This article first appeared in the Tampa Bay Times on July 20, 2008.
By Alex Leary
ORANGE PARK – She hadn't thought of him in years. Like so many other pilots in this Navy town, he was fighting in Vietnam. Now he was on TV, looking nothing like the 30-year-old family man who walked her home after a night of babysitting, past the Ogdens, the Thomases and other families on Fatio Lane.
"It was his hair," Nancy Moyes said, recalling her shock. "It turned white."
Moyes and others here were the earliest observers of the metamorphosis of John McCain, one that transcended his physical appearance as a prisoner of war.
McCain left this small town, his wife and three children in 1967 as the underachieving scion of a great military family. He returned on crutches in 1973, a portrait of American resolve at age 36.
It was Orange Park, outside Jacksonville, that first witnessed the budding power of his war-hero story line. It was where McCain, however unwittingly, built the foundation of a political career that could land him the presidency.
He began with appearances at VFW halls, high schools and restaurants, cultivating his public speaking voice and an improvisational wit that remains one of his strongest assets. Ronald Reagan, the governor of California, was among his first visitors.
Just two months after his return, still recovering from 5½ years in Hoa Lo Prison — the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" — Lt. Cmdr. McCain raised his profile with a first-person analysis of Vietnam in U.S. News & World Report. The 13-page article ended on a prescient note:
"I had a lot of time to think over there, and came to the conclusion that one of the most important things in life — along with a man's family — is to make some contribution to his country."
Like her husband, Carol McCain was not the same person after the war. McCain came home to find her with a permanent limp from a near-fatal car accident. She was no longer the tall beauty he fell in love with. McCain sued for divorce in 1980 and married a woman 18 years younger.
It's a story neither he nor his campaign wants to revisit. McCain's former neighbors remember it well.
• • •
Orange Park seemed the perfect place for McCain to settle, to put his wild reputation to bed. While at flight school in Pensacola, he reconnected with Carol Shepp, who had gone through a divorce. They married in 1965 and a year later had a daughter, Sidney.
The clan, including Carol's sons Doug and Andy, arrived in Orange Park in 1967, the Summer of Love.
It was a quiet place, much as it is now, situated along the St. Johns River in the shadow of Jacksonville. The 13 homes on Fatio Lane were decidedly hip — low-slung with A-frame living rooms and glass walls. The McCains had a pool with a diving board.
John and Carol, a former model from Philadelphia, were young and attractive, natural peers to the neighborhood's other military families.
"They were partiers like everyone else. It was the '60s and everyone's parents drank and smoked," said Nancy Moyes, who often babysat the McCain children, including the night before their father went to Vietnam. He paid her 50 cents an hour.
In late September, just a few months after they arrived, McCain got his orders for Vietnam. The kids were 8, 5 and 1. He expected to be home the following summer.
• • •
On Oct. 26, 1967, McCain's A-4E Skyhawk was shot down. He landed in a lake and was captured.
Not long after, a French TV reporter interviewed McCain in a Hanoi hospital and asked if he wanted to say anything. "I would just like to tell my wife," McCain said, cigarette in hand, his voice trembling, "that I will get well and I love her and hope to see her soon."
Back in Orange Park, 29-year-old Carol McCain was raising three children with the help of the tight-knit Navy community.
When something broke, a friend would come over to fix it. When her kids needed a ride to a sporting event, a neighbor would stop by.
Mrs. McCain could be seen at Club Continental, a private resort on the St. Johns, or cruising antique shops with Mary Anne Fuller, whose husband also was a POW in Vietnam.
They formed a social group with other wives, visiting one another's homes for coffee. When the Vietnamese new year arrived, they threw a "Tet luncheon," hoping it would bring good news.
They discussed what items their husbands' captors would allow in care packages: candy, instant soup, warm socks and baby formula for nourishment. The formula called for mixing with milk but lacking any, McCain used water. "The result was so unpalatable that despite my chronic hunger, I simply couldn't stomach the stuff," he wrote in his memoir, Faith of My Fathers.
Across Orange Park, people wore metal bracelets with McCain's name and the date he was captured.
While her husband was being tortured 9,000 miles away, Carol McCain endured her own crisis in 1969. For the holidays, she took the kids home to Philadelphia. While driving home alone on Christmas Eve, she lost control of the car on an icy road. It hit a telephone pole and she went through the windshield. Scores of operations later, one of her legs was shorter, leaving a permanent limp.
Carol McCain felt the absence of her husband in the smallest ways, fretting over not knowing what position her son Doug should play in pickup football games. Worrying about Andy, who was smaller than the other boys.
Christmas, she told a CBS Evening News reporter in 1970, had no meaning without her husband, but she celebrated anyway for the children.
Six times a week she went to the mailbox, looking for a letter from Vietnam. She read one on the TV broadcast.
"He sounds kind of depressed to me when he says, 'I hope you can still think of the really good times we had together.' It sounds like he's worried that I might forget or something. That bothers me. It makes me feel very badly because there isn't any way I could possibly forget," Mrs. McCain said in her living room.
By the time of his release in 1973, McCain had been gone twice as long as he had lived with his wife. She had not written him about the accident, not wanting to burden him more.
When they reunited, 6-year-old Sidney's reaction captured the family's emotional distance. Ruth Carr, who lived next door, was there when McCain stepped off the plane at Jacksonville Naval Air Station on St. Patrick's Day.
"I said, 'Sidney, that's your daddy.' She said, 'Where's he going to sleep? What's he going to eat?' "
• • •
POWs were welcomed back as heroes, a stark contrast to the stories of disgust that greeted other soldiers. Orange Park threw a parade, and McCain and his family rode in a convertible along U.S. 17, the main north-south road through town. The mayor of Jacksonville hung the key to the city around McCain's neck. Rose Powell, who lived down the street, brought him an apple strudel.
Groups sought him as a speaker. "We (ex-POWs) don't hold any animosity for Americans who opposed the war, for that's what it's all about: being able as a free people to express our views," McCain told 120 people at Strickland's Town House restaurant in Jacksonville, according to a report carried the next day in the Florida Times-Union.
"Nobody worked a crowd better than John," said fellow POW Carl Crumpler, whose family lived across from the McCains. "John had great political skills from the beginning."
The McCains bought a beach getaway in nearby South Ponte Vedra, and friends say it brought the couple much joy. But life was hectic.
McCain was flying across the country to be with the Reagans and to meet President Richard Nixon. He attended the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., then assumed command of the Navy's largest squadron, Replacement Air Group 174 in Jacksonville.
It was a plum assignment that brought claims of favoritism, but McCain left in 1977 with high accolades.
Amid the ascent, however, trouble festered. "Off duty, usually on routine cross-country flights to Yuma and El Centro, John started carousing and running around with women," author Robert Timberg wrote in The Nightingale's Song, a book about the rise of several Annapolis graduates after the Vietnam War.
McCain has admitted his failings. His former wife told Timberg she did not think her accident or the war was to blame.
"I attribute it more to John turning 40 and wanting to be 25 again," Carol McCain said. She did not respond to three attempts to reach her for this story. The McCain campaign did not make his children available for comment.
In 1980, about a month after his divorce was finalized, McCain married Cindy Hensley and moved to Arizona, launching his political career with a successful run for Congress.
Carol McCain still has friends in the Jacksonville area, including a woman who moved in with her while she recovered from the accident. But several declined to discuss where things went wrong, hard feelings evident in talks with a reporter.
Others painted a more complex picture than one of McCain simply dumping his damaged wife.
"War changes relationships," said Mary Jane Crumpler, wife of Carl Crumpler. "The women became more independent being the head of the family and that added to the stress when the men returned home. I often heard from the younger ones that they felt like they were owed something — you know, 'I waited all this time for you.' "
There were problems with authority — children pitting their parents against each other. Even the kids' long hair was a shock. There were issues over family finances. Some POWs returned home thinking there would be a pile of money waiting. But their paychecks had gone to the mortgage, car payments and food for growing children.
"You felt so sorry for all those families," said Mae Ogden, 91, who still lives across the street from the old McCain house. "They married young and were so happy and then the war came. Just being apart for that long did things, one going one way and one going another."
• • •
Riding in his campaign bus after a visit to the Everglades in June, McCain got misty eyed when a reporter asked about his past life. He recalled parading down U.S. 17 in the convertible, the mayor hanging the key to the city around his neck. He recalled the block party his neighbors on Fatio Lane gave him on his return.
From that experience McCain extracted the essence of America.
"I no longer think of the country's character in abstract terms," he wrote in Faith of My Fathers. "Now when I think about Americans, and how fortunate I am to be in their number, I see the faces of our neighbors in Orange Park, and give thanks that by a lucky accident of birth, I was born an American."
Florida has certainly been good to McCain. His victory in the January primary solidified him as the Republican front-runner, capping a remarkable turnaround for a campaign once near death.
Whatever his fate in November — possibly the 71-year-old's last election — McCain's journey to this point was born out of his experience in Vietnam and what began to take shape in this small town.
Dick Stratton, who shared a cell with McCain in Hanoi and now lives in Jacksonville, vividly recalls him answering the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
Sitting in his skivvies on a wooden bunk thousands of miles from Carol, Doug, Andy and Sidney, McCain replied: "I am going to be president of the United States."
Times researchers Shirl Kennedy and Caryn Baird contributed to this report.