Monday, August 27, 2018


Senator John McCain, who died last Saturday at the age of 81, was, perhaps, the last of a breed among conservative US politicians. Certainly, in the current GOP, usurped by interloper Donald Trump, he was one of a kind. And any Republican politician who is resisting Trump’s divisive assault on the party today is taking his or her cue from Senator McCain. Hopefully, the memory of this unique statesman will serve to encourage other conservatives to resist and to reach across the aisle, as John McCain did throughout his storied political career, to embrace his opponents and seek common ground instead of focusing on their differences.
Grandson and son of high-ranking naval officers, John McCain began his service to his country in the mid-1950s, when he enrolled in the Naval Academy at Annapolis. He had been a skilled amateur wrestler in high school, and at Annapolis he took up boxing and became a respectable lightweight. Even then, he was a maverick with a high IQ, who excelled in courses he liked (such as literature and history) but paid scant attention to those he didn’t. As such, he often found himself in trouble with his superiors, but he was looked up to by many of his classmates, and he found even greater favor by using his considerable fighting skills to stand up for underdogs who often became the victims of bullying at the academy.
He received his commission as an ensign in 1958, after which he enrolled for two years of training at the Pensacola Air Station in order to become a Navy pilot. His training completed in 1960, McCain was commissioned as a ground-attack bomber pilot. In his earliest missions, he gained a dubious reputation as an often reckless air jockey, who pushed safety to the limit and beyond. As such, he ended up crashing three different military aircraft with sufficient skill to avoid serious injury.
By 1967, aged 30, McCain had risen to the rank of lieutenant commander and requested combat duty. He was assigned to fly A-4 Skyhawks off of the flight deck of the ill-fated aircraft carrier USS Forrestal. He and his fellow pilots on the aircraft carrier were to form part of Operation Rolling Thunder, a series of bombing runs initiated out of the Gulf of Tonkin against North Vietnamese targets.
McCain was aboard the Forrestal when an infamous fire broke out aboard the carrier, in which 134 seamen perished before the flames could be brought under control. McCain himself had to escape from his aircraft after it caught fire in the advancing flames. It was while he was attempting to help other pilots trapped in the blaze that Lieutenant Commander McCain was seriously wounded by shrapnel from a bomb set off by the fire.
With the Forrestal taken out of commission, and once cured sufficiently of his wounds, McCain volunteered to continue to play a part in Rolling Thunder from aboard the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany. All of this happened in that same year 1967, in which Lieutenant Commander McCain would fly 22 successful bombing missions and would be awarded the Navy Commendation Medal and a Bronze Star.
It was on his 23rd mission, in October 1967, that John McCain was shot down over Hanoi. He broke both arms and a leg when he ejected from his heavily damaged Skyhawk. He nearly drowned when he parachuted into a lake, but was picked up by a North Vietnamese patrol. The Viet Cong regulars used their rifle butts to break both of McCain’s shoulders and then one of them bayoneted him.
After his capture, he was placed in an infamous prison known to GIs as “the Hanoi Hilton”. There, he was refused medical attention and was beaten and tortured repeatedly in an attempt to get information from him. His two cellmates at the time didn’t expect him to live. But against all odds, he did. He was only given medical attention after his captors found out that he was an admiral’s son. Word of his being shot down spread quickly in the international press.
In early 1968, McCain was placed in solitary confinement, where he would remain for nearly two years. At one point during that time, after his father became commander of US forces in the Vietnam Theater, the Viet Cong offered to release McCain into US Navy custody. This was a propaganda ploy that, on the one hand was designed to demonstrate how merciful the Viet Cong military was toward its enemies, and, on the other, to show other US POWs that the privileged sons of high ranking American officers were willing to use their influence to gain early release.
However, in strict adherence to US articles of war, which prohibit American service personnel from accepting special parole or privilege from the enemy, Lieutenant Commander John McCain refused to accept release unless all other POWs were released with him. As a result, he was subjected to unspeakable new horrors, in which he was taken from his cell and beaten regularly every two hours for an indefinite period of time. During this period he lost 50 pounds and as his health began to fail, he contemplated suicide. His attempt to kill himself was foiled, however, by prison guards and the torture continued.
Eventually, McCain realized that he had reached his breaking point—every person has one, and certainly his was far and away a very high bar. He signed an anti-US propaganda statement. Surely, no one (with the exception of Donald Trump) has ever blamed McCain for finally folding when life had become unbearable and suicide impossible. No one, that is, except John McCain himself, who always considered the signing of that false “confession” a “dishonorable act”. To make up for it, McCain refused to sign any further propaganda papers and as such, was again subjected to regular beatings several times a week.
It wasn’t until 1973, after more than five years in captivity, and in the waning days of US participation in the Vietnam War, that John McCain was released. The injuries that he suffered in captivity would plague him for the rest of his life. Among other things, he was never again able to raise his arms above his head. Despite that fact, after going through long and harrowing physical rehabilitation, he was eventually reinstated as a Navy aviator and was given command of a flight training group in Florida.
Having achieved the rank of captain, John McCain decided to retire from the Navy in 1981. He was granted a disability pension. Over the course of his distinguished military career, McCain received a Silver Star, two Legion of Merits, three Bronze Stars, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Purple Hearts, two Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals, and a POW Medal.      
 But John McCain was best known for his political career. As a congressman and senator for the state of Arizona, McCain spent 36 years in the US Congress. His colleagues, almost to a man and woman, and on both sides of the aisle, recognize that, whether you agree politically with John McCain or not, everything that he has done throughout his political career has been, to the best of his knowledge, what he thought was “the right thing to do.” He has been a hard-core opponent of those who disagree with him, but he has also been quick to admit to mistakes and errors of judgment.
He has also been a consummate statesman, who has sought results over party line. From Ted Kennedy to Barack Obama, and from Hillary Clinton to Chuck Schumer, he is remembered as a tough opponent but one who, when it came time to seek results, was willing to sit down and negotiate from a position of common ground rather than stonewalling on points of contention. This willingness to see the other point of view even while sticking to his convictions is clearly what permitted a staunch Republican like McCain to forge a deep and lasting friendship with a committed Democrat such as Joe Biden.
John McCain was, perhaps, the last of the Eisenhower-type Republicans. He believed in country above party, decency above advantage, fairness above winning, despite his combative nature and his adherence to his own strict code of ethics.
His bitter opposition to Donald Trump has been that of a true representative of “the party of Lincoln”. Trump is everything that John McCain opposed, as the president has demonstrated in the shabby treatment that he has given to Senator McCain himself. Trump once complained that he had raised a million dollars for McCain’s presidential bid and that McCain had “let us down.” Adding, “I never liked him as much after that because I don’t like losing.” Asked how he could show such disrespect for a proven war hero after calling McCain “a dummy” and “a loser”, five-time draft dodger Donald Trump said, “He's not a war hero. He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured.”
The statement shocked the majority of Americans, but rolled off the backs of Trump’s blindly loyal base like water off a duck’s back. Many, including myself, thought such an attack on an American military and political icon would end the career of a recently born-again Republican interloper in McCain’s own party, but we were all wrong about that. A significant segment of the population that was no longer interested in the values that McCain so clearly embodied—honesty, truth, justice, democracy, duty, honor and country—would carry Trump to a narrow victory in which he lost the popular vote by three million votes, and the GOP would suffer a humiliating setback in its erstwhile incarnation as the party of Lincoln, the party of Eisenhower and the party of John McCain.
Trump cannot find it in his heart to be generous toward John McCain even in death. A terse tweet sending condolences to McCain’s family was clearly going to be the president’s only concession to a man whose selfless service to his country spanned six decades. This despite the reported urging of Chief of Staff Kelly and other White House insiders that Trump release a eulogy statement written for him. Instead, the president jetted off to play golf. And on his return, he ordered the White House flag, which flew at half-mast over the weekend, to be returned to full mast.
This so angered veterans and congressional insiders that Trump was reluctantly forced to release a statement, two days following the senior senator’s death, grudgingly claiming that, “Despite our differences on policy and politics, I respect Senator John McCain’s service to our country and, in his honor, have signed a proclamation to fly the flag of the United States at half-staff until the day of his interment.”
Too little too late, the president’s attitude speaks volumes of how different from John McCain’s his brand of “Republicanism” is—politics without honor, without truth, without chivalry, without concession, without sacrifice, and without patriotism.           

Saturday, August 11, 2018


I’d like to explain my absence.
Where to begin?
A couple of weeks back I had what, at the time, I considered “a little accident”. I was doing some work outside the house here in Patagonia—scraping the snow off of Virginia’s car, checking to make sure the entry valve to our water storage tanks wasn’t frozen, unsticking the padlock on the front gate so Virginia could get out, etc.
I was doing all of this in my indoor shoes, something I seldom do in freezing weather, but I was in a rush and not putting on my boots, I thought, would save some time.
It was as I was again climbing to the top of our flagstone steps to open the gate for Virginia that I stepped on a patch of ice and felt myself starting to slip. Now, I’m usually sure-footed and immediately sought to recover, but failed to be able to get off of the ice or to stop the slide.
Unfortunately, I was at the top of a six-foot drop into our patio and simply, like a man washed overboard, slipped off the edge back first. The first thing to break my fall was a large granite boulder. Obviously, my body did the giving. I tried to scramble to my feet so as not to scare Virginia who was running back to see what had happened, but I was feet upgrade, head down, and scrambling never came into it.
I struggled to turn over, got on my knees and managed to push myself to my feet with the help of the roof of a sturdy doghouse. The pain was excruciating. I knew it was bad. Nothing had ever hurt like this before. But I managed to convince Virginia to go ahead about her errands. I just needed to catch my breath, I told her.
Inside the house, I did a quick damage control. The pain was persistent but I was getting my breath back. I could walk with certain difficulty but none of my limbs was broken. I was sure it was just a bad fall and that by the next day I’d be feeling better.
The next day, however, I realized that certain ways I moved a rib was clicking and decided to get myself looked at. At the local clinic they took x-rays and confirmed that I had a broken rib. There wasn’t much I could do about it, they said—wear a wrap eight hours a day and take painkillers. No going out for at least five days and no physical exertion for at least two weeks.
The third day, a Saturday, I did as I was told, but I started feeling worse all the time. I had to wear the wrap only a couple of hours at a time rather than eight straight because I was having difficulty breathing. In the evening when I took off the wrap, I immediately felt dizzy and confused. I had tunnel-vision and felt that I might black out. I told Virginia that I wanted to lie down on the couch and that if I didn’t get to feeling better soon, I’d let her drive me to the clinic to get checked out.
That never happened. Once I was down on the couch, I was never able to get up again under my own power. Virginia called the paramedics and in a short time, two consummate professionals, a man and a woman, managed to sit me up and started asking questions. I kept trying to doze off but they kept talking to me, loudly, assertively.
“Come on, champ! Hang in there. You’re going to be all right.” They asked about medication, ailments, etc., and I muttered answers as coherently as I could. But by now, all I wanted to do was sleep, and they apparently had to avoid that at all costs.
They’d had to leave their vehicle fifty meters above the house, partly over rough terrain. They wanted to see if they could get me there on foot. They managed to drag me to my feet, but as soon as they did, everything went black. Next thing I knew the male paramedic was yelling my name in my face. I think I tried to say something like, “Just let me sleep a while and I’ll be okay.” But I don’t know if I actually said it.
Finally, with the help of Virginia, they were manhandling me into a strange sort of wheel chair and strapping me in. How they did it I’ll never know since the woman couldn’t have weighed more than 120 pounds, but between the two of them, they managed to maneuver my 235 pounds up the path one step at a time, across the gravel and into the ambulance.
Once inside they locked my chair to the wall so as not to have to get me onto a stretcher. They told Virginia to follow us in her car. It was already well after midnight by this time. We had a mile of rocky pitted mountain road to negotiate before we reached the highway. They were constantly asking how I was doing, if I was with them. I could hear them like from very far away talking among themselves. The woman was driving. At one point he was consulting her about my condition, reading her my vital signs, such as they were, and she stopped the ambulance and climbed into the back with us.
She was busying herself over me, perhaps giving me an injection, when I heard him say, “You’re lucky you got her, champ, she’s a genius.”
And then we were under way again. I felt the jostling stop as we pulled onto the blacktop of the highway. As we drove, the guy stayed close, talking to me, squeezing my hand, saying, “Stick with me, champ! Come on, it won’t be long now. You’re doing great!” But then I heard him say to the woman, “Hit the lights and step on it. I can’t find his pulse anymore.”
At the clinic they were waiting for us. Between sleep and semi-consciousness, I felt myself being borne dizzyingly fast on a stretcher through the narrow halls, the front end being used as a battering ram to open successive swinging doors. There were drips hanging above me and they were taking blood pressure, temperature, pulse. Somebody cut my shirt off with surgical scissors. Then I felt them slide me into the tunnel of a tomography unit. I wanted to warn them that I was claustrophobic, but suddenly I was asleep again.
The next thing I knew, a doctor was shouting in my face, “Danny! Danny! Can you hear me?”
I nodded.
“You punctured a lung, buddy.” I wanted to mention that I was taking blood thinners, but clearly, he was already aware of that. Instead, I grimaced and nodded. “The surgeon’s here. We’re going to get a tube into your lung to draw off the blood.”
Later, in recovery, I heard the surgeon say, “We’ve drawn off about four and a quarter pints of blood. We’re leaving you hooked up because you’re still bleeding and we’re taking you to the ICU.”
I would later find out I’d lost another couple of pints to an intramuscular bleed that had bloomed across my back and side.
When I awoke in the ICU the next morning, I knew where I was. I was fairly comfortable. I’d gotten an end bed with a window where I could watch the sunrise on the mountains and the lake. As I lay there watching the beautiful red light tinge the snow-choked mountain tops, the phrase “brush with death” came to mind. And I suddenly, to my surprise, teared up and felt a wellspring of emotion thinking, “This is what it means. I might never have seen this again.”
Then I thought, “It’s a new day, the only one I have, and nothing will ever be the same again.”