The sad events of recent days brought back bittersweet memories of times long ago. As young military men carried the body of American hero John McCain, who happened to have been a great United States Senator, into the Capitol rotunda, I recalled a similar scene in November 1963. I was privileged then, by happenstance and not invitation, to be on those same Capitol steps, just a few feet away as the body of our slain president, John F. Kennedy, was taken into the Capitol for his last time.
A young congressional aide, I had seen in recent days a nation’s capital mourn as perhaps it had never mourned before. Grown men and women walked the halls of congressional buildings and the surrounding streets with tears streaming down their faces. It seemed everyone spoke in a whisper.
But I also thought back to the couple of years prior to that dreadful day in Dallas, Texas. There was an air of confident anticipation in those same places and real respect among our elected leaders.
I was often tasked to usher guests from our congressional district on tours of the Capitol. We watched and listened in the House gallery as statesmen like Georgia’s own Carl Vinson and then Republican House minority leader Gerald Ford discussed the business of the day, and likewise in the Senate chamber, where the ever-eloquent Republican Everett Dirksen and another Georgian, Senator Richard Russell, the de facto leader of the Senate, conducted business with dignity and without rancor. There was in both bodies and the White House true civility and the “regular order” that Senator McCain longed for in his final days on earth.
There were other flashbacks for me this past week as Americans large and small spoke of the great heroism of Senator McCain during more than five years of torture and isolation in Vietnam’s Hanoi Hilton. It was said that the senator never voluntarily spoke of his years in captivity and the same was true of my uncle, John C. (Clifton) Croker, of Rome, who underwent similar inhumanities for over three years in a Japanese prison following his capture when the island of Corregidor was overrun in May 1942.
I was not yet a teenager when my aunt Jewell Yarbrough introduced me to the man she was about to marry. A scraggily, weather-beaten “old” man who had to be twice my aunt’s age, but who had a warm smile and soft voice, I summed him up. In reality, Uncle Clifton was a young man, too, and had weighed about 180 pounds when captured and some 78 pounds when liberated.
At the time I would not have predicted that Uncle Clifton would live six months much less more than three decades. We were pretty close; I spent many nights of my youth in their home and he only spoke reluctantly of the war when I pressed him.
And yes, he was and remains my hero!