Thursday, 26 June 2008

Knowing the rest of the story is half the battle The reason I'm an historicist instead of an historian—besides the obvious, like being in an English department—is because I'm a bit of a romantic when it comes to my history. For example, to appropriate a line from (of all things) Elizabethtown, I'm a connoisseur of first looks. When, I ask myself, did this figure of future historical significance first enter the national consciousness? Who, for example, is buried in this paragraph from the 30 July 1967 edition of the LA Times? The flames quickly spread to the hangar deck ... setting off bombs, rockets and other ordnance, while touching off many jet planes, all of which were fully loaded with fuel and heavily laden with ordnance. You can almost picture him in one of the "many jet planes," "bombs, rockets, and other ordnance" exploding around him; but as of 30 July he has no name, no face. For the moment, this anonymous pilot sits alone, as yet undisturbed by history, on the burning pitch of an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Tonkin Gulf. The next day, the New York Times provided a fuller, albeit tentative, account of the fire that took the lives of more than 130 US sailors: For some unknown reason, a plane parked near the carrier's island, midway up the 1,045-foot flight deck, experienced an "extreme wet start." This malfunction, comparable to what happens when a cigarette lighter is ignited after having been filled too full, occurs about once a week on attack carriers, but almsot never so severely as as it did yesterday. A thick tongue of flame lashed backward from the parked jet, igniting a missile on one of the dozen or so planes parked near the fantail, their engines turning over in readiness for a strike launching scheduled for 11 A.M. The rocket "shot across the deck," Captain Beling said, "and by a quirk of fate smashed into a fuel tank under a plane on the port side." No one aboard the Forrestal seemed to know today which plane the missile had hit — but it was probably either the Skyhawk whose cockpit was occupied by Lieut. Comdr. John S. McCain 3d or the one immediately to his right. He is become historical, mentioned by name in the paper of record. Not that this is the first time his name has appeared, as the father and grandfather with whom he shares it appear regularly in Vietnam and WWII reportage; but this is our first glimpse of the man who will lose to Obama in November—alone, almost exploded, surrounded by the agonized screams of the likely dead. What can I say? I'm like Paul Harvey. (Only macabre.)

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