BOUNCING BACK: How a Heroic Band of POWs Survived Vietnam by Geoffrey Norman

BOUNCING BACK: How a Heroic Band of POWs Survived Vietnam

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Shot down in 1967, Lt. Cmdr. Al Stafford was held prisoner by the North Vietnamese until the cease-fire in early 1973. Here, novelist (Midnight Water, 1983) and sportswriter (Alabama Showdown, 1986) Norman offers a deliberate, often painful look at the privation and drudgery of life as a POW--but also reveals a surprising richness. After his capture, Stafford, with a broken arm and ribs, was taken to Hoa Lo, to the infamous ""Hanoi Hilton."" He was interrogated, beaten, and strung up ""in the ropes,"" and later was moved to a prison camp the POWs called ""the Plantation."" There, the inmates used a highly refined ""tap code"" to communicate through the walls of their cells. They not only passed essential information and lifesaving encouragement to those in solitary, but tapped out riddles, poetry, played cards and chess, and developed elaborate fantasies involving sailing, playing golf, or building houses. For months before actually meeting, Stafford and another POW exchanged bad puns--""Aesop's feebles""--through a half-inch hole in the wall. In one camp, Norman notes, Stafford and several others set up a ""college"" and taught classes--entirely from memory--in such subjects an animal husbandry, higher math, auto mechanics, Spanish, and literature; one POW even taught wine appreciation. But, as the author points out, ""the constants. . .were uncertainty, monotony, and fear."" The POWs lived for years on pumpkin soup and an occasional piece of bread, in extremely unsanitary circumstances, without medical care. Most learned that a key to survival was ""bouncing back,"" a formalized policy that allowed for a man to be ""broken"" by torture, illness, and deprivation, but ""the essential point was not to give up completely. . .but to rally,"" to take as much as possible, but to forgive yourself your limits. Serious and intelligent; unhindered by bitterness or the jingoistic flag-waving that often accompanies such accounts.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1990
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin