In the wake of U.S. Sen. John McCain’s passing on Saturday and his highly regarded life history of military and political service, I believe one memory I have of him shows a key facet of his character:
In July 1964, I was a second class midshipman (equivalent to a college junior) at the U.S. Naval Academy, assigned with other classmates to Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida for our introduction to naval aviation.
During the intensive program of about three weeks, our days started at the crack of dawn before it got too hot and humid. Bleary-eyed and groggy, we flew for two to three hours in the mornings, followed by three to four hours in the classroom during the afternoons.
To blow off steam, the base’s O Club (the officers club) threw a BBQ pool bash every Friday night, with plenty of Falstaff beer on hand. Dates were permitted, and while I had a date for one Friday night, I had no means of picking her up.
I was in uniform, all dressed up and nowhere to go, complaining to a group of my buddies when a passing lieutenant stopped suddenly and turned.
“What’s the problem, midshipman?” he barked.
All of us immediately snapped to attention while I replied, “Nothing, sir!”
He didn’t move. “Don’t B.S. me. What’s your problem?”
I had to look him in the eye. “Well, sir, I have a hot date tonight and no way to pick her up.”
The officer squinted at me, reached into his pocket and threw something at me. Car keys bounced off my chest and, astounded, I managed to catch them.
He gestured. “It’s that convertible over there. I want it back by 0700 tomorrow and don’t hit anything big.”
Mouth agape, I stuttered, “Ye-e-s, sir.”
Lt. John McCain turned and walked away.
I’m sorry to say I have absolutely no recollection of the “hot date,” her name, what she looked like or where we went. I don’t even remember the buddies who were standing next to me.
But I vividly remember the 1960 dark blue Ford Fairlane convertible with the red upholstery and whitewall tires. To a green and unknown midshipman, the tossing of those keys meant a great deal. I will never forget the instantaneous generosity and integrity of John McCain, traits that I believe defined his core as well as his career.
Yes, I did return the car, shipshape and unmarred, before the appointed hour. I would guess the car is long gone by now, though, thankfully, not my memory or admiration for a great American. Along with many others, I mourn John McCain’s death.
W. Hall Wendel Jr., of Rogers, is a former chairman & CEO of Polaris Industries.