My first brush with greatness came in the mid-1960s on a Utah ski vacation that overlapped with Robert McNamara and his family. As a preteen, I was only vaguely aware of the man. My parents, who still had complete confidence in the government, never talked politics and rarely watched the evening news, and yet the snippets drifting through the ethos must have seeped into my psyche. I could easily recognize him standing in front of a crude map of Vietnam, or pointing at a graph with rising zig zagging lines. But his appearance made the most distinct impression – that slicked back hair oozing with grease, ramrod straight part and rimless glasses. He looked like the epitome of steely-eyed control. He scared me, but I wasn’t sure why.
At the ski area my unease deepened as I witnessed McNamara first hand. This was a man you stepped aside for. I remember standing in line for the chairlift watching McNamara and his family cut directly in front of us to the head of the line. There was a strong undercurrent throughout the slopes, a frisson of excitement and awe. We were in the presence of greatness, breathing the same air, and sitting on the same chairlifts. It was here that I learned that he was the Secretary of Defense, in charge of stopping the spread of Communism, routinely making life and death decisions both for our country and individual families.
One day our ski school instructor whisked us off to the side of the slope so that McNamara could pass by unobstructed. I heard the flutter of his baggy ski pants and was surprised that he was not wearing the skin-tight stretch pants that were the style at the time. I did not hear the expert clatter of tightly aligned skis, a trademark of the expert skier. In fact, he was not a particularly good skier. Average, serviceable perhaps, he skied with his skis wide apart. I was probably a better skier than he was. Somehow I had expected that the person who held the fate of our world in his hands would be accomplished in every aspect of life. As he approached our group, McNamara looked like an average Dad enjoying a vacation with his kids.
Then he skied right by me, hatless, and I again noticed his slicked back hair, motionless in the wind. He was so close I could see the congruent grooves of the tines of his comb across his scalp. I could not imagine that any follicle on his head would have the nerve to rise up and curl. How could I reconcile these two disparate images, a control freak vs. a happy Dad? I only had my father for comparison, a hardworking salesman for a printing company, who commuted long hours to and from Chicago. I once asked him, “Dad, what do you think about in your car day after day?”
“I think about my job on my way into work, and my family on the way out,” he replied.
Was that McNamara’s schedule? How could he have time for his family – roughhousing on the lawn, helping with homework, reading stories – when he was sending young men off to war? In fact, how could he have time for a ski vacation? Shouldn’t he remain on high alert in Washington making important decisions?
What was he like at home, was he a punitive disciplinarian? Could a control freak like McNamara give warm hugs? Maybe his kids could solve my obsession with his hair. What would happen if they accidentally mussed up his perfect part? For that matter what did their Dad look like after a dip in the pool or when he got up in the morning? Did he spend hours grooming? All my Dad required was two quick scrapes of the comb across his dry brown hair.
One day the entire ski school gathered in the cafeteria for a snack. I happened to sit at the same table with McNamara’s young daughters. I knew who they were. I had seen them cutting into the ski line with their father. Besides, McNamara’s aura had extended to his children; both ski instructors and cafeteria staff exuded caution and deference.
I think their special treatment made me irritable. We had ridden the uncomfortable sit-up train from Chicago to Salt Lake City, and I imagined that they had been whisked here by jet, accompanied by secret serviceman and handlers who probably carried their skis for them. At the same time I had been harboring a monumental secret, something my parents made me promise never to tell my younger siblings, who appeared to be the same age as McNamara’s youngest daughter. But secrets burn holes, set up moral quandaries. Some must be told, and one strategy is to divulge a secret to a peripheral person with no consequence, just to relieve the pressure.
A bright shining lie was corroding my tender preteen soul, and I succumbed to the impulse to blab, a brief moment when I ignored social norms of courtesy and minding my own business. I wanted to protect these children from the lies perpetuated by authority figures, to provide them with my wisdom, let them know that they should question everything, that blind loyalty to authority should always be tempered with skepticism.
Okay, I’ll admit it. In retrospect, I am certainly ennobling my motivations. I probably wanted to pop their secure and safe balloon of privilege and power. My role as a whistleblower was tinged with a vindictive agenda.
I turned to the children and blurted out, “You know, there is no such thing as Santa Claus.”
There it was done. I had relieved the pressure of an institutionalized hoax. Their sad eyes looked at me in bereaved astonishment, the youngest daughter’s mouth gaped and a pendulous drop of milk hung from her lip. I shuddered to realize that they could tell their father. These were not peripheral people with no consequence. I feared the retribution of the mighty McNamara.
I could imagine his eyes burning fiercely behind those rimless glasses, a small smile signaling punishment rather than forgiveness. It wasn’t his index finger wagging at me that I envisioned, it was a clenched and pumping fist. “How could you have done this? You’ve stolen their childhood, ruined their lives, they’ll never be the same! How could you have made such a casually destructive decision? I don’t think that I can ever forgive you.”
I truly feared for my life. An apology seemed totally inadequate. There was no way I could atone for a ruined childhood. The stakes seemed too high. I should have just perpetuated the lie, but now it was too late. The only alternative was to scuttle away and hide. For the rest of the vacation, I carefully skied along the edges of the slopes and sought a far-off table in the cafeteria. I never saw the children or their father again.
It’s been over fifty years now. I still feel some guilt mixed with a little pride in challenging authority. I wonder if the McNamara children have any recollection of the twelve-year-old who was briefly bold enough to speak truth to power.
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