When a mother buries her son
Last week, US Sen. John McCain III, 81, was laid to rest on the grounds of the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He was born in the Panama Canal Zone where his father John McCain Jr., a naval officer, was serving in 1936. His death brought to a glorious end a career that saw him advance in life from graduating No. 894 out of 899 with the Class of 1958, to US senator and to the Republican candidate for the presidency in 2008 against Barack Obama.
Along the way, he spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war of the North Vietnamese in the infamous Hanoi Hilton, where he endured beatings, starvation, torture and humiliation by his captors.
One of my favorite anecdotes about Sen. John McCain III comes from the book “The Nightingale’s Song,” by Robert Timberg. It concerns an incident that took place at the Naval Academy during his sophomore year as a midshipman. McCain and a roommate were dining at the mess hall one Saturday at a table presided over by a senior upperclassman. The first classman was in a bad mood, and during the meal became angry with a Filipino steward attending to their table. The firstie was dressing down the steward as if he were a plebe.
McCain, noticing his behavior, blurted out, “Hey, mister, why don’t you pick on someone your own size?”
“What did you say?” the firstie snapped.
“I don’t think it’s fair for you to pick on that steward,” McCain shot back. “He’s doing the best he can. You’re picking on him. That’s what I said.”
“What’s your name, mister?” snarled the firstie. McCain replied, “Midshipman McCain, third class. What’s yours?”
This exchange between a senior midshipman and a lower classman is a rarity in any military or naval school. At the Philippine Military Academy, such behavior by a lower classman would never be tolerated. It was an example of McCain’s contempt for anyone using rank or social position to bully others, and added to his growing reputation as a maverick. This attitude would also explain McCain’s low rank at graduation, brought about by his disdain for rules and regulations.
In March 1973, on his release from prison, he shouted expletives at his captors. He thought his behavior was understandable considering the suffering he had undergone. When his mother, Roberta McCain, heard about it, she called him to say that, “I never taught you to use such language, and your mouth needs to be washed with soap.” McCain was 60 years old when he received this rebuke from his mother.
Roberta McCain is one of twin daughters of a wealthy Oklahoma oil wildcatter. At the age of 20, while attending the University of Southern California, she eloped with young naval ensign John McCain Jr., in defiance of her parents’ disapproval of the Navy man. They had three children, Alexandra, John and Joe.
John McCain III described his mother as “a great influence in my life,” citing among her exceptional qualities “her endless curiosity about the world, about natural history, and even more so, human history.” When they were young, she took them to dozens of famous art galleries, museums and historical sites. She was a stickler for courtesy and good manners, often stressing the importance of humility in developing good character. She was the source of strength during his dark moments in captivity.
A week after McCain was shot down in Hanoi in October 1967, Roberta McCain wrote a remarkable letter in longhand to President Lyndon Baines Johnson, dated Nov. 1, 1967: “My Dear Mister President, As the parent of a son who was shot down in Hanoi last week and is now a prisoner of war, I wonder if you are interested to know that both my husband and I back you and your policies 100 percent in Vietnam… May God bless you and keep you strong in your courage and convictions. Yours sincerely, Roberta McCain (wife of Adm. John McCain Jr.)”.
In his presidential nomination acceptance speech on Sept. 4, 2008, McCain would say, “When I was growing up my father was often at sea, and the job of raising my brother, sister, and me would fall to my mother alone. Roberta McCain gave us her love of life, her deep interest in the world, her strength, and her belief that we are all meant to use our opportunities to make ourselves useful to our country. I would not be here tonight but for the strength of her character. And she doesn’t want me to say this, but she is 96 years young.”
As his body lay in state at the Capitol Rotunda in Washington for public viewing, it was his wheelchair-bound mother Roberta McCain, 106, who led the McCain family in paying their last respects. At the necrological services held at the National Cathedral, eulogies were delivered by former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Missing was President Donald Trump, who once said he preferred heroes who were not captured.
As I mentioned in an earlier column on fathers who bury their sons, the normal cycle of life is reversed. This time, it is the mother who buries the fruit of her womb.
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