September 29, 1972.

The easily recognized and semifatalistic man standing in the lunchroom of the M.V. Islander as it crossed Vineyard Sound that rainy Friday evening could not possibly have known -- could he? -- that a murderous rage was climbing up inside the throat of someone just feet away from him. Certainly, had he known, the man would not have put down his drink on the metal counter, would not have said to his companion, "Excuse me a minute, Ralph, I'll get this and be right back," would never have turned and followed a short, bearded stranger in tennis shoes out into the darkness. But wouldn't almost anybody have done the same thing? you ask. Probably, although the assailant himself is still puzzled, even in his ambivalence and periodic shame about that night, over how trusting his victim seemed, how willing to comply. It was almost as if Robert S. McNamara had long been waiting for such a moment and understood implicitly it was now here. Listen:

He just stopped in the middle of his conversation and nodded and followed me right out. I've never really understood that part of it. I must have been pretty convincing, that's all I can think. I remember he was leaning up against the counter of the snack bar, laughing and talking with this rich real estate guy from the Vineyard named Meyer, Ralph Meyer. He had on these sporty weekend clothes. I don't know, the two of them just seemed above everything around them, maybe that's part of what got to me. Anyway, I walked right up to him and said, "Mr. McNamara, there's a phone call for you. Please follow me." I didn't even know what I was going to say. I swear the words just came out. It's not like I told myself, okay, this is it, you're gonna take the guy outside and throw him off the goddam boat.

The M.V. Islander, a serviceable old tub built in 1950 by the Maryland Drydock Company, is a "double-ender" in her design, which means that either end can serve as stern or bow, depending on the direction the boat is headed -- to Martha's Vineyard or back to the mainland at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The lunchroom, which is about the size of a living room, sits up on the ferry's top deck, just behind the pilothouse. During night crossings, and especially when the weather is bad, this small brightly lit area of the vessel is nearly always packed and noisy, a kind of lantern against the sea's roughness. Nobody pays much attention to famous faces in the lunchroom; famous faces are a lot of what Martha's Vineyard is about in the first place. The trip across Vineyard Sound takes 45 minutes and covers seven miles of open water. What the transit mostly is is boring, something you have to put up with to get from here to there.

I just wanted to confront him on Vietnam. I know it sounds extremist now. But tell me, what good would screaming in his face have done? What I felt about Vietnam was a lot deeper than that. I suppose this arrogance thing came back pretty hard. Here he was, starting out his long privileged weekend on the Vineyard, stretched out against the counter like that, talking loud, laughing, obviously enjoying himself a great deal. It was as if he owned the lousy steamship authority or something. I mean, why isn't he at least sitting down in his car with a ski mask over his face? I guess I began to feel crazy inside. This won't make any sense to you but it may have been his posture as much as anything that really did it to me.

The bearded man in tennis shoes was a 27-year-old artist who once had lived on Martha's Vineyard but who lately had been staying in Vermont. That afternoon he and two friends had driven to Cape Cod in a red Chevy pickup. Their plan was to catch an evening ferry over to the island and collect some of the artist's belongings, and then, in a day or so, head back up north. At the dock in Woods Hole, there had been a wait, as there often is, and so to pass the time the painter and his friends had gone into the Lee Side, which is a tavern across the street from the ferry slip. That's where they had first noticed McNamara. He was standing at the bar with his back partly turned, talking to the man with whom he'd soon board the Islander. The sight of the former secretary of defense under two presidents hadn't seemed to rile the artist's two friends, at least not in the beginning, although they remembered easily enough who he was. "What's the guy doing now?" one of them said. "Runs the World Bank or something," the artist said. It was true the artist had been drinking a little more than usual that day. It was also true things had not been going especially well in his life -- though not badly enough, he ever would have guessed, to ignite half-conscious impulses of murder in him. Two or three times before, the artist had gotten himself into trouble over his drinking, nothing very serious, maybe a night in a local clink, that's all. He was a nice Catholic kid from Worcester who was trying to be a painter -- basically, this is how he liked to think of himself.

Anyway, I led him around by the wheelhouse. He was right behind me. I felt very much in control. I think we were about a mile or two out of Woods Hole. It was very dark. Those can be pretty rough waters out there. Now, the pilothouse on the Islander, if you've ever been on the boat, comes around like this, in a kind of hard oval. There's a very narrow walkway on both sides. You're right at the edge of the ferry. All you've got protecting you from the sea is a four-foot railing with a metal grate in it that runs down to the floor of the deck. That's how he saved himself, you know. He got his hands locked in that damn grillwork of the railing and I couldn't get them loose for anything.

After he had driven the pickup truck onto the boat and had secured the gear, the artist had gone upstairs to the main deck to search for his friends, who already had boarded. He found them in the lunchroom. Many things were now roiling in his brain, all sorts of memories and pieces of memories seemed to be rushing back: the way he'd felt, for instance, when his two brothers went to the war and he'd ducked it. (One was an officer and had served twice.) And the letters he'd gotten from some of his relatives after he had finished art school and was living in Cambridge, letters that had such things in them as "What's the matter with you?" and "Hey, why does every family have to have a black sheep in it?" There also was a certain McNamara press conference the artist thought he could remember. He had watched it on TV. They'd been bombing heavily in the north then, and someone had asked McNamara whether any bombs were hitting villagers. He'd stood up there at the Pentagon with his pointer and his eyeglasses bouncing those weird polygons of light. His answer was so curt and condescending, at least that's how it came across to the artist. He'd said something to the effect of, well, one of the obvious things we learned in World War II is that bombs don't always fall where they're supposed to -- or this is how the artist remembered it, anyway.

"Have you seen him?" he said to his friends as soon as he entered the lunchroom. "Right over there," one of them said, nodding.

So we're out there on the walkway now, just the two of us, and he thinks I'm leading him to the pilothouse for his nonexistent phone call, and, well, I just turned on him. I was scared as hell, but I think I was pretty calm, too. I didn't say a word, you know, here's to Rolling Thunder, sir, or, this one's for the Gulf of Tonkin, you lying sack of crap. Nope, nothing like that. I just grabbed him. I got him by the belt and his shirt collar, right below his throat. I had him over, too. He was halfway over the side. He would have gone, another couple seconds. He was just kind of hanging there in the dark, clawing for the railing. I remember he screamed, "Oh, my God, no." But only once. Those may have been the only words between us. I'm pretty sure his glasses came off. I suppose the whole thing didn't last a minute. This was a cumulative thing in me, that's what I'm trying to tell you. Actually, I don't think they would have had a prayer of saving him. We were on the back side of the boat, since we were headed toward the island, so there was a good chance he was going to get sucked underneath, and in that case the propeller probably would have gotten him, if he hadn't drowned first.

What is running through the mind of an arrogant-seeming man whose flesh has gone ice-white in the dark and whose famous wire glasses have been knocked to the floor but who has managed somehow to interlock his fingers in the sharp metal grillwork of a ship's railing and hold on with something beyond strength -- even as a short, insane bull of a figure beside him keeps jamming at his throat with the heel of his hand, keeps struggling to pry the stuck fingers free and finish off the job?

He was amazingly strong, I'll give him that. You know, this thing has shown up over the years in a lot of places. It's always part of some larger story, some larger point. I saw it once in the Boston Phoenix. It was a paragraph or two in either Time or Newsweek. It was in a New Republic article about him. A lady named Anne Simon included it in a book about Martha's Vineyard. The thing is practically folklore in certain quarters of the island. But nobody ever came around to ask me about it. As a consequence, they always get it wrong. Almost everything that's ever been written about it is wrong, as a matter of fact. I've seen it said, for instance, that the reason I attacked him was because I was angry that he and his wealthy friends from the mainland had formed a syndicate to buy up property at Jungle Beach, on the south end of the island, and that they were going to try to shut down the nude swimming that goes on out there. Well, let me tell you something: You don't try to throw somebody off a boat in the middle of Vineyard Sound because of that, unless you're really crazy. I'll tell you something else: It's always annoyed me a little bit, the way they say McNamara "overpowered" his assailant. You know, the big Colorado mountain climber proved too much for the crazed hippie type half his age. Well, he was going, he was over the side, believe me, another couple seconds, I'd say. I guess you'd have to say I'm glad he didn't go, because that would make me a murderer, and I'd probably be in prison, wouldn't I? I suppose I kind of regret what I did, but maybe in the context of the '60s and everything else, it makes some sense. I couldn't believe the way he was holding on. I almost like him for that. But anyway, the next thing I knew, somebody had me from behind by the neck, people were spilling out of the lunchroom, the crew was running over. There was a lot of commotion. A guy I knew who worked on the boat started pulling people off me. He got down by my face and said, "Now, look, don't you dare jump off this boat, okay?" I said, "Don't worry 'bout that, pal."

Everything is calm now. The attacked man retrieves his spectacles and smoothes his sport clothes and reenters the harsh fluorescent safety of the lunchroom. He cannot stop trembling and so he sits down in a booth against the wall. "Just keep the man away from me," he says to the first mate, who already has radioed ashore to the state police at Oak Bluffs and to the constables at Vineyard Haven. The attacker, meanwhile, is being held outside, a reasonable distance from his victim.

By the time the police come aboard the Islander, 30 minutes later, the man in tennis shoes has vanished. His friend from the crew has helped him jump off the back of the boat and disappear into the dark before the gangways are even down. But it doesn't matter, because the president of the World Bank says he has changed his mind and will not press charges after all. He just wants it dropped. Yes, he is sure. So no police report is filed, no arrest warrant is made out. Nothing of the attack shows up in the ship's log for that evening, nor is any kind of note ever inserted into the corporate records of the Woods Hole, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket Steamship Authority. But of course a story like this cannot disappear. People will always talk, and within hours of the incident half a dozen versions have burned across Martha's Vineyard. Two weeks later a brief story goes out over the Associated Press wire ("Ferry Assault on McNamara"), describing the artist as an unidentified man who "had been around the island for some time." Vineyard residents continue to gossip all that autumn as to who, exactly, the assailant is. Among some of the artist's semi-radical friends, and even among his more conventional friends, the consensus seems neatly split: It was a mad thing to have done; it was, well, exactly the thing to have done, not that anyone wished the guy dead or anything, no, just a terrible scaring in the wet pitch of an open sea was fine. But no one ever comes up to the artist and says, "Listen, buddy, you ought to be behind bars." With a certain curiosity and wary regard is the way people seem to treat him now.

There is talk the FBI has been around investigating. The attacked man, understandably, finds it difficult discussing the incident with anyone. McNamara's wife doesn't tell her sister for years, and then Marg only mentions it to Kay in the context of some other outrageous behaviors. Once, on a visit to California, McNamara lets it be known to the wife of his best man from 40 years before that of all the ugly things that have happened to him in his public life, this one came closest to unhinging him. And yet he says it in a way as though to suggest he bears no particular grudge toward the man who did it, maybe even has the tiniest sliver of respect for him. And still later, when McNamara is describing that night to one of his old deputies from the Pentagon, he suddenly stands up and begins clawing smooth Manhattan office air for an invisible grate. True to character, Robert McNamara says he will be damned if somebody thinks for two seconds something like this, or anything else for that matter, is going to drive him off Martha's Vineyard, a place he has grown to love so much in the last several years. No way. They can hurl all the rotten tomatoes on his porch they want, they can fornicate on the beach in front of his house till the tide comes in if they wish to.

The artist? Well, he lies low for a little while, then slips off the island. But eventually he comes back and resumes his painting. His work gets into some galleries in New York, he marries, he becomes a father, he sets up a studio behind a laundromat in one of the island's smaller towns. Comedian John Belushi, who, in an ironic turn, has purchased McNamara's vacation house out at Lucy Vincent Beach, even comes by one afternoon to paw through the artist's paintings. The word "counterculture" doesn't seem to fit the artist anymore. One night five or six years after the incident, the artist is sitting in a restaurant in Edgartown, having dinner with friends. He looks up and there, at another table, no more than six feet away, is Robert McNamara. The artist nods, almost imperceptibly. Both men go back to their dinners. Their eye contact has lasted only a second.

I suppose I think about it every now and then. I've seen him around the island several times, actually. Look, I've got kids, you know, it's not exactly as if I want this thing on my tombstone. No, I wouldn't say I hate the guy at all. You get a chance at one of these people, right? You're out there. Maybe the chance will never come back. I figure we both paid something that night. He got the message. I seriously doubt it would have happened if it had been practically anybody else from the war standing there, maybe not even old LBJ himself. Nope, it had to be McNamara, at least for me. He became for me, well, something I can't really describe to you. Look, I was a slacker from art school with two brothers who went to Vietnam. I just wanted to do my painting and be left alone, and instead I'm being threatened by my local draft board. That was part of it, not all of it. Sure I had gone to the meetings in Cambridge about leaving for Canada, I was considering doing that. But my mother's brother was an admiral in World War II. He even won the Medal of Honor. A cousin in our family was a major in the Marine Corps. One of my own brothers, the one who went to Vietnam twice, is now a general. There were all these family ghosts in me, that's what I'm trying to say. I saw him there and something happened. This thing still comes up in my life. Just the other day I was stepping off my front porch when a woman I'd never seen before yelled out from across the street, with a kind of cackle in her voice. "Hey, aren't you the guy who tried to throw McNamara off the ferry?" My standard answer is, "Nah, I was just there that night." Here's something. I went into a bar way up by Canada a few months ago, a place where I used to drink occasionally. Now those guys up there, they don't know Robert McNamara from Kermit the Frog. And one of them sees me coming in the door and calls out, "Hey, lookie who's here, and Robert Mac-Na-Marry is comin' in right behind on his shoulder." On his shoulder, the guy said. That's rich. THIS IS THE PART WHERE THE NARRATOR COMES downstage and talks directly to the audience, like the stage manager in "Our Town." The foregoing tale, at least the bulk of it, was related in one 50-minute sitting one autumn afternoon in 1985. When I first walked up to the artist, who didn't look murderous at all, he was standing in the doorway of the ramshackle building on Martha's Vineyard where he does most of his painting and drawing. He had on tennis shoes and an old canvas shirt and a pair of khakis streaked with oil paint. He was bearded and looked to be in his early forties -- maybe 5-foot-6 in height, maybe 130 pounds in weight. My first thought was that he was much too small to assault anyone. He made no move to invite me inside, just stood in the door with his arms crossed, working an aromatic pipe between thin pale lips. Five minutes earlier I had spoken to him, for the first time in my life, from a pay phone 200 yards up the road. In the previous week I had made about two dozen calls to Martha's Vineyard and other places, trying to learn the artist's name and whereabouts. Then suddenly somebody was saying, yes, he knew right where the artist was, which turned out to be almost within earshot of where he had lived years before. I had flown to Massachusetts and driven down to Woods Hole and bought a ticket on the ferry and ridden over to the island this day without any notion of whether I might find him home. I was afraid if I tried contacting him in advance, he'd get skittish and tell me not to bother. So I decided to do it cold and on my luck.

"How do you know it was me?" he said from the doorway, chewing on the pipe, speaking softly. I had just said, probably not very coherently, that I was struggling to write a book about McNamara and that I couldn't really go on with this part unless he decided to help me. He didn't say anything, just kept studying me and working on the pipe. Behind him I could see canvases, nailed to wooden frames, in various stages of completion.

"Sergeant Welch at Vineyard Haven remembered it was you," I tacked on.

The smallest edge came into his voice, and he came forward half an inch. "Well, maybe Sergeant Welch is wrong."

But in another moment I was let in and directed toward a lone chair. His studio was chilly and dimly lit; a radio was tuned low to classical music. The artist stood across from me and with almost no prompting began telling the story. It seemed to fall out in a lump; all I had to do was scribble. His one stipulation was that I not identify him by name in anything I wrote about the incident. About halfway through, he went over to a wood stove and knelt down and began building up a fire. It was as if the physical act of snapping pieces of kindling in two was helping him to remember small details. Parts of the story were enacted, and not just for my benefit, I suspect. When he got to the moment where the posing messenger turns wordlessly on the man behind him, the artist said, standing just above me, his movements nearly in pantomime: "It was a pivot, you see, like this. One, two, three, then I've got him, he's in the air, he's going over."

That evening I rode back to the mainland thinking I had just rubbed the Rosetta stone of all the imploded anger of the '60s.

A year later I went back to Martha's Vineyard and spoke to the artist again. I went for several reasons: to clarify some details of the incident; to ask if he would consider changing his mind and allow me to use his name in print; to inquire whether his reliving of the story for me the year before had seemed to alter anything in his life or work or maybe even in his feelings about the man he'd attacked (inasmuch as my own feelings about the same man seemed capable of abrupt reversals). And, most important, to ask about his two friends who were traveling with him on the ferry that night. Because in the intervening year I had heard from several people that one of the two young men who had ridden down from Vermont with the artist in the pickup truck -- who supported what he did on the Islander that evening, if not exactly egged it on -- is himself the son of a powerful American figure. In fact, several people who are frequenters of Martha's Vineyard told me they were almost positive it was this man's son, and not the artist, who had tried to throw McNamara off the ferry. Even though I knew that not to be the case, there suddenly seemed another level of resonance to the story: pained sons assaulting famous men who in a figurative sense could be their own fathers -- well, if not assaulting, at least hanging in the vicinity while an assault goes on.

Indeed, I once had had occasion, in the interval between the first time I talked with the artist and the day I went back to speak to him again, to bring up the incident to Robert McNamara's own son. We were on Craig McNamara's walnut farm in northern California, and the two of us had talked of many things that afternoon. Shaking his head slowly, wanting and not wanting me to go on with it, Craig, who is in his late thirties, a father, a husband, a sensitive but most of all a peaceable man, said: "Whew, it almost could have been any of us out there that night." Then he'd said, not looking up, his voice going low in exactly the way I have heard his father's go low, "Was dad pretty shaken up, I guess?" Craig had heard of the incident before, though only in the vaguest terms. He had not ever tried discussing it with his father, nor had he ever tried finding out anything about it on his own. For one thing, there were so many other terrible things that had happened in his family back then, and none of those ever really got out into the open either.

When I spoke to the artist this time, he had just returned to the Vineyard from a week in New York, where an exhibition of his work was about to open at a private dealer's gallery in SoHo. He had sold a large number of paintings and drawings over the summer, he said. In the month of August alone, he had sold 25 pieces. One went for $5,000. He said he was far from rich, but he wasn't starving anymore either.

We had talked on the phone the evening before. I was still in Woods Hole. A very young female voice had answered.

"Daddy, it's for you," the voice had said.

We met at 9:30 a.m., an October Saturday. The straw-yellow grasses one sees everywhere on the island were slashed now with purples and golds; the wild asters were in bloom. The father of five children -- two are the artist's, three are his stepchildren -- probably would have liked sleeping in. But here was somebody stirring it up again.

"Yes, our talk last year brought the thing back up to a certain level of consciousness," he said. "Maybe some of it even got into my work, I wouldn't really know. To tell you the truth, I wonder if I'll ever be free of the damn thing, in one way or another."

"Yes," I said quickly, "in the same way the man you tried to throw into Vineyard Sound will probably never be free of Vietnam, in one way or another, even though you might say there's this whole other part of his life that's valid, more than valid."

He laughed, granting a point. It wasn't a very pleasant laugh. "I'll bet it wasn't even two weeks ago that somebody, a lady, brought it up to me -- right in the spot where you parked your car a few minutes ago. By the way, I saw him again this summer. I was sitting in my car, waiting on my wife, who was in the grocery or something, and here he comes, walking down the sidewalk in Vineyard Haven, right at me, the big power walk, in khakis and some sport-shirt deal, eating up the street like he always does, just full of himself. I thought, hell, what do I do, hop out and shake hands: 'Hello, Bob. Remember me?' I guess what I'm trying to say is I don't need it. I don't need that person coming up to me the other day and mentioning it. I don't really need you coming around again to remind me. I don't need to see McNamara when I'm in Vineyard Haven with my wife. I don't want sympathy out of the thing, and I don't want to be hated for it, and I don't wish to be anybody's fantasy -- or surrogate hero either. I would just like to drop it. But it keeps coming back. You see, what got to me in the first place is here's this guy crossing Vineyard Sound on a ferry one Friday night whose very posture is telling you, 'My history is fine, and I can be slumped over a bar like this with my good friend Ralph here and you'll have to lump it.' Well, I got him outside, just the two of us, and suddenly his history wasn't so fine, was it? Look, I'm a painter, I work in fairly immediate contexts. I responded to something. As I told you last time, I could have tried pasting him in the face with an obscenity in the lunchroom. I think it had a little more impact to make it a shot to the water."

I changed the subject. "Who were your two friends with you on the boat? I've heard one of them is the son of ------- --------. In fact, some people believe he's the one who tried to throw McNamara over."

The anger subsided. "One of them, Michael, is dead now. I don't want to go into it. It was Michael who told me how bad McNamara looked when he came back into the lunchroom. Ripped up, Michael said. I've tried many times to imagine exactly what that looked like. The other friend of mine you're asking about . . ."

He stopped and stared at me. "Well, if I'm not going to allow you to use my name, and I guess I'm still not, how would it be fair for me to give you his?"

"I guess it isn't fair," I said, unable to keep the disappointment out of my voice. But it seemed a kind of confirmation all the same; also a small edification.

I asked if his wife knew about the incident when she married him.

"She knew about it before she met me. And she knew I was the one."

He went across the room and stood in front of a drawing pinned to the wall. The drawing was done in bold dark strokes and seemed to be presenting two not-very-attractive male heads positioned very close together, one staring out at the world, the other turning sideways, as if whispering a message to its companion. There was something freakish about the drawing, but the two male heads had power, all right.

"You take these two heads, very quick strokes, they begin and they end, just two heads I drew one day with a lithograph block. Now I don't know where in hell these two heads came from. I mean, maybe I saw this nose in an alley one night when I was turning a corner. Maybe I saw this eye over in Chilmark. Maybe I saw . . . What I'm trying to say is that if you have something inside you you're itching to express, one way or another it's probably going to come out."

I was halfway down the path that leads away from his studio when he yelled, "Hey, thanks for coming back."

I was disappointed that the ferry carrying me back to the mainland wasn't the Islander. That would have boxed the story up, sort of. But then, just as we eased into Woods Hole, I looked over and there the Islander was, tied up at the next pier. Her name was spelled out in black letters on the side of the pilothouse. On the top deck, just away from the lunchroom, a man with a sledgehammer was busting apart the flooring and also some of the black metal grillwork that supports the ferry's railing. He was heaving and slamming. This is too symbolic, I thought. I disembarked and went over and asked a man from the steamship authority what was going on.

"She's out of commission till January," he said. "We're doing repairs. The Islander's a great boat, though. Come January, I figure she'll be ready for anything." ::

Paul Hendrickson is working on a book about the life and times of Robert McNamara.