Dear John McCain,
I think of your tap code late at night when I am lonely. You broken and spent in the Hanoi Hilton tapping out “Are you okay?” to the guy on the other side of the wall.
“My name is Ernie Brace,” the taps from the prison cell next to you kept declaring. “My name is Ernie Brace.” “My name is Ernie Brace.” Then sobs. Ernie Brace so overwhelmed by human contact he could only tap his name.
Meanwhile, your leg and arm are mangled from the ejection. From the fall. From when they yanked you from the water and stripped you and beat you. From years of beatings.
You run for president. You are an elder statesman, but I watch you carefully when you walk. I see the limp. I see how you hold your arm cocked.
Because of you, they taught us the tap code. I sat in the Ft. Rucker Army Theater, surrounded by my fellow pilots, a big screen projection of footage of you after you were captured. Thirty-one years old, on your back in a hospital bed, your arm in a cast, the white sheets tangled at your chest.
Then you tell us what they did to you. You are an old man telling us how they beat you. Your voice quivers. I see your knee pooling with blood, the botched surgeries. The man beaten to death after the attempt to escape. The shackles the rats the cockroaches the beatings the breaking the boils the heat the starvation the maggots the piss and the shit and the slowness of dying.
But the solitary confinement you tell us was the hardest.
They showed us the grid of letters and numbers and taught us the code for tapping. A way to communicate. A way to save ourselves. A path to Hope. We walked out of the theater into the bright sunlight silent.
Today, my phone lit up with the words: “John McCain has brain cancer.” I was in the middle of reading an essay by Mary Ruefle on FEAR….on DREAD. I was reading about a pilot falling in and out of consciousness in a spin who does what he’s trained to do: “Cut the throttle and Punch the dive brakes.” “Cut the throttle and Punch the dive brakes.”
Because of you they trained us to break. Not the breaking of stopping. The breaking of letting go. To tell secrets and to tell lies. To mix them together. To break in small ways and fake breaking. To fall when they hit us and moan in pain. They taught us to save ourselves. They taught us how long to wait before telling everything we know. How to drag out coordinates and codenames and procedures like a slow dripping faucet until all the secrets dry up. Because eventually everyone breaks they told us.
Then they beat us down to show us.
A few weeks ago I watched you questioning James Comey on the TV after he was fired as FBI director. Your sentences a garbled mess. And I thought of the black and white footage of you weak and listless, your captives hovering outside the frame after they set your broken arm without Novocain.
When my phone lit up today, I though of you tapping out “Are you okay?” to Ernie Brace on the other side of the wall.
I saw you fall from the sky beneath your parachute, splash down in the lake, your heavy flight gear sinking you twenty feet to the bottom. I saw you with your shattered arm and your mangled leg, kicking, kicking your way up from the mud. Your head breaks the surface, you gasp for air. Fighting. Alive.
This post is a reprint of Amy Martin’s original contribution. Safe harbor, John McCain.