When Ralph returned home in 1973 from Vietnam after more than seven horrid years I was recently single, had a two-year-old daughter—and the last thing on my mind was meeting someone on a blind date! Exactly one month after Ralph regained his freedom, we met at his cousin Judy’s in Miami and drove (in his Corvette) to Ft. Lauderdale. After a surprisingly fun and comfortable dinner, as we were driving home, Ralph reached over and held my hand. Outwardly I remained calm—but inside I jumped! It had been a long time since I had been on a date, and I wasn’t expecting things to progress so quickly—and easily! We came to a stop light, we gazed at each other, he reached over—and kissed me! While the kiss was a bit of a surprise, the big surprise was that, for the very first time ever, I felt sparks flying! (I’d thought that only happened in the movies!) I was thrilled—and a little scared. But not too scared to willingly throw myself into a whirlwind of dating him!
It wasn’t long until the deal was sealed when my daughter Nikki and I met Ralph’s family in the Florida Keys for a weekend. His family embraced us. They were all warm and kind, and we felt like family right away. Nikki loved his parents. Ralph’s mom, Frances, was a lovely lady and the strength of the family. I miss her chocolate pie but especially her warm smile and hugs.
Later that evening, after scuba diving together, Ralph and I took a walk in the moonlight. We sat under the palm trees and started talking about how fast our relationship was going. He reached over, tenderly brushed his fingers thru my long blonde hair, and kissed me again. He asked me to marry him. I knew it was genuine and spontaneous because the ring he gave me was not a pre-planned classic diamond engagement ring, it was a nearby scuba gear rubber ring! I still have it today.
We decided not to tell anyone right away because we thought it was a bit early for them to accept it. After all, he had been imprisoned for more than seven years in North Vietnam, and I had only recently divorced after seven years. How could anyone be ready to marry after only a few weeks of knowing each other? You’ve heard the old saying, “You know when you know”? Well, it’s true. Ralph and I connected on many deep levels—spiritual values, family focused, genuine, loving—not only on a romantic, infatuation level.
SNAPSHOTS OF LIFE AS A POW
The years were very short. The days were longer. The minutes were even longer. The moments were longest. Time functioned in that inversely logarithmic manner. If a man could make the minute, he could make the year.
* * *
[Ralph’s worst experience was “The Hanoi March,” in which filfty-two of the POWs were marched down the streets of Hanoi, through a frenzied crowd of tens-of-thousands of people.]
The North Vietnamese officer in charge ordered us to march with our heads down…but we would not. Guards grabbed our hair and jerked our heads down. We raised them up again…We were determined. We were Americans…Women and men hammered at our shoulders and bodies with their firsts, and hit us with rocks. The children kicked our legs and flayed at us with their firsts as high as they could reach. Women removed their shoes and beat on our heads with the wooden heels. Men broke into our paths and spat into our faces.
[The prisoners were handcuffed together in pairs. They bled, stumbled and fell many times during the harrowing hour-long walk.
We took turns supporting each other. Jim Bell [whose story is told elsewhere in this book] repeatedly said to me, and I to him, “Stand tall, you’re an American.” [At one point the two of them spoke aloud the entire Twenty-Third Psalm.
[The parade lasted about an hour and was filmed by the North Vietnamese and other international media. The spectacle was designed to generate worldwide sympathy for the suffering of the Vietnamese people. But this propaganda backfired, and instead generated sympathy for the suffering of the American POWs.]
* * *
A few days after my first Christmas in captivity I was taken in for interrogation. I had been in handcuffs for several days, and they told me that my handcuffs would be removed if I would give them a biography. I refused, and they kept me in handcuffs. They were always seeking information from us that they could use as propaganda, and we always resisted. I agonized over the decision to tell them the least little thing about myself. I felt I would be betraying my country, my God, my honor and my fellow prisoners. But then I recalled that some of the guys had told them all kinds of wild things, such as that aircraft carriers have wheels so they can drive on dry land, and the North Vietnamese had believed the story. The lower level soldiers running the prison camps were pretty naive, so I figured a fabricated story would be pretty easy to sell to them.
So finally, I decided to give them my biography. My father, I said, was a Big Foot Indian who belonged to the Foot-Washing Baptist Church of America. My grandfather was Chief Crock-a-gator who lived in the Happy Hunting Grounds and hunted alligators and mudfish for a living. My wingman, I continued, was Dave Brubeck; my briefing officer was Walter Winchell. The interrogator obviously was pleased with himself. During my three previous months as a prisoner, I had given only the stock regulation answers. Now here I was “spilling my guts.” They still weren’t exactly nice to me, but they sure were proud of making progress.
My captors removed the handcuffs, and I was especially grateful for many little things that everyone takes for granted. I could go to the bathroom in a normal manner. I could scratch when I itched. I could sleep on my back with my shoulders straight.
It being the Christmas season I began missing having a Christmas tree. The camp, what little we could see of it, was overgrown with vegetation, but we were not allowed to go anywhere near the growth; we were not allowed to bring a stick even the size of a match into our cells. Outside, we were not even allowed to make a bending motion as though we might pick up something from the ground. Nothing was allowed into our cells, and frequent searches guaranteed the barrenness.
I prayed. Then one afternoon after washing my dishes, I turned to take the one step back into my cell. I looked down, and on the threshold of my door was a tiny leaf blown by the wind. I picked it up with my toes and carried it inside. The door slammed behind me. I carefully took the leaf from between my toes and looked at it for a long time. I held it to my nose. The perfume of freedom raced up my nostrils and infused my mind with its power. I fondled the leaf. It was real. I held it in my hand. God had not forgotten me! I set the leaf on the little ledge by the window. Its greenness stood out in stark contrast to the dull, gray bars. Tears rolled down my cheeks. God had given me a Christmas tree.
[Bobbi adds, “Years later when our four-year-old grandson Wyatt heard this story he finger-painted a leaf for his Pop’s Christmas gift. This cherished gift is framed and hanging in our living room.”]