Inspired by the experience, I began to consider becoming an officer in the surface Navy, with the goal of someday commanding a destroyer, instead of following my grandfather into naval aviation. I told Ferrell of my intentions, and he seemed pleased. Fine gentleman that he is, he never rebuked me after I abandoned my briefly held aspirations for a destroyer command and returned to my original plan to become an aviator. Many years later, he wrote me, and recalled a chance encounter we had sometime in the early sixties. "I was surprised but pleased to see that you were wearing two stripes and a pair of gold wings. Your grandfather would have been very proud of you."
Years later, while serving as a flight instructor in Meridian, Mississippi, I realized that I had adopted, unintentionally, Lieutenant Commander Ferrell's idiosyncratic instruction technique. I took pride in the fact.
When a Navy ship at sea needs to refuel or take on supplies and mail, it must come alongside and tie up to a refueling or replenishing ship while both vessels are under way. The maneuver is difficult to execute even in the calmest seas. Most skippers attempt it cautiously, bringing their ship alongside the approaching vessel very slowly.
But the most experienced ship handlers are bolder, and pride themselves on their more daring form. They come alongside at two-thirds or full speed, much faster than the other ship. At precisely the right moment they throw the engines in reverse, and then ahead again at one-third speed. It's a spectacular thing to see when it's done right. An approximate image of the maneuver is a car traveling at sixty miles an hour as it approaches a parallel parking space; the driver slams on the brakes and pulls cleanly, without an inch to spare, into the spot.
Eugene Ferrell was a gifted ship handler, and he never considered coming alongside another ship in any other fashion, unless, of course, a green midshipman had the conn. I had watched him perform the task several times, and had admired his serene composure as he confidently gave the orders that brought the rushing Hunt abruptly but gracefully into place, moving at exactly the same speed as her sister ship. A seaman would fire a gun that shot a line to our bow. Soon the two ships, several lines now holding them in harness, would sail the ocean together for a time, never touching, but in perfect unison. It was a grand sight to behold.
One beautiful afternoon, the flagship of the destroyer division to which the Hunt was attached, flying the ensign of the commanding admiral, approached us for the purpose of replenishing the Hunt's depleted stores. Lieutenant Commander Ferrell gave me the conn, and without a trace of apprehension, bade me bring her alongside the admiral's flagship.
Ferrell told me to bring her up slowly, but offered no rebuke when I gave the order "All engines ahead two-thirds." At precisely the right moment, I ordered, "All engines back full." A few moments later, again well timed, I ordered, "All engines ahead one-third." Thrillingly and to my great relief, the Hunt slipped into place so gracefully that any observer would have thought the skipper himself, master ship handler that he was, had the conn.
Ferrell was proud of me, and I was much indebted to him. He had given me his trust, and I had had the good fortune to avoid letting him down. After the two ships were tied up, he sent a message to the admiral. "Midshipman McCain has the conn." The impressed admiral sent a message to the Superintendent of the Naval Academy, informing him of my accomplishment.
Many years later I learned that Ferrell had been a student and admirer of my father's. Perhaps that explains his kindness toward me. Whatever the reason for the care he took with me, I was grateful for it. His confidence in me gave me more confidence in myself, and greater assurance that I belonged at sea than I had ever experienced in the rigid, disapproving world of the Academy. Eugene Ferrell was the man who taught me the craft of my father and grandfather. He gave me cause to love the work that they had loved. Debts such as that you incur for life. I sailed for Rio de Janeiro a more contented young man than I had ever been before.
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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