Hickville and Heroes

I grew up in Hickville, USA.  Literally.

Growing up, my hometown had about 3,000 people in it.  It’s long been a community of farmers and factory workers.  Tractors drive on the road almost as much as regular vehicles. 

I grew up with the normal amount of sports rivalry between us and other towns, but I never got the sense that many of us had a whole lot of pride in our little town itself.  Most of us just had lots of plans to get of it (though I always figured I’d stay close and here I am on the other side of the country!).

I always had the feeling that no one expected much to come out of our little town.

But something did.  Someone did.  And I spent the last three days reading about him.

James Stockdale was also born and raised in my home town.  I sort of knew who he was because our auditorium was named after him.  I had a vague sense that he was someone important in a military sort of way.  When I got older, I understood that he’d been a POW.  But that’s really all I could have told you.  I stowed all this away just loosely enough to think it fun to name our new cat “Stockdale.”  Now, I feel pretty silly for having done so.

On a whim the other day I ordered a copy of the book In Love and War written by James Stockdale and his wife, Sybil.  The book chronicles their journey during the Vietnam War beginning with Stockdale’s leading the air-strike in the Gulf of Tonkin and ending with his release from the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” after 8 years of being a prisoner there.

I related to their story on so many levels, first of all, because I grew up in the same podunk little town as Admiral Stockdale.  It was a trip to know the places he spoke of and to be acquainted with families he mentioned who still reside in that little town.

But I was equally swept away with Sybil’s story.  Here was a Navy wife who not only endured the difficult life of frequent deployments with her husband often in harms way as a fighter pilot, but she also faced the news that her husband was missing….  later discovered that he was a prisoner, and quickly realized that the treatment he was receiving at the hands of the North Vietnamese was far less than the ‘compassionate and humane’ relations that they claimed.

On top of that, she created a national league networking the spouses and family members of servicemembers who were missing in action or prisoners of war.  She fought tenaciously for the country to realize that the men in these prisons were being brutally tortured and did all that she could to bring awareness to their plight and to force the government to make them a national priority.  She fought the typical red-tape of the military in heart-breaking ways.  And she did it all while raising four kids.

I could only hope to have such steely strength.  Sybil is my new hero.

Admiral Stockdale was nothing short of phenomenal…  What a wise man, and what an amazing leader.  As the senior officer in prison, he organized the men around him, communicating mostly with taps on the walls.  He established a system of rules to structure adherence to the code of conduct established by the US military.  He resisted his captors to the point of self-mutilation. 

He survived 8 years of torture, of isolation, of years of accumulated time spent in leg irons, and came out of the experience still having hope and still believing in humanity.

It makes me stand taller when I think of where I grew up.  It makes me realize that humble roots can produce amazing men and women.  It makes me want to go back to my hometown and demand that everyone learn about how incredible this man who walked the same streets really was. 

I may have from Hickville, but I’m also from a place of real heroes.


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