God Speed, Captain

I put-off typing this post. I put if off because I wasn’t sure I wanted to write it — I wasn’t sure it was any of my business, just as I wasn’t sure I had anything to add to what has already been written.

In the end, however, the subject is a nexus of two of my interests.  The subject is someone too important to me to ignore: John McCain.

It’s worth the time, I finally decided, to write a few hundred words…especially when the immature and petulant partisans on both sides have come out of the woodwork to add their acid, hateful comments to every story and eulogy about Senator McCain.

It is especially worth it when the current occupant of the White House is the most petulant and immature of all. He hated McCain, I get it…but, Mr Trump, maybe it’s time to grow the hell up and at least try to act like someone worthy of respect.

Enough of that. I don’t want to dip any deeper into the sleaze of our current politics, I want to honor a man I respect…a better man than I could ever be.

I do, however, have to start with politics.  Politics were not just important to the Senator, they pretty much defined the last 40ish years of his life. So, from the start, let me say this: More often than not, Senator McCain gave me a headache…a big, splitting, miserable, political headache.

But…

character-war-soldiers-character-military-demotivational-posters-1313084604ButCAPTAIN McCain earned the right to give me that headache. Captain John S. McCain, as a matter of fact, earned the right to do whatever the hell he wanted.

If ever you want to question his dedication and courage, if ever you want to question the heart and soul of Captain McCain, just go back and read the words of his fellow “guests” in the Hanoi Hilton. Even the commandant of the camp — the man who tortured the prisoners, lest you forget — commented after the war on McCain’s courage and commitment.

The North Vietnamese knew what they had in John McCain — they had not a prisoner of war, they had not a pilot, they had propaganda gold. The commander of US forces in the Pacific happened to be, erm, close to John McCain. It was, after all, not every newly promoted Lieutenant Commander who received a congratulatory note from a four-star admiral signed “Love, Dad.”

That was the gold, that was what the North Vietnamese wanted to use: the son of the commander-in-chief of all US Pacific forces.

Special treatment, McCain was offered. Release after just a year in the Hanoi Hilton, he was offered. All to embarrass his father, and to discomfit and demoralize the US Navy.

McCain refused.

When others were using every excuse in the book to dodge the draft, from “student deferments” to “bone spurs”, McCain answered his captors with one simple word: No.

After that one word, he suffered four-and-a-half more years of torture in that camp.

How many of us would do the same?

How many of us would have the courage, or the commitment?

How many of us would be willing to pay that kind of price for honor and loyalty?

The US Navy teaches its sailors and officers many things, but it all starts with a simple phrase, a mantra really: ship, shipmate, self. Those are your loyalties, in that order. You focus on saving your ship first, then you focus on saving others, and only after that do you think about saving yourself.

Captain John Sidney McCain lived that credo. Every single minute of his life after that one simple “No” was the very essence of that credo.

McCain’s father and grandfather were heroes in their own right. They were men who paid the price in blood and service for the rank and honors that were theirs. But it was Captain McCain who was the true hero of the family.

C9C7B5E7-9108-4CB5-80AB-9CEE9ABAFDA2So, as often as Senator McCain gave me a headache, to Captain McCain I can only say: fair winds and following seas, sailor.

Infinities

You sit out at the end of the jetty, several hundred feet from shore. A drink in one hand, perhaps, and a cigar in the other. The ocean stretches in front of you; not just as far as the eye can see, but as far as the mind can wander.

The sun dips, touches the horizon. Fire in the sky, and in the clouds. The ocean turns from blue-grey, briefly, to molten metal. You can’t break yourself away; you continue to stare blankly, to watch and absorb the closest thing this world has to infinity. There is nothing in front of you but water. Intellectually, you know that a few thousand miles away you will find islands and peoples, but there is no room for “intellectually” when you’re staring out over the edge of the world.

No, when you’re looking out into that infinity, there is nothing in your universe but sunset and water and thought. Memories and dreams…a certain emotional distance from the world itself…and the “knowledge” not that you are at the end of the world, but that you have everything in front of you.

Erm, I may have done that once or twice.

The ocean, the “knowledge” of living at the edge of the world, and the endless sunsets that wash over the water, are about the only things I truly miss about Southern California. The peace, and the rather unique trains of thought, that come with sitting out at the end of that jetty…or on the deck of a ship at sea…or just on the beach, with a building bonfire behind you and the sunset in front… For all of those things, that feeling of possibility is the same, that feeling of the infinite.

I’ve lived in the east, as well. I’ve sat on Cadillac Rock and watched the sun rise, felt the first rays of anyone in the US. It’s not the same thing. While sunrises have that feeling and connotation of hope, and the promise of the day (and times) to come…it’s just not the same. Not to me. It doesn’t have the same feeling of being on the edge, of staring out over…well…everything.

I have, you may have guessed, a thing for “infinities”. They are powerfully attractive…and, just as much, they are terrifying. They remind you just how small you really are, and just how insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Oh, my times watching the sun set were not terrifying — those times kept the infinite at arm’s length. But those times are not all…

Swimming in the water, laughing and half-drunk. Three of us, as playful and immature as only (relatively) care-free guys in their mid-twenties can be. Almost a hundred miles away waited the harbor, and the restaurant where we would meet others to recount the successes and failures of a weekend spent deep-sea fishing.

Two others waited on the idling boat, a safety-net that half-drunk twenty-somethings don’t usually worry about. A joke, then, in their eyes: the idling engine engaged, the prop allowed to spin slowly and edge the boat away.

It took a few minutes. A few minutes of play and stupidity above the huge kelp-banks at the edge of the continental shelf. A few minutes, then I was stone cold sober. A few minutes, then I was more terrified than I ever have been. It couldn’t have been more than a quarter-mile or so, but the boat looked like it was halfway to Hawaii. The knowledge hit me — the very real, very close knowledge — that I really was hanging over infinity…that infinity wasn’t at arm’s length, but was right under my unsupported feet.

If you don’t know the Pacific Ocean, just past the continental shelf you go from a depth of a few hundred feet to twenty thousand

And I could feel every single one of those feet under me.

That was infinity closer than arm’s length. That was infinity’s ability to terrify.

Both ends of that spectrum are important: the warmth and the terror. Both ends come in to play in writing; have to come in to play in writing. As writers, we talk a great deal about “agency” — about our protagonists’ (necessary) ability to make their own choices, and to impact their own surroundings & situation.  But, even with all of the careful plotting and characterization, even with all of the agency and planning, you have to leave room in your writing for the infinities. You have to leave room for your character to sit at the edge of the world and wonder…and, just as much, you have to leave room to hang helplessly above the edge of the world and fear…