POW Lessons For These Tough Times

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - March 17, 2010
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Two months ago I wrote a companion column with fellow columnist Bob Jones about our respective views on Vietnam based upon our different experiences there.

In that column, I mentioned that as a prisoner of war in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” I was interrogated by a young North Vietnamese Army officer, in which - to emphasize how out of touch I was with the rest of the world there in my tiny prison cell - he referred to me as “a frog at the bottom of a well looking up at the sky.” Indeed, for all he knew, I was as helpless, dependent and pitiful as such a frog might be. Actually, nothing could have been further from the truth.

For starters, I became determined to make my adversity there count for something positive: to use the time there - however long it may be (of course, I had no idea it would be over seven years) - to eventually come home better, stronger and smarter.


 

In the earliest years in solitary, I went through periods of deep introspection, recalling my life in as much detail as possible starting from my earliest memories to the present, how I came to be the person I was, understanding the source of both my strengths and my weaknesses. I learned how to deal with the guilt that dogged me there - guilt for the death of my crewman killed by our captors, guilt for what I was putting my family through, guilt for letting my squadron mates down and guilt for not being as tough as I had intended to be when tortured. As I began to understand my own humanness, I was able to find a more rational perspective for my guilt: Basically that when you do your honest-to-God best, who can ask for more?

I learned to communicate with my POW comrades there by tapping through the walls from cell to cell using the POW tap code.

Our “comm nets” were extensive, allowing us to maintain our military chain of command with the most senior officers passing on policy and encouragement. I was able to be in touch with new “shoot downs,” who passed current news on the war, political and social changes at home, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and most notably, Neil Armstrong taking the first step on the moon.

Any man who could pass on academic knowledge or expertise to others in his comm net did so. We studied foreign languages, math, art history, petroleum engineering, winemaking, architecture - you name it. We exchanged the classic poetry of Shakespeare, Kipling and Service. Inspired by them, we composed our own original poetry. Ultimately I had memorized a mix of nearly 50 classic and original poems. I memorized the names of new POWs as they were known, with a list ultimately of more than 600. My days were filled with prayer, memorization, communicating, exercising - including pacing back and forth in my cell, three steps each way, up to several miles per day. Inevitably the last communication through the walls each night was “GN- GBU- GBA” (Good Night-God Bless You-God Bless America!). And then quite often, before dropping off to sleep on my concrete slab, I’d realize I didn’t get everything done that I had wanted to do that day.


It has recently occurred to me that as the current economic challenges - significant cutbacks in work hours, months of unemployment, home mortgages near default, soaring credit card balances, college loans due, higher taxes and use fees - faced by many of us or family members or neighbors become ever more burdensome, we might begin to feel as helpless as “a frog at the bottom of a well looking up at the sky.” We should keep in mind, however, that there is opportunity in every crisis. Learning, for example, that we can still do well with less: less money, less food, less gasoline, less electricity, actually, less of nearly everything. We have an opportunity to make a habit of a more frugal and conservation-oriented lifestyle.

And for the unemployed, picture that next job interview when the interviewer asks, “And how have you spent your time all these weeks you’ve been unemployed?” Will you be able to say, “I volunteered at the Hawaii Foodbank” or “I played a lot of video games”? Would you like to say, “I coached youth soccer” or “I did a lot of fishing”? Or how about, “I took several college courses to improve my employability” instead of “I e-mailed out a lot of resumes”?

I guess the bottom line is being “a frog at the bottom of a well looking up at the sky” doesn’t have to be that bad if we’re committed to making the most of it.

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