John McCain’s passing brought me back to the brief time that I knew him in the 1960s, pre-Vietnam, pre-politics. We were shipmates on the USS Intrepid, a Sixth Fleet carrier on active duty in the Mediterranean. John was a pilot in the Air Group; I was a radar officer in ship’s company. “Brown Shoe” fliers and “Black Shoe” sailors were different breeds; we mixed easily to do our jobs, but socially pretty much kept to our ilk.

Like most of his airdale buddies, John was a Naval Academy grad, well-versed in all things Navy.

I, like many of my crew buddies, learned the ropes in a 16-week Officer Candidate School crash course after graduating from a very liberal arts college. OCS prepared us for shipboard duties, but did little to imbue us with much reverence for naval tradition. Nor were we quite as serious about operations as the guys who spent risky nights slamming their planes onto the deck of a fast-moving and mostly invisible ship. At evening meal, strung out down the long wardroom table, there was informal separation between us reservist, ship’s company junior officers and the regular Navy fliers. But John McCain managed to navigate in both groups. He could contribute to the top-gun-zoomy conversations of his buddies, or be regaled by and pitch into the ironic and caustic banterings of my crowd. A smart, enjoyable guy, quite different from most of his squadmates.

Our main port the winter of 1960 was cold, rainy Cannes, France. Lots of time ashore, but no sunny beach idylls. Because of its size, the ship anchored pretty far out in the harbor and we motored in to shore and back in large liberty boats. The last daily return boat left the Cannes dock at about 11 p.m. Another run occurred at 6 a.m., which gathered post-party stragglers who managed to miss the last night boat. Everyone needed to be aboard by 8 a.m. Miss the 6 a.m boat and you were AWOL, or worse, got left behind as the ship sailed.

As it turned out, John and I had friends in Cannes, with whom we occasionally overnighted. So the odd rainy dawn found us both, along with a slew of largely disoriented sailors, wandering about the dock waiting for the boat. Protocol was that the senior ranking officer aboard the boat was responsible for safe passage, and pretty much needed to stay awake. After we clambered aboard, a sleepy McCain might look at me hopefully.

I’d shake my head, “Sorry John. you outrank me.” And he’d give me that great McCain smile.

Years later, when he was running in the Republican primary against George W. Bush, I met him at a rally in New Hampshire. He did not really remember me, but did remember the 6 a.m. boat adventures 40 years earlier.

“Geez,” he said, bowing his head and grinning. “I hope that doesn’t get out.” A man for the ages.

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