Even though the election has been going on for at least two years, it wasn’t until recently that the men seemed to step aside and all the women took center stage. Michelle, Hillary, Sarah–we’ve heard a lot about them, sometimes more than we could take.
This article isn’t about any of them. It’s about a woman we hardly hear about, and you may not even know her. She’s not famous in any traditional way. She was born in Pennsylvania in the late 1930s, and grew into a tall, willowy swimsuit model. When she was just 21, she married a graduate of the Naval Academy, who became a pilot. They had two children, but it was the 1950s, and Naval pilots cut a dashing figure. Infidelity was the listed reason for their divorce in 1964.
This young woman then fell in love again—with a classmate of her first husband. Eventually she married again, and her husband adopted her two children. This husband, too, was a navy pilot. He was from Alexandria, Virginia, and his high school yearbook gave him this description: “His magnetic personality has won for him many life-long friends. But as magnets also must repel, some have found him hard to get along with.”
The couple had a daughter, but the Viet Nam war gave them little time to spend together. The husband volunteered, was stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin, and flew 22 successful missions as a bomber pilot. On his 23 mission he was shot down and taken as a prisoner of war by the North Vietnamese in 1967.
His wife lived the terrible life of a military wife with a missing husband. The military never knows how to treat dependents–they aren’t really part of the military, yet they can’t be ignored. She stayed in Florida, working with POW/MIA organizations. She never lost hope. She never lost focus on raising the children.
In the winter of 1969, she took the children to spend Christmas with her parents in Pennsylvania. On Christmas Eve she went to deliver Christmas presents to her friends. It was snowing. She was alone in her car when it skidded and struck a utility pole. She was thrown through the windshield of her car, where she lay, undiscovered with two broken legs, a broken pelvis, a ruptured spleen and a broken arm. She was finally discovered, and would spend months in the hospital. Her doctors told her she would never walk again. She underwent 23 surgeries in the next two years that left her four inches shorter. She struggled to learn how to walk.
She also refused to have the military get word to her captive husband. ‘He’s got enough problems, I don’t want to tell him.’ She healed slowly. She would be disfigured for the rest of her life. But she never stopped struggling, first to live, then to get out of a wheel chair and walk. Her determination worked.
In 1973 her husband returned home. The terrible years should have been over. But they were just starting for a military wife who had undergone the worst of trials anyone should endure. Her husband, whose arms were so damaged he could not raise them above his shoulders, told friends he no longer found his wife attractive. She had gained weight while in and out of the hospital. But they remained together. She got a job as the head of the White House Visitor’s Office and became an event planner.
In April, 1979, while on business in Hawaii, the 42-year old husband met a 24-year old woman at a party. The young woman was four years older than his oldest son. But the husband fell in love. He wanted to marry the 24-year old who was the daughter of a very wealthy beer distributor. Court records show that he secured a marriage license in March, 1980, while still legally married to his first wife. His divorce became final in April, 1980, and five weeks later, he married his much younger bride.
She wasn’t the first woman to be dumped for someone young enough to be her husband’s daughter. She wasn’t the only VietNam-era wife whose husband wanted to make up for lost time, preferably with someone young and without a limp. But it seems a lot to wait for someone for five years, to nearly die, to raise three children on her own, only to be set aside for someone 18 years younger and far wealthier.
Yet, his first wife refuses to disparage him publicly. After the divorce, she stayed in Alexandria, VA for a while. He moved to Arizona, the home of his new wife, and began a political career. This unknown woman of the 2008 election season is Carol McCain, the first wife of John McCain. You don’t hear much about her. She doesn’t give interviews. Now, at 70, she still refuses to discuss her marriage or tell tales about her ex-husband. All things considered, I find her story far more compelling than much of the froth the women of this election season have stirred up.
—Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach who has lived in Alexandria, VA and in Phoenix, AZ. (c) 2008. All rights reserved.