On the cruise back to Annapolis I returned to my place on the bridge and happily resumed my one-on-one tutorial in the elements of expert ship handling. Two officers who were attached to the Academy but were not officers in my company had been assigned to the cruise to evaluate our performance. They gave me the best marks, reporting that I had shown a very high aptitude for the service. I had the high grease.
Captain Hart was astonished. He was convinced there had been a terrible error, perhaps a case of mistaken identity. First-class cruise had turned out to be the best time of my young life.
Inspired by my success on the USS Hunt, I resolved to make something of myself in my last year at the Academy. I studied hard and maintained a respectful attitude toward my superiors. I set up a tutoring system for plebes who were struggling academically. I managed the battalion boxing team, which won the brigade championship. My grades were improving, and I stayed well out of trouble. I had become, for a brief time, a squared-away midshipman whom any company officer could be proud of--any company officer save mine.
In January, I went to Captain Hart's office to receive my grease grade, which I was confident would elevate me for the first time from the bottom regions of the class standings where I had dwelled in infamy for three years. Hart began by noting my improved behavior. "Keep this up, son, and you'll have something to be proud of." When I asked where he had placed me in the company, he mumbled an answer that I couldn't make out.
"At the bottom," he whispered.
"At the bottom."
Rising from my chair, I glared at Hart, who remained seated. "You can expect nothing more from me, Captain," I said as I left his office, slamming the door so hard behind me that I thought its opaque glass window would break.
Any other officer would have shouted at me, "Get back in here and sit down, mister! Where do you get off barking at me like that?" Not Captain Hart. He never spoke of the interview. He knew he had wronged me. For the first time, I had wanted something from him, had felt I'd earned it. And he, dogged to the end, had gotten his revenge.
True to my word, I returned to the habits of my first three years, accumulating demerits by the dozen, waiting out, indifferently, my last few months at the Academy.
A month after my interview with Hart, my room was chosen for a surprise inspection. It didn't pass. Only one roommate is responsible for keeping the room in some semblance of order, the job rotating among four roommates on a monthly basis. The surprise inspection occurred on my watch.
"Room in gross disorder" was the charge. The customary punishment for such an offense was fifteen demerits and three hours of extra duty. I received seventy-five demerits. A midshipman was allowed only 125 demerits his last year. Any more and he bilged out. I was already carrying forty demerits when the inspector arrived. It was a practical impossibility to last more than three months without collecting another ten. The slightest mistake, the most insignificant oversight, would get me kicked out in the last few weeks before graduation. My fate, I thought, was sealed.
I telephoned my parents. My father was at sea, so I informed my mother that I was coming home. I explained the circumstances, and that my expulsion was imminent. I might as well come home now, I argued, and not waste a few days or weeks waiting for the ax to fall.
My mother wisely cautioned me not to make an irrevocable decision until I had an opportunity to talk to my father. In the meantime, she advised me to talk things over with my wrestling coach, Ray Schwartz, a friend of my parents and a good man. Mr. Schwartz commiserated with me about my difficult predicament, and agreed that I had been punished excessively for a minor infraction. But he, too, advised me to withhold any decision until I had discussed the situation with my father. A day or two later, I received a summons from the Commandant of the Naval Academy, Captain Shin. My mother had called him.
Excerpted from Faith of My Fathers by John McCain with Mark Salter. Copyright© 1999 by John McCain. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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