished with age, of course, among the happier experiences of my life.
On the return cruise we made port in the Virgin Islands and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where we received further instruction in the rituals of shore leave. Guantanamo in those pre-Castro days was a wild place. Everyone went ashore and headed immediately for huge tents that had been set up on the base as temporary bars, where great quantities of strong Cuban beer and an even more potent rum punch were served to anyone who professed a thirst and could afford a nickel a drink.
The officers' club boasted the same menu in slightly more comfortable surroundings. We drank there for a good while, serenaded by a Pat Boone record. A music lover had evidently come ashore and filled the O club's jukebox with as many nickels as he could scrounge, choosing but one selection, "Love Letters in the Sand," which played over and over again. Returning to the ship, my friends and I were delighted to discover that the throng of sailors and Marines crowding the landing had taken a dislike to one another and had begun fighting. The shore patrol arrived and waded into the riot of whites and khaki vainly trying to separate the opposing forces. It was bedlam. We loved it.
On the cruise back to Annapolis I returned to my place on the bridge and happily resumed my one-on-one tutorial in the elements of expert ship handling. Two officers who were attached to the Academy but were not officers in my company had been assigned to the cruise to evaluate our performance. They gave me the best marks, reporting that I had shown a very high aptitude for the service. I had the high grease.
Captain Hart was astonished. He was convinced there had been a terrible error, perhaps a case of mistaken identity. First-class cruise had turned out to be the best time of my young life.
Inspired by my success on the USS Hunt, I resolved to make something of myself in my last year at the Academy. I studied hard and maintained a respectful attitude toward my superiors. I set up a tutoring system for plebes who were struggling academically. I
managed the battalion boxing team, which won the brigade championship. My grades were improving, and I stayed well out of trouble. I had become, for a brief time, a squared-away midshipman whom any company officer could be proud of—any company officer save mine.In January, I went to Captain Hart's office to receive my grease grade, which I was confident would elevate me for the first time from the bottom regions of the class standings where I had dwelled in infamy for three years. Hart began by noting my improved behavior. "Keep this up, son, and you'll have something to be proud of." When I asked where he had placed me in the company, he mumbled an answer that I couldn't make out.
"At the bottom," he whispered.
"At the bottom."
Rising from my chair, I glared at Hart, who remained seated. "You can expect nothing more from me, Captain," I said as I left his office, slamming the door so hard behind me that I thought its opaque glass window would break.
Any other officer would have shouted at me, "Get back in here and sit down, mister! Where do you get off barking at me like that?" Not Captain Hart. He never spoke of the interview. He knew he had wronged me. For the first time, I had wanted something from him, had felt I'd earned it. And he, dogged to the end, had gotten his revenge.
True to my word, I returned to the habits of my first three years, accumulating demerits by the dozen, waiting out, indifferently, my last few months at the Academy.
A month after my interview with Hart, my room was chosen for a surprise inspection. It didn't pass. Only one roommate is responsible for keeping the room in some semblance of order, the job rotating among four roommates on a monthly basis. The surprise inspection occurred on my watch.
"Room in gross disorder" was the charge. The customary punishment for such an offense was fifteen demerits and three hours of extra duty. I received seventy-five demerits. A midshipman was allowed only 125 demerits his last year. Any more and he bilged out. I was already carrying forty demerits when the inspector arrived. It was a practical impossibility to last more than three months without collecting another ten. The slightest mistake, the most insignificant oversight, would get me kicked out in the last few weeks before graduation. My fate, I thought, was sealed.
I telephoned my parents. My father was at sea, so I informed my mother that I was coming home. I explained the circumstances, and that my expulsion was imminent. I might as well come home now, I argued, and not waste a few days or weeks waiting for the ax to fall.
My mother wisely cautioned me not to make an irrevocable decision until I had an opportunity to talk to my father. In the meantime, she advised me to talk things over with my wrestling coach, Ray Schwartz, a friend of my parents and a good man. Mr. Schwartz commiserated with me about my difficult predicament, and agreed that I had been punished excessively for a minor infraction. But he, too, advised me to withhold any decision until I had discussed the situation with my father. A day or two later, I received a summons from the Commandant of the Naval Academy, Captain Shin. My mother had called him.
"What's this I hear about you leaving?" he asked.
"I have too many demerits, sir," I replied.
"Because I have been punished unfairly, sir."
I then explained how the sentence had far exceeded the prescribed penalty, and that I thought the action was unjust. My complaint seemed only to irritate him. He said I was spoiled, a charge that I greatly resented.
"Whatever you say, sir, but it's still not fair."
He leveled a scornful gaze at me and told me to leave.
The commandant was neither the first nor the last person to accuse me of being spoiled, implying that my parents had greased my way in the world. Witt had been the first to do so when he derided me for being a captain's son. Later in my career, as I rose through the ranks, some would attribute my advance to my admiral father's benefaction. I suppose it is an accusation that many children of successful parents learn to ignore. I never did, however. I grew red-faced and angry every time some know-it-all told me how easy a life my father had made for me. The life my father led me to has been a richly rewarding one, and I am grateful to him for it. But "easy" is not the first adjective that comes to mind when describing it.
My father was only a captain when I was at the Naval Academy, a rank that surely didn't grant him the influence to compensate for my shortcomings. Later in my life, when my father wore stars on his shoulder, he would, indeed, influence my career, but in ways my detractors did not appreciate. He had met the standard his father had set. It was my obligation and my privilege to try to uphold it.
A week or two after Captain Shin instructed me to leave his presence, I was informed that the punishment for my disordered room had been reduced to thirty demerits and seven days of confinement. I was relieved to comply with the order.
A month or so after the room inspection incident, I had yet another close brush with disaster. The ever vigilant Captain Hart believed he had at last discovered a violation that would result in my swift expulsion from the Academy.
In September of my last year, my roommates and I, along with four roommates in the room next to ours and two other midshipmen on our floor, chipped in to buy a television set. In those days, Academy regulations enjoined midshipmen from keeping electrical appliances of any kind in their rooms. Even hot plates were considered contraband. I remember a few midshipmen would take back to their rooms bread and cheese from the mess hall after the evening meal, and sell cheese sandwiches to the rest of us. It was a thriving industry, much appreciated by me and every other hungry midshipman who was denied the convenience of devices to store or prepare food.
Mindful of but undeterred by the regulation, our small syndicate had decided we would risk the wrath of our superiors for the pleasure of watching the Friday-night fights on our own television. We each pitched in ten dollars and bought a used black-and-white television with a twelve-inch screen. We kept the set hidden in a crawl space in our room, located behind a wooden panel. The panel could be easily removed by hand, and we would bring the set out to watch the fights on Friday, Maverick on Sunday, and other popular television programs of the time.
We lived in Bancroft Hall, the Academy's only dormitory, which at the time had not been changed in any of its particulars since the turn of the century. The floors in Bancroft Hall were referred to, in ship nomenclature, as decks. We lived on the top deck, the fourth. We soon drew considerable numbers of top-deck residents to our room to join our forbidden television viewing. On Friday nights, it was standing room only.
In every hall of every deck, a third-year midshipman served as the mate of the deck. The mate's job was to receive and deliver messages to the midshipmen in residence there and, generally, to stand as a sentinel for his part of the deck to ensure that nothing untoward happened on his watch. The mate on our hall stood at a podium directly across the hall from my room. We pressed him into service as our lookout on evenings when we were crowded around our television set. He kept an eye out for company officers who would have loved to discover our blatant disobedience and rapped a warning on my door when one approached.
As upperclassmen, we no longer had to worry about being disciplined or harassed by other midshipmen as we had been during our plebe year. We also took comfort in knowing that our indiscretions would be kept confidential within the brigade and not reported to unsuspecting officers. The most sacrosanct principle governing a midshipman's behavior was the unwritten rule "Never bilge a classmate," which required midshipmen to overlook any violation of the rules by a fellow midshipman short of honor code violations.
Brigade discipline was supervised by four authorities, the most senior being the officer of the watch, an office that was rotated monthly among company officers. Those midshipmen with the highest grease in the brigade rotated daily as the midshipman of the watch, while a group of the more promising plebes served as their assistants.
My pal Chuck Larson, whose exemplary scholastic record and obvious aptitude for command had won him the highest office a plebe could hold, brigade commander, was serving as the midshipman of the watch. Academy officials would have been disappointed to discover their prized midshipman among those gathered around the television in my room to watch a boxing match, shirking the duties of his office to enjoy a few minutes of illicit fun with some of the more disreputable midshipmen at the Academy.
In the middle of our viewing, the mate of the deck rapped on my door to warn us that the officer of the watch was approaching. We quickly returned the television set to its hiding place and stuffed the midshipman of the watch, dressed in his formal blue uniform and wearing his sword, along with his startled plebe, into my closet. The rest of us opened up textbooks and earnestly affected the appearance of dutiful midshipmen gathered together in a study group.
Fortunately, the officer never bothered to enter our room. Had he done so, our atypical studiousness surely would have aroused his suspicion. A few days later, when I returned to my room after classes had ended for the day, I found a message on my desk ordering me to report to Captain Hart. Hart's office was five doors down from my room.
Responding to my summons, I knocked on his door, entered, stood at attention, and announced myself: "Midshipman McCain, First Class, sir."
Sitting there with a look of considerable satisfaction, Hart allowed himself a rare smile as he threw a Form 2 across his desk to me and inquired, "Do you want to sign this now?" A Form 2 was the standard notification that a midshipman had been put on report. A midshipman was required to sign the form acknowledging his offense.
I picked up the form and read the line where the offense was reported: "electrical equipment, unauthorized use of," and on the line below, "television set."
While all the midshipmen on the fourth deck were at class, Hart had taken the opportunity to closely inspect our quarters. So thorough was the inspection that Hart had entered the rooms' crawl spaces, which adjoined each other. When he reached our room and discovered the contraband hidden in our crawl space, he must have silently exulted in his good fortune, believing that the day of judgment was finally at hand for the sorriest midshipman in his company.
The penalty for the offense was thirty demerits and seven days' confinement. The demerits I had already accumulated took me perilously close to the limit, and again I faced certain expulsion. I thought over my situation for a moment while Hart waited contentedly for my response.
"Sir, this isn't necessarily mine," I finally replied.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"The television, it isn't necessarily mine."
"Whose is it?" the now less content and incredulous Captain Hart responded.
"I'll let you know in a very short time."
A puzzled look overtook the captain's smile, and he dismissed me with an order to report back quickly with an answer.I returned to my room and called the television's ten owners together. I explained the situation, and that I had to bring Hart an answer right away. "Only one of us is going to get the demerits," I said, "and we have to choose who, right now." We settled the question as we always settled things in those days, with a "shake around." Over my objection, my friends, aware of my perilous situation at the Academy, excused me from participating.
In unison, each man hit his right fist three times into the palm of his other hand. On the third strike, each stuck out some of the fingers of his right hand. We then counted off the sum of the nine men's extended fingers, one number per man, with the last number falling on the man who would confess ownership of the television. As luck and fate would have it, the man turned out to be Henry Vargo.
Henry Vargo was a model midshipman. Studious, disciplined, respectful, Henry hardly ever bothered to watch the television. He had joined in its purchase only to help us out, to be one of the guys. Henry did not possess very many demerits, so the punishment he was about to receive wouldn't pose much of a problem for him. As added compensation, we magnanimously said that Hart would have to give the television back at the end of the year and Henry could keep it.
Smiling with satisfaction and relief, I returned to Hart's office to reveal the culprit.
"Midshipman McCain, First Class, sir."
"Sir, the television set belongs to Midshipman Vargo."
"Midshipman Vargo!" he bellowed in disbelief.
"Yes, sir, Midshipman Vargo."
Fighting to stop from smiling, I watched Hart's face flush red with anger. Finally, he dismissed me—"Get out of here, McCain."
I left him and walked back to my room, much relieved to have evaded, for the last time, Hart's wrath and his four-year quest to bring me to justice.
A few months later I sat amid a sea of navy whites, fifth from the bottom of my class, listening to President Eisenhower confer our degrees, exhort us to noble service on behalf of the Republic, and commission me an ensign in the United States Navy.
Eisenhower's remarks were not particularly memorable, owing to a combination of his flat delivery and our impatience to begin celebrating our liberation. Although he wasn't much of a speaker, we all admired the President. I remember wishing at one point during commencement that my dismal performance at the Academy had earned me an even lower place in the class standings.
In those days, only the first one hundred graduates in the class were called to the dais to receive their diplomas from the President. Graduation was conferred on the rest of us by company. John Poindexter graduated first in our class, an honor he had well earned. He walked proudly to the podium to receive his diploma and a handshake from the President of the United States, which the President bestowed on him with a brief "Well done and congratulations."
The midshipman who graduates last in his class is affectionately called the anchorman. When the anchorman's company was called, he was cheered by the whole brigade and hoisted onto the shoulders of his friends. Eisenhower motioned him up to the dais, and to the crowd's loud approval personally handed him his diploma; both President and anchorman smiling broadly as the President patted him on the back and chatted with him for a few minutes. I thought it a fine gesture from a man who understood our traditions.
I was proud to graduate from the Naval Academy. But at that moment, relief was the emotion I felt most keenly. I had already been accepted for flight training in Pensacola. In those days, all you had to do was pass the physical to qualify for flight training, and I was eager to embark on the life of a carefree naval aviator.
My orders left me enough time to take an extended holiday in Europe with Jack, Frank, and another classmate, Jim Higgins. We bummed a ride to Spain on a military aircraft from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. We spent several enjoyable days in Madrid, then boarded a train for Paris. Four days after we arrived, my friends left Paris for Copenhagen and the World's Fair. I remained behind, waiting to meet my new girlfriend, the daughter of a tobacco magnate from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. We were in Paris during the summer of de Gaulle.
At the time, France was fighting a war to hold on to its Algerian colony, and its conspicuous lack of military success had caused the collapse of the French Fourth Republic. Terrorist bombings and other unpleasantness associated with the war had driven many Parisians out of the city to seek refuge in the French countryside. We had the city to ourselves, and we enjoyed it immensely.
Near the end of our stay, we stood in a throng of cheering Parisians along the Champs Elysées as two long, noisy lines of motorcycle policemen led the way to the Arc de Triomphe for de Gaulle's motorcade. The general and now president of the infant Fifth Republic stood erect in the backseat of his convertible limousine nodding at the overwrought crowds as they chanted, "Algerie Française, Algerie Française."
Four years after returning to power, and despite his solemn promise that Algeria would be forever French, de Gaulle granted the colony's independence. Nevertheless, he cut a hell of a figure that day, standing there so impassive and noble-looking while his nation's adoration washed over him. I was a kid at the time, and the general's grandeur made a great impression on me. In truth, I remain just as impressed four decades later.
I suppose to most people who knew me at Annapolis, my entire career at the Naval Academy is aptly summarized by the anecdotes I have recorded here. Most of my reminiscences feature the frivolous escapades with which I once established my reputation as a rash and prideful nonconformist.
In truth, I was less exceptional than I had imagined myself to be. Every class has its members who aspire to prominence by unconventional means. My father and grandfather had enjoyed only slightly less tarnished reputations at the Academy. My father, perhaps mindful of his own performance, rarely chastised me for falling well short of an exemplary midshipman's standards. In fact, I don't recall the subject of my record at the Academy ever being extensively discussed by either of my parents.
There was one occasion when my father registered his disapproval over my conduct at the Academy. One evening in our second year, my roommates and I were in the middle of a water balloon fight, adding to our room's usual disarray. We suspended our activity when someone knocked on the door. Frank opened the door to find an officer facing him with a disdainful look on his face as he appraised our room's unacceptable condition and the four of us standing in our skivvies soaking wet. My roommates greeted our unexpected guest by briskly standing at attention. I greeted him by saying, somewhat quizzically, "Dad?"
After an awkward second or two, he ordered, "As you were, gentlemen," and as my roommates began to exhale, he added, "This room is in gross disorder. John, meet me downstairs in five minutes." With that, he turned on his heels and left. I met him less than five minutes later, and he proceeded to lecture me, observing, "You're in too much trouble here, Johnny, to be asking for any more." That single incident is the only time I can remember my father upbraiding me for my dismal performance as a midshipman.
My behavior was not something that particularly worried my father. I believe he assumed that, like him, I would be absorbed into the traditions of the place whether I wished to or not, and that when the time arrived for me to face a real test of character, I would not disappoint him. He had seen many an officer who enjoyed the reputation of a rake—indeed, he had been one himself—rise to the occasion in the most dire situations, and exhibit courage and
From the Hardcover edition.
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