I don’t follow politics — at all. Rod Blagojevic who? No really, I have no idea. Which is why it was so uncharacteristic of me to have been so deeply infatuated with John S. McCain III, current U.S. Senator from Arizona, and the Republican nominee for president in 2008.
It all started with a chapter I read in Consider the Lobster (3.5/5 stars), a collection of essays written by David Foster Wallace. (Wallace was hired by Rolling Stone magazine to follow McCain around briefly during the 2000 GOP race.) After reading Wallace’s essay on McCain, I literally could not stop talking about Senator McCain. At dinner parties, at work, in the car — I would literally share McCain’s story to whoever would listen, whenever, wherever.
Below is, quite possibly, the most compelling paragraph I have read, ever:
“In October of ‘67 McCain was himself still a Young Voter and was flying his 26th Vietnam combat mission and his A-4 Skyhawk plane got shot down over Hanoi, and he had to eject, which basically means setting off an explosive charge that blows your seat out of the plane, and the ejection broke both McCain’s arms and one leg and gave him a concussion and he started falling out of the skies over Hanoi. Try to imagine for a second how much this would hurt and how scared you’d be, three limbs broken and falling toward the enemy capital you just tried to bomb. His chute opened late and he landed hard in a little lake in a park right in the middle of downtown Hanoi… Imagine treading water with broken arms and trying to pull the life vest’s toggle with your teeth as a crowd of North Vietnamese men all swim out toward you (there’s film of this, somebody had a home-movie camera and the NV government released it, though it’s grainy and McCain’s face is hard to see). The crowd pulled him out and then just about killed him. Bomber pilots were especially hated, for obvious reasons. McCain got bayoneted in the groin; a soldier broke his shoulder apart with a rifle butt. Plus by this time his right knee was bent 90 degrees to the side, with the bone sticking out. This is all public record. Try to imagine it. He finally got tossed on a jeep and taken only about five blocks to the infamous Hoa Lo prison - a.k.a. the Hanoi Hilton, of much movie fame - where for a week they made him beg for a doctor and finally set a couple of the fractures without anesthetic and let two other fractures and the groin would (imagine: groin wound) go untreated. Then they threw him in a cell. Try for a moment to feel this. The media profiles all talk about how McCain still can’t lift his arms over his head to comb his hair, which is true. But try to imagine it at the time, yourself in his place, your own self-interest getting knifed in the nuts and having fractures set without a general would be, and then about getting thrown in a cell to just lie there and hurt, which is what happened. He was mostly delirious with pain for weeks, and his weight dropped to 100 pounds, and the other POWs were sure he would die; and then, after he’d hung on like that for several months and his bones had mostly knitted and he could sort of stand up, the prison people came and brought him to the commandant’s office and closed the door and out of nowhere offered to let him go. They said he could just… leave. It turned out that US Admiral John S. McCain II had just been made head of all naval forces in the Pacific, meaning also Vietnam, and the North Vietnamese wanted the PR coup of mercifully releasing his son, the baby-killer. And John S. McCain III, 100 pounds and barely able to stand, refused the offer. The US military’s Code of Conduct for Prisoners of War apparently said that POWs had to be released in the order they were captured, and there were others who’d been in Hoa Lo a much longer time, and Mccain refused to violate the Code. The prison commandment, not at all pleased, right there in his office had guards break McCain’s ribs, rebreak his arm, knock his teeth out. McCain still refused to leave without the other POWs. Forget how many movies stuff like this happens in and try to imagine it as real: a man without teeth refusing release. McCain spent four more years in Hoa Lo like this, much of the time in solitary, in the dark, in a special closet-sized box called a ‘punishment cell.’” (Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace, pp. 163-164)
Wow. Just wow.