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Packing Parachutes
Packing Parachutes
Charlie Plumb '64 is a common man with an uncommon story. Raised in America's heartland, he graduated from the United States Naval Academy and became a jet fighter pilot. After seventy-five combat missions over North Vietnam, his plane was destroyed by a surface-to-air missile. He ejected and parachuted into enemy hands. He was captured and spent the next six years in a Communist prison undergoing degradation, humiliation, brutality and torture. Charles describes that experience as “a proving ground for basic psychological principles."

He was repatriated to the United States and began a series of lectures taking him to every state in the nation and many foreign countries. He has appeared to CBS Morning News, The Today Show, Larry King Live, and many others. He retained his Navy affiliation and he holds the rank of Captain in the Reserves.

My first prison cell in Vietnam was eight feet long and eight feet wide. I could pace three steps one way and three steps the other. Inside the cell there were no books to read, no window to look out; no TV, telephone or radio... I didn't have a real pencil or a piece of paper for 2,103 days. I didn't have a roommate for several months.

What I had was three steps one way and three steps the other. I was going stir crazy in that cell. I finally decided, “Charlie, you must come up with something to do or you’re going to go nuts in here.” So I made a little game to play. I constructed a little deck of playing cards from 52 strips of toilet paper. I can tell you this with authority; it’s tough to shuffle toilet paper!

Recently, my wife Cathy and I were sitting in a restaurant. A man about two tables away kept looking at me. I didn"t recognize him. A few minutes into our meal he stood up and walked over to our table, looked down at me, pointed his finger in my face and said, “You're Plumb.” I looked up and I said, “Yes, sir, I'm Plumb.” He said, “You flew jet fighters in Vietnam. You were on the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. You were shot down. You parachuted into enemy hands and spent six years as a prisoner of war."

I said, “How in the world did you know that?” He replied, “I packed your parachute."

I staggered to my feet and held out a very grateful hand of thanks. I was speechless. This guy came up with just the proper words. He grabbed my hand, pumped my arm and said, “I guess it worked.”

“Yes, sir, indeed it did,” I said, “ and I must tell you I’ve said a lot of prayers of thanks for your nimble fingers, but I never thought I’d have the opportunity to express my gratitude in person.”

He said, “Were all the panels there?”

“Well, sir I must shoot straight with you,” I said, “of the 18 panels, that were supposed to be in that parachute, I had 15 good ones. Three were torn, but it wasn’t your fault, it was mine. I jumped out of that jet fighter at high rate of speed, close to the ground. That’s what tore the panels in the parachute, it wasn’t the way you packed it.”

I didn’t get much sleep that night. I kept thinking about that man. I kept wondering what he might have looked like in a navy uniform-- a dixie cup hat, a bib in the back and bell bottom trousers. I wondered how many times I might have passed him on board the Kitty Hawk. I wondered how many times I might have seen him and not even said good morning, how are you or anything because, you see, I was a fighter pilot and he was just a sailor. How many hours did he spend on that long wooden table in the bowels of that ship weaving the shrouds and folding the silks of those chutes, doing a standard (or even mediocre) job? I could have cared less...until one day my parachute came along and he packed mine for me.

So the philosophical question is “Who’s packing your parachute?” Everybody needs someone to pack their parachute. We all need that kind of support in time of need. We all need those who step out in front and say, “Yes, I’ll help.”

My parachute was well packed when I was shot down over enemy territory. My physical parachute, my mental parachute, my emotional parachute and my spiritual parachute were pretty well in place.

All that parachute packing began in a very small town in Kansas. I loved that town. My parachute was packed by my Dad, my Mom , my big sister, my two little brothers and a coach named Smith.

Clancy Smith was a 65-year-old World War I veteran. He was a tough hombre who still had some shrapnel in one leg. He walked with a limp. We were the last team he ever coached and unfortunately, we didn’t have a very good season. Our record was one and seven. We wanted to with that last game for him, but we lost. I’ll never forget walking back to the locker room and Coach Smith came up and put his arm over my sweaty shoulder. I looked up at him and said, “I’m sorry couch, I guess we’re just a bunch of losers.” He squeezed my shoulder, sunk his fingers into my flesh and said, “Son, whether you think you’re a loser or whether you think you’re a winner... you’re right.”

The next day at school I said, “Coach, I don’t understand what you meant. Would you explain it to me?”

He said, “Son, I don’t want you to come back here in four or five years and tell me the reason you failed in high school and college was because you didn’t learn anything in this little county school. I don’t want you coming back here in six or eight years and telling me that the reason you couldn’t get a job was because you weren’t educated. I don’t want you telling me in 12 or 14 years you failed was because you married the wrong girl.” He said, “What makes the difference between your success or failure is you. It’s a choice. You can choose success, you can choose failure, or you can choose to give away the choice.”

I graduated from that little grade school and I went away to Annapolis, the Naval Academy, where I was held prisoner! They let me go after four years, but I got my parachute packed there too. Admiral Charles Kirkpatrick was the Commandant of Midshipmen. He would stand up in front of the big pep rallies and clench his fists so tight you could see the veins run in his brow, and he’d say, “You guys can do anything you set your mind to do.” That became our motto. For four years we didn’t know how to lose. And we didn’t very often. We were the number two and number one team in the the nation. Best of all, Navy beat Army four times straight.!

Uncle Charlie was right. We could do any thing we set our minds to do!

I graduated from Annapolis, married my high school sweetheart and was sent to Flight Training. Two and a half years later I was qualified to pilot the F-4B Phantom jet, the hottest fighter plane in the world, and set sail on the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. for Vietnam.

After 75 combat missions, on the 19th of May, my jet fighter was hit by a surface-to-air missile. The radar interceptor officer in my back seat and I started to tumble through the sky. We found ourselves upside down going down at 500 miles per hour-- a screaming fireball headed for the ground. My co-pilot was getting a little concerned! He said, “You want to get out, Charlie?” “Wait a minute,” I Said. “We have this extra special problem.” The way you normally get out of a jet fighter is with an ejection seat. It’s like a rocket under your chair. Set off the rocket and it shoots the chair off the top of the airplane. We were upside down. To eject from that altitude upside down would have planted us about six and a half feet below the level of the rice paddy.

I had to turn the airplane upright. I grabbed the stick but it was frozen. I’d lost all my hydraulics. The only control I had left was a manual rudder. I hit that rudder as hard as I could. The airplane shuddered, rolled back upright and we ejected. We came floating down in our parachutes over enemy territory.

Ever been in one of those parachutes? I don’t mean the silk and nylon kind, I’m talking about those fender benders, the hang nails, the little things that get us.

The parachute opened. I looked at my co-pilot, he was in good shape, and then I bowed my head and said a prayer. I asked for strength from above.

We drifted down to the ground and were captured immediately and hauled into the prison camp. I was tortured for military information and political propaganda.. After two days of that they put me in the cell, the one I described to you at the beginning. It was in fact eight feet long and eight feet wide. Now, I was moved around to several cells during my captivity--some were larger, some were smaller, but the first cell and the average cell was 8 x 8. I could, in fact, take three steps one way and three steps the other. I was afraid. I feared not only for my life but for the lives of my buddies. I feared for those who were at home waiting for me; my wife, my family and friends.

I was pacing along back and forth across that cell. I was well into my 200th mile when I heard, in the far corner, the chirping noise of a cricket. I paid no attention at first. Yet, the longer I listened to the cricket the more rhythmic it became.

“Now, that’s a pretty educated little critter.” I thought to myself, “Maybe I can teach that dude to sing.” So I walked over to the corner and found it wasn’t a cricket at all but a piece of wire. It was about four inches long and was coming out of a hole at the base of the cell wall and scratching on my concrete floor making a chirping noise like a cricket. I watched the wire bobbing in and out of the wall for quite a while.

I figured the wire had to be connected to an American on the other end, maybe on the other side of the storeroom next to my cell. I needed to communicate with another American. By that time in my experience I was losing track of what was a real memory and what was just a hallucination. I needed to tug on the wire.

But, the overriding emotion was fear. I was afraid to tug on the wire. I was sure that on the other end there was going to be another macho fighter pilot who was stronger than I and who wouldn’t understand the condition I was in (and he probably didn’t cry when they tortured him). I was 24 years old, a jet fighter pilot, the guy who was supposed to have “ the right stuff.”

I was a graduate from the Naval Academy, an Officer in the greatest Navy in the world. But, I had 27 boils on my front side and a bunch more on my back. I was bleeding from four open wounds from the torture. I was in the prime of my youth, but I was down to 115 pounds. rotting away in a communist prison camp. My sole possession in life, was a rag I had knotted around my waist to hide my nudity. I didn’t want anyone else, least of all one of my peers, to see me the way I saw myself.

Ever had that kind of fear? I guess we all do some times. We’re all afraid once in a while to tug on a wire. We’re all afraid once in a while to offer to pack that parachute.

Finally, I got the guts up to do it. I knelt down in the prison cell and reached for the wire. I tugged on it three times and it tugged back three times. I tugged again and it tugged again. I tugged four times and it disappeared. Well, I stepped back in the cell wondering what would happen next. The little wire came back an hour later. Wrapped around the end of the wire was a little note. It was made of toilet paper. Just blobs of ashes on this wadded up piece of toilet paper. It said, “Memorize this note. I knelt down again at the hole in the wall and started tugging on the little wire. On the other end of the wire was lieutenant Commander Bob Schumacher, fighter pilot and astronaut candidate and best of all, a “ parachute packer.” He’d been there two years when I arrived. His first words were,

“How you doing, buddy?”

That was my cue. I’d been looking for someone to tell my troubles to so I said, “I’m doing terrible, buddy.” I said, “My president sent me over here and I got shot down in his beautiful little war. Then some idiot mechanic didn't put a transistor in the airplane. Get Congress over here. They’re the ones who appropriated all the money. Let them sit in this prison camp. I am the victim of circumstances beyond my control. I’m going to rot away and die in here because of someone else’s mistake. Help me!”

He said,”You want to know your biggest problem?”

I thought, “You mean I got problems bigger than the ones I can see?”

It sure sounds like it,” he said. “It sounds like you’re suffering from a fairly common disease that can kill you if you don’t catch it in time.”

I said,”What’s the name of this disease, maybe I know something about it.”

He said, ”What’s the name of this disease, maybe I know something about it.”

He said, “Around here we call it ‘prison thinking.’”

I said, “prison thinking.”

He said, “Roger. You think you’re a prisoner.”

I thought, what kind of nut did they put me next to? This guy’s in space somewhere. He doesn’t know how badly I hurt. but, I had to keep communicating, I had to keep tugging on the wire. I said, “Tell me about ‘prison thinking.’”

He said, “Well, when a guy gets shot down, the very normal red-blooded American thing for him to do is start feeling sorry for himself and blaming everybody else. “ He said, You go into the ‘woe is me’ mode of life. ‘Woe is me, poor mama Plumb’s little boy Charlie is a long way from home in a communist prison camp.’ You get a bushel of pity and then just wallow in it. Then you start blaming everybody you can think of. Blame your president for sending you over here, blame Congress for appropriating the money, blame your mechanic for putting your airplane together, blame your mother for giving you birth. The problem with this, of course, is that when you start blaming other people for your misfortune you suddenly give them control over your life.” And it hit me, that’s what the coach was saying years before. I do have the choice. I control my own destiny.

I must admit, it took me a long time to validate that principle. I’m still working on it today. I get out here on the highway, I’m driving down the road minding my own business doing 55 right on the double nickel. Some idiot comes around me and cuts me off. I hit my horn, I hit my brake, I wave my fist, I yell some obscenity and all day long I’m stirring up those cholesterols, see, getting ready for a good old heart attack. While the guy that cut me off is just driving right on down the road. Doesn’t even know my name and yet he’s got control of my life.

I said,”Okay, Schumacher. You’ve got my attention. Now tell me, what’s the antidote for this disease?”

He said, “Well, the first thing you need to brake down the walls of ‘prison thinking’ is faith. Not just spiritual faith, you also have to have faith in your country and faith in your roots. The second thing you need while you’re here is commitment. You’ve go to be committed to a set of standards you can’t be afraid to stand up and tell the world what you think is right. The third thing you need is PRIDE.”

I said,” Pride.” I looked at my poor wretched body again.

“That’s right, pride. You’ve got to be proud of yourself. You’ve got to believe you’re a good enough person, you can overcome all the problems and, one of these days, march out of here a proud American with your head held high.”

I said, “Okay, I think I’ve got those things--faith, commitment, pride.”

I found during the next six years that those three factors were more important than the rice we ate or the water we drank. Schomacher sure packed my parachute that day. He gave me the panels which allowed me to overcome the adversity of prison life, but he certainly wasn’t the only one to do it. If we hadn’t been involved in the fellowship of prisoners of war I don’t think I'd be alive today.

One of the greatest parachute packers of all in that camp was an enlisted man. Most of us, as you know, were officers and pilots, we had very few enlisted men in the prison camps in Vietnam, and yet , one guy was there. He was a Navy sailor. How did a navy sailor get into a prison camp in an air war in Asia? He fell off his ship and got washed ashore! Try to explain that to your commanding officer.

“Seaman Douglas Hegdahl from Clark, South Dakota.” He had enlisted in the Navy when he was 17 and they sent him off to a place that he couldn’t even pronounce. Late one night he fell off the back of his ship. He floated around for six hours, finally washed ashore, was captured and put into a prison camp 10,000 miles away from home in a communist country where he had to live with 200 macho fighter pilots--which may have been the worst part of all.

Young Hegdahl could take a joke. He was the Radar O’Reilly kind of a kid. What a parachute packer! We’d have these contests. We’d tug on the wire and tap on the wall in our secret code. We’d say, “Who’s the oldest in the prison camp,” or “Who’s been here the longest,” or “Who’s got the most children back home?” One time we had what we called the “High Fast--Low Slow” contest to determine what pilot had ejected from his airplane highest and fastest, who had gone out lowest and slowest. Well, High Fast was won be some Air Force jock who punched out of his F-105 at 52,000 feet and 1,000 miles an hour. The Low Slow contest was won by Seaman Hegdahl--12 feet at 15 knots.

About three years into my stay, the North Vietnamese were getting a lot of flak from the World press about their treatment of prisoners and their torture techniques. So they decided to release some guys early as proof of their good will. Most of us wee given an opportunity to go home early. But we had a code; the Code of Conduct. It’s not a military regulation, it’s only a code. You can’t be court-martialed for violating it. And yet, we knew the strength of our unity, so we elected not to accept early release. Our senior man selected Seaman Hegdahl to go home. Why? Hegdahl was the youngest person there, and an enlisted man; but more importantly, Hegdahl had developed a photographic memory in that prison camp. He’d gone through the list of 200 prisoners and memorized their first, middle, and last names. He memorized our next of kin and then each hometown of each of the relatives. Finally, he memorized the telephone numbers of each of the relatives of each of the 200 prisoners of war.

Well, Seaman Hegdahl came home. Here’s a nineteen year old lad, a sailor with two years back pay in his pocket, hadn’t seen a girl in two years and he’s free on the streets of San Diego. Remember, he’s a parachute packer. He started to travel. He went from the West Coast to the East Coast. He spent his own time and a lot of his own money. He went North to South. He went through each of the hometowns he’d memorized. He spoke to each of the relatives he’d memorized and told them that their prisoner was alive. Doug Hegdahl wasn’t looking for a great kudo or accolade. No achievement medals were given for what he was doing.

We wondered for six years how we’d find out we were going home. Finally they told us. A peace treaty was signed and POW exchange was underway. We launched out of there on a Air Force C-141. What a sight that was -I had a big lump in my throat - the American Flag on the side of the airplane. Wow! Our first stop was Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. I made a telephone call I’d been wanting to make for six years to my wife in Kansas. And she had gone. I called my Dad.

“Dad, what’s happened to my wife?”

He said, “Come on home son, and we’ll talk about that face to face.”

I said, “Dad, it’s going to take me three days to get back. Tell me now, will you? What’s happened?” My father couldn’t do it so he passed telephone to my mother. I’ll never forget her words.

She said, “Son, I’d give ten year of my life if I didn’t have to tell you this. Your wife filed for divorce... just three months ago. She’s engaged to another man.”

I returned to Kansas City and found lots of well-meaning people giving me advice. The legal advisors were all saying, “sue her and her boyfriend. We’ve got the papers all written out (which they did). Just sign right here. We’re going to put him in jail. We’re going to take them for all they’re worth. That’ll fix them.” Psychiatrists and psychologists had some pretty good ideas too. They were saying,”Charlie, you’ve got to get angry about this. You’ve got to get all this stuff out of your system. If anybody has this right to be bitter, you do.”

Imagine that. Somebody telling me I have the right to be bitter. I’m saying to myself, “Now wait a minute. I fully admit I am a Rip Van Winkle awakened after six years. I really don’t know exactly what’s going on here, but I have been through six years of the ‘University of Hanoi.’ And I got a degree in hard knocks. But, if there’s one single thing I validated in that communist prison camp it’s this” Coach Smith was right. It is my choice. I can choose to be bitter, and maybe that’s the easiest choice. I can choose to sue everybody I can think of. I can choose to be really angry. I can choose to crawl over in the corner and die and I know I can do that. I have that capability, I’ve seen men do it. Or, I have another choice. Pick up the pieces of this great jigsaw puzzle, press on with my life with the confidence and the commitment that it’s going to take and live every day to the fullest, regardless of the price.” That’s what I’ve done, and that’s what the other men have done too. You know who we are, you read about us in the papers. The ex-POW’s from Vietnam are alive and well.

We had a POW reunion recently in Washington, D.C.. We’re setting records. So far we’ve produced two U.S. Senators. We have state legislators all over the country. We have bishops, judges, teachers, doctors, lawyers, professional pilots, and public speakers. The medical community tells us we’re healthier today, mentally and physically, than the men who didn’t get shot down. Schumacher, the guy on the end of the wire, is a three star Admiral today. Doug Hegdahl, the kid who memorized the names, has a master degree and is teaching. My ex-wife went ahead and married the fellow she was engaged to. I bounced around the Country as a bachelor for a lot of years. I married a gal from Memphis, Tennessee. We have a handsome son a beautiful daughter.

But what’s the connection? You’ll never be a prisoner of war, you’ll never have to pace three steps one direction and then turn around and pace three steps the other. you’ll never have to learn all of those codes. But, don’t you see the similarity? Each of us has a choice. We have the choice to stand up and be counted for what we think is right. We have the choice to give of ourselves and pack those parachutes. We have a choice to be part of the team. When you get older and look back on your life, you don’t count dollars, you count the parachutes you packed.

Six years is a long time to pace three steps one direction and three steps the other. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. And yet, I would tell you it’s the most valuable six years of my life. Amazing what a little adversity can teach a person. It gives a man a pause to think, “How will I survive? What are the techniques of survival, what are the properties of a winner?” There’s no bed of roses. You’ll have some mountains to climb and some parachutes to pack and you’ll have to tug on some wires along the way. You’ll have to apply the faith, the commitment and the personal pride. But if you can put those basic principles together as part of your daily discipline you truly can “do anything you set your mind to do.”

SOURCE: Charles Plumb, “Packing Parachutes,” in Insights to Excellence, Executive Books, Harrisburg, PA; reprinted by permission.

 New 9/1/01 by Ray Trygstad '77. Web page (but not text content) copyright 1996-2001 Webmaster Sources, Naperville, IL