"The Vietnam War," Ken Burns' latest documentary, has sparked not only discussion but—for those of us who lived through those years—memories. Mine were of a man who served in Vietnam, was captured and was lucky enough to return home.
When the prisoners of war started returning home in 1973, I plunked down in front of my family's TV on a cold March day to watch a group disembark from the latest flight. The previous year I had purchased the POW bracelet of Hugh Buchanan, a U.S. Air Force second lieutenant, and I wanted to be part of a welcome home ceremony. I was a 24-year-old teacher who had only slightly more life experience than my high school students. I wasn't very political, but I knew these flights were momentous.
I'm not a lucky person. I won a car when I was 16—my father had entered my name in a raffle—but when the sponsor found out I was a minor, they reneged. So when I heard Hugh's name announced as he stepped onto the tarmac, every fiber in my body took notice. I'd had no idea he would be on that plane that day. I moved closer to the TV screen to try and study his face, but the long-range camera shot didn't reveal much other than he had brown hair and was reed thin.
Not long after he returned to the U.S., Hugh wrote to thank me for wearing his bracelet. He was from the Midwest, single, in his early 30s, and living at home with his mother while getting settled. We exchanged a few letters and when he wrote that he was coming east to visit a nun who had also worn a bracelet with his name, he asked if he could stop by my house, as well. I may have allowed myself a bit of romantic fantasy, but at the time I was obsessed with another guy in a line of wrong-for-me boyfriends.
Hugh's plane had been shot down while heading to destroy a railroad bridge in the Red River Delta in North Vietnam. He was held captive in the Hilton Hanoi for more than six years, yet when I greeted him it hadn't occurred to me that he could look so sickly some months after his return. I wouldn't learn about the torture until later when I found entries about his military service online.
I don't know if I stuttered and made him as uncomfortable as I recall being, but he probably couldn't wait to leave. We continued writing sporadically, and he mentioned starting as a pilot for the now-defunct Eastern Airlines. Then he met Lauren, another Eastern employee, and married her. As our correspondence petered out, I assumed they had a passel of kids and that he continued flying for the airline.
But if Hugh became comfortable flying commercial jets instead of warplanes, my career path took a different turn. I had to travel for my next job as a corporate writer and I hated flying. I knew that statistics indicated I was safer in a plane than a car, but that didn't stop me from clenching my butt and grabbing the armrests on takeoff. I was the passenger you didn't want to be sitting next to, especially during turbulence.
During one flight, I pushed the call button not three seconds after the pilot announced that he couldn't fly above the turbulence we were about to hit, and that he hoped it would be short-lived. When the flight attendant arrived, I was a bowl of jelly as I blubbered about my fear of flying. Airlines were nicer then. Brows furrowed, the woman said she would have the copilot talk to me, turned on her heel and disappeared.
A few minutes later, I caught sight of a navy blue pilot's hat at the front of the plane and soon the copilot was standing next to my seat. My eyes doubled in size. It had probably been a decade since I'd even thought about Hugh, and here he was. When I told him who I was, he nodded and smiled. We caught up on each other's life for a few minutes, and now that my heart rate had slowed, I thanked him for coming back to my seat and told him I'd be fine the rest of the flight.
I watched him walk back to the cockpit and settled in. I didn't tell him what I was really thinking: He didn't make it home safely from Vietnam only to die on a commercial flight that day. That meant I was safe, as well.