At the time, France was fighting a war to hold on to its Algerian colony, and its conspicuous lack of military success had caused the collapse of the French Fourth Republic. Terrorist bombings and other unpleasantness associated with the war had driven many Parisians out of the city to seek refuge in the French countryside. We had the city to ourselves, and we enjoyed it immensely.
Near the end of our stay, we stood in a throng of cheering Parisians along the Champs Elysées as two long, noisy lines of motorcycle policemen led the way to the Arc de Triomphe for de Gaulle's motorcade. The general and now president of the infant Fifth Republic stood erect in the backseat of his convertible limousine nodding at the overwrought crowds as they chanted, "Algerie Franaise, Algerie Franaise."
Four years after returning to power, and despite his solemn promise that Algeria would be forever French, de Gaulle granted the colony's independence. Nevertheless, he cut a hell of a figure that day, standing there so impassive and noble-looking while his nation's adoration washed over him. I was a kid at the time, and the general's grandeur made a great impression on me. In truth, I remain just as impressed four decades later.
I suppose to most people who knew me at Annapolis, my entire career at the Naval Academy is aptly summarized by the anecdotes I have recorded here. Most of my reminiscences feature the frivolous escapades with which I once established my reputation as a rash and prideful nonconformist.
In truth, I was less exceptional than I had imagined myself to be. Every class has its members who aspire to prominence by unconventional means. My father and grandfather had enjoyed only slightly less tarnished reputations at the Academy. My father, perhaps mindful of his own performance, rarely chastised me for falling well short of an exemplary midshipman's standards. In fact, I don't recall the subject of my record at the Academy ever being extensively discussed by either of my parents.
There was one occasion when my father registered his disapproval over my conduct at the Academy. One evening in our second year, my roommates and I were in the middle of a water balloon fight, adding to our room's usual disarray. We suspended our activity when someone knocked on the door. Frank opened the door to find an officer facing him with a disdainful look on his face as he appraised our room's unacceptable condition and the four of us standing in our skivvies soaking wet. My roommates greeted our unexpected guest by briskly standing at attention. I greeted him by saying, somewhat quizzically, "Dad?"
After an awkward second or two, he ordered, "As you were, gentlemen," and as my roommates began to exhale, he added, "This room is in gross disorder. John, meet me downstairs in five minutes." With that, he turned on his heels and left. I met him less than five minutes later, and he proceeded to lecture me, observing, "You're in too much trouble here, Johnny, to be asking for any more." That single incident is the only time I can remember my father upbraiding me for my dismal performance as a midshipman.
My behavior was not something that particularly worried my father. I believe he assumed that, like him, I would be absorbed into the traditions of the place whether I wished to or not, and that when the time arrived for me to face a real test of character, I would not disappoint him. He had seen many an officer who enjoyed the reputation of a rake--indeed, he had been one himself--rise to the occasion in the most dire situations, and exhibit courage and resourcefulness that confounded earlier detractors. He expected no less from me.
Even as I spent my years as a junior officer in the same profligate manner I had spent my Academy years, I cannot recall his severely rebuking me. America had fought two wars during his career, and he was certain there would soon be another one. He knew I would fight, and I think he trusted me to do my duty when my moment arrived. I don't know if I deserved his trust, but I am proud to have had it.
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.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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