1968: A candidate and I take a break

According to the July 3, 1968 issue of the Bangor Daily News, presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy was "on an island somewhere off the coast of Maine," so that he could "rest in secrecy, prepare position papers, and meet with governors." Actually, he was a guest of ours in Hancock Point, Maine, trying very hard to get away from it all. A mutual friend had thought up the subterfuge, and we were only too delighted to oblige.

As the man who ran for president on the one issue of his opposition to the Vietnam War, Senator McCarthy (D) of Minnesota was our political hero. He was making a statement. No one, including himself, gave him the remotest chance of winning. But winning did not concern him. That was, in large part, his charm. Yet now it seemed the possibility was there. Not only had he taken 40 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, prompting Robert Kennedy to declare his candidacy the next day, he had also beaten Kennedy in Oregon. After Kennedy was assassinated, McCarthy's campaign took on another dimension. He was in it for real.

"Come clean for Gene." His smiling face covered half of our living-room wall. Every remark he made was committed to memory; his slightest gesture was treasured. How would we entertain him, though? What did he want to do? We called our mutual friend. "He's a great bird watcher," she said. "His favorite bird is the great blue heron."

Our problem was solved. Ironbound Island, where the heron rookery was, is a rugged spot, worthy of its name. The only place to land is a rocky beach in a cove between 40-foot cliffs on the sea side of the island. It took three tries in our little dinghy to get us all ashore through the choppy seas. We lit a picnic fire among the rocks, and a brave few of us took quick dips in the icy water. After hamburgers and hotdogs, some stretched out in the sun while others explored.

McCarthy was drawn to the surf-smoothed rocks that composed most of the beach. He was looking for "lucky stones," those with lines going through them of another kind of rock. He found one, finally, of gray-flecked granite, a thin plate of white quartz running down its middle. It was the size and shade of an ostrich egg. He brought it over to us, smiling. He would take it to Washington, he said, and put it on his desk.

The heron rookery was about a quarter of a mile away. We climbed along the tops of sheer cliffs of black rock, stained rusty red in places. There were booming caves below and jagged ledges against which the waves crashed. It was an awesome place - wild and barren, save for the spruce trees that softened the land behind us. We clambered along the tops of precipices in single file, in some places on our hands and knees. All at once, we were there.

We approached the rookery carefully, so as not to disturb the birds. There must have been 50 of them, perched in the tops of as many dead trees bleached white from bird droppings. Some herons sat erect in their branch-lined, basketlike nests, seemingly oblivious. Others were stretching their immense wings, raising and twisting their serpentine necks, raucously chattering. One would lift off, with a tremendous beating of wings. Another would come crashing down, blocking out the sky. It was a wild, primordial scene. McCarthy sat there, enthralled. We could hardly get him away.

That night, we had a lobster picnic on the rocks. The poet Robert Lowell and his wife, friends of McCarthy, were among the guests. McCarthy was in his element - chatting, laughing, and working the crowd. He looked completely relaxed, as if he'd been on holiday for a month.

I had asked him the night before what I thought later was a pretty nervy question: Which was he more anxious about, losing the election - or winning it? He was silent for a moment, and then he smiled enigmatically. Two weeks later, the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, and McCarthy was invited to comment. He kept the press waiting. He was busy, we learned later, looking at pictures my brother-in-law had sent him of his three days with us in Maine.

A week later, Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination, and in the paper there was a picture of McCarthy smiling. Was it a smile of relief, or did it hide regret? You couldn't say. But I like to think that he would have smiled in just that way had he won.

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