The cross in the dirt

During the Saddleback Forum, the recounting of this tale produced vigorous applause from the audience. It’s a tale about faith and not giving up hope. It apparently presses all the right buttons for many people.

It’s the story about the covert Christian and John McCain’s renewed faith.

Watch the touching video, December 2007.

Here’s the quote from the Saddleback Forum, August 2008:

The following Christmas, because it was Christmas Day, we were allowed to stand outside of our cell for a few minutes, and those days we were not allowed to see or communicate with each other although we certainly did. And I was standing outside for my few minutes, outside my cell. he came walking up. He stood there for a minute and with his handle [sandal?] on the dirt in the courtyard he drew a cross and he stood there and a minute later, he rubbed it out and walked away. For a minute there, there was just two Christians worshipping together. I’ll never forget that moment so every day …

But is it true?

Memory is a funny thing. It is a complex combination of actual events, recalled events, wish-fulfillment, the power of suggestion and everything else. You can create a memory with friends–an oft-repeated story will become a memory that everybody will swear to in future years. You think you remember something happening at one time when it happens at another (remember Reagan and his recollections of flying a plane in service to the country?). Photographs become visual memories for us. You think you remember the event, but what you remember is the photograph. The photograph takes on its own life and becomes your memory.

So is this an actual event in John McCain’s life? Hard to say. But it’s part of the myth making around the Heroic Prisoner of War.

This story is often attributed to Solzhenitsyn, and John McCain’s admiration of Solzhenitsyn is documented. Note that this is an excerpt from his 2007 book, Hard Call: The Art of Great Decisions, in which he devotes an entire chapter to Solzhenitsyn.

McCain told this story in February 2000 without making himself the central character:

Many years ago a scared American prisoner of war in Vietnam was tied in torture ropes by his tormentors and left alone in an empty room to suffer through the night. Later in the evening a guard he had never spoken to entered the room and silently loosened the ropes to relieve his suffering. Just before morning, that same guard came back and re-tightened the ropes before his less humanitarian comrades returned. He never said a word to the grateful prisoner, but some months later, on a Christmas morning, as the prisoner stood alone in the prison courtyard, the same good Samaritan walked up to him and stood next to him for a few moments. Then with his sandal, the guard drew a cross in the dirt. Both prisoner and guard both stood wordlessly there for a minute or two, venerating the cross, until the guard rubbed it out and walked away.

From his 1999 book, Faith of My Fathers (I typed the text out from the book, thus, no link):

On Christmas Day, we were always treated to a better-than-usual dinner. We were also allowed to stand outside our cells for five minutes to exercise or to just look at the trees and sky. One Christmas, a few months after the gun guard had inexplicably come to my assistance during my long night in the interrogation room, I was standing in the dirt courtyard when I saw him approach me.

He walked up and stood silently next to me. Again, he didn’t smile or look at me. He just stared at the ground in front of us. After a few moments had passed he rather nonchalantly used his sandaled foot to draw a cross in the dirt. We both stood wordlessly looking at the cross until, after a minute or two, he rubbed it out and walked away. I saw my good Samaritan often after the Christmas when we venerated the cross together. But he never said a word to me nor gave the slightest signal that he acknowledged my humanity. p.228

Wonder why he doesn’t refer to this guard as a g*ok? Because I thought they’d always be g*oks to him.

I found this tale attributed to Solzhenitsyn in book after book about faith, most published in 2002 or 2003. But none of the books have a direct citation with the page number or even the name of the work. A few mention The Gulag Archipelago. I have The Gulag Archipelago, and a brief skim didn’t find it. But that just might mean I missed it.

A 1997 article references this story, and attributes it back to Solzhenitsyn:

As he waited, head down, he felt a presence. Slowly, he lifted his eyes and saw a skinny, old prisoner squat down next to him. The man said nothing. Instead, he drew a stick through the ground at Solzhenitsyn’s feet, tracing the sign of the Cross. The man then got back up and returned to his work.

The story is also credited to Solzhenitsyn in a 1994 book, Bible Oases, and also in a 1983 book called Loving God by Charles W. Colson. Colson states on page 254 that the story was told by Solzhenitsyn to Christian leaders and then retold by Graham in 1977. That’s the earliest reference I could find.

Solzhenitsyn passed away earlier this month, so he’s not available for comment. But which do you think is more likely? Both men had the same experience? Solzhenitsyn copied McCain? Or McCain copied Solzhenitsyn? Writer Mary Schmich (a columnist for the tribune) had a column of hers attributed to Kurt Vonnegut.

In the end, I don’t know that a political campaign is about truth. It’s about the way the candidates make us feel. Because running for president is like being a beauty contestant and a public relations expert rolled up in one. It’s the spin. It’s not the substance.

6 thoughts on “The cross in the dirt

  1. From what I’ve found, the earliest reference to Solzhenitsyn’s version of the Cross in the Sand story is via his Gulag Archipelago which was printed in America in 1973… and given that his experiences in the Soviet concentration camp came in mid-century (during and after WWII), his story is most certainly earlier than McCain’s.

    It may be possible McCain had heard of the story before his service in Vietnam. Solzhenitsyn was somewhat known in the West before The Gulag Archipelago became widely available in ’73, especially in conservative circles. But, it’s more likely Sen. McCain read or heard of this particular story afterward. (Given the similarity of prison experience it’s easy to understand why McCain would have picked up on Solzhenitsyn as an area of interest and admiration.)

    Then again, even McCain’s own Naval Academy classmates and fellow POWs don’t take the Senator at his word.

  2. Hi Rob, do you have any information on which volume of G.A. the story is in? Or what page it is on? I couldn’t find it. Also, a Solzhenitsyn scholar was quoted in the press as saying it’s not in G.A.

    The earliest print reference I could find is the 1983 book by Colson. I tend to believe it’s either something related off-the-cuff by Solzhenitsyn or it’s an urban legend.

    Hi びっくり, thanks for coming by. Did you know that somebody now claims that McCain told this story while he was still in the prison camp? ;-D

  3. I would be disappointed if it turns out that McCain borrowed that tale and made his own. Politicians are often tempted to take liberties with the truth. I recall Joe Biden plagiarized some U.K. labor leader’s speech and delivered it as if it had happened to him; then there was John Kerry’s big fat fib about being sent to Cambodia, listening to drunken South Vietnamese soldiers fire their guns to celebrate Christmas, even though they were Buddhists. Finally, Barack Obama has told a few whoppers of his own, e.g. his uncle being with troops that liberated Auschwitz (he must have been a Russian) or how he valiantly opposed the Iraqi war, except for the fact he wasn’t a U.S. Senator at the onset of that war.

    When it comes to telling whoppers, we Republicans are amateurs compared to you folks.

  4. “You folks”? LOL

    Hi Gary, thanks for coming by. I am more interested in the mythology than the actual truth telling. With regard to Obama, I think he probably meant Buchenwald. In addition, as a state senator he did speak out against the war in Iraq. He was relatively unknown so people probably don’t remember that he was at a big event in Daley Plaza.

  5. A couple of thoughts on this. The aura surrounding a story like this is intriguing, but I don’t think it’s the same kind of opportunistic political white lie such as HRC’s being shot at in the Balkans, or some of Reagan’s infamous stories. There’s no possible way it can be proven or disproven. The fact is, the dude was a POW and suffered greatly during that time.

    Also, consider the the concept of secret good Samaritan isn’t far fetched, so the “story” could certainly have happened to more than one person. The details probably would be shady by now, particularly for a man who’s been tortured.

    Whatever happened, if anything happened, this just isn’t an area where it’s appropriate for McCain to use in a political campaign, nor is it appropriate to use the mystery around it as a criticism. I really hope we don’t hear that story 100 more times, and I really hope it the shaky details don’t turn into a high profile controversy. It’s just way too personal.

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