U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine has many vivid memories of her times with Sen. John McCain, and one of them occurred eight years ago when he and some of their colleagues found themselves stranded in Bangor.

In a telephone interview Sunday, the day after McCain’s death at age 81, she reminisced about getting a surprise call from the Arizona senator in November 2010. McCain and a contingent of U.S. senators and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano were en route to an international security conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia, when bad weather diverted their flight to Bangor International Airport. He asked Collins, who has a home in Bangor, to come by and join them.

“So I went over to the airport and by sheer luck and fortunate coincidence the troop greeters were there, about to greet an incoming plane from Iraq or Afghanistan,” she said.

Rather than fly out once the weather cleared, McCain, Collins and the others joined up with a long line of Maine Troop Greeters, who welcome troops heading to or returning from overseas at all hours and in all kinds of weather as they pass through Bangor, where the planes stop to refuel.

As the troops made their way down the line of greeters, there was McCain, a wildly popular figure with service members, shaking hands and giving encouragement.

“As they went by John McCain, they would do this double take. It was like a Jimmy Stewart movie,” Collins said.

She said both the troop greeters and the troops were thrilled.

“I can’t tell you the look on the faces,” she said. “I remember it so well when they realized they were shaking hands with John McCain.”

By the end of the day, McCain had spent three hours greeting two planeloads of soldiers. He and his group then dined at a local restaurant and stayed the night at the Hilton Garden Inn.

“He loved greeting them and posing for pictures with them,” Collins said. “It was very heart-warming, an unexpected event. It was a very special moment. He so readily agreed to stay and wait for the plane to arrive and greet each and every one of the troops. I loved that it happened in Bangor. It was vintage John McCain.”

Earlier Sunday, Collins said what she will miss most about McCain is his great sense of humor, capacity to learn and insatiable curiosity.

“I am going to miss the fact that he was so much fun,” Collins said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program.

Collins, who first joined the Senate in 1997, recalled how McCain took her and other young senators under his wing.

“He taught me so much about national security,” she said.

Collins, who traveled extensively with McCain all over the world, said she and McCain visited Iraq and Afghanistan four times together. She said she will never forget one trip when they made a spiral landing – a steep corkscrew maneuver to avoid anti-aircraft fire – at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

“I was absolutely terrified. He reached over and said: ‘Don’t worry, Susan. I have been through so much, I am going to die at home in my own bed,” referring to his time as a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War, when he was shot down and held as a prisoner of war for 5½ years by the North Vietnamese.

TRIBUTES TO HIS MEMORY

Other Maine officials who knew McCain well also issued statements Sunday following his death.

Former U.S. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe and her husband, former Maine Gov. John R. McKernan Jr., who served with McCain in the U.S. House, called him “a true American hero.”

“John honored our nation with his military heroism, political courage, and selfless service – a legacy that will endure for generations,” Snowe said. “In the U.S. Senate he understood the indisputable value of compromise and bipartisanship as a means to advancing solutions for the greater good of the country. That his voice is now silent is a major loss to us all.”

McKernan said: “All of us who were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982 with John recognized immediately not just his dedication to serving our country, already evident from his military service, but also the leadership qualities he possessed. It is that combination which the country also came to appreciate and ultimately resulted in his distinguished and legendary career. It was a privilege to have served with him.”

 

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