Taps on the Walls is a story about the power of the unwritten word. It is a redemptive story—how poetry helped save me during six and a half years as a POW in North Vietnamese prison camps.
My wife would not know if I was alive for years. Somehow, she "felt me" and carried on while all others doubted. My nine-month-old daughter would grow and dream of a father walking her to school one day. I had same dream. She would be seven and a half before our dreams came true. Happy endings would come hard.
For many years, my fellow pilots and I were held alone or in semi-isolation. The enemy wanted us weak, despondent, and totally cut off. Our challenge was to keep the faith, carry on, and stay true to one another. For that, we had to communicate.
Communication among prisoners in different cells was forbidden and severely punished. The enemy called us war criminals and threatened trial and execution. In reality, they were too cruel to kill us and preferred prolonged privation, pain, and humiliation. We struggled with multiple illnesses, untreated wounds, toothaches, horrific heat and surprising cold, lack of food and water, a bucket (often overflowing) for a toilet, and a board with a straw mat for a bed. Thank God for a mosquito net, which they took away in the isolated punishment cells.
So, despite the threat and the reality of pain, we tapped on the walls. The tap code became our lifeline, our means of passing along information and words of encouragement to one another.
Strangely, the months and years seemed to pass quickly but the endless, empty days came so hard. There had to be a way to make time an ally. There had to be a way to run and finish, with honor, an uncertain race. There had to be a way to stay sane and true. Each man had to find this own way to use time—to kill time. Countering Thoreau, injury to eternity was a combat loss. We kept tapping on the walls.
The essence of the human condition is the ability to create. Jail me, hurt me, hate me, but the mind and spirit are weapons. No books, no writing materials, nothing—just the mind. Find a way. One of the ways for me was to mentally create poetry. Create poetry and keep it memorized — lots of poetry. It was a way to fight back and provide legacy for my wife and daughter should I not survive. I tapped those poems through the walls and others helped carry that legacy for years.
Forty years ago, I came home and my poems came with me. Intensely private, we kept them that way until pressed to finally publish because the messages have relevance to today and tomorrow. Life lessons and calls to renewal as well as dealing with dragon questing and demon killing are part of the mix. So too, an expressed and inescapable desperation. But, most of us beat the dealer long ago.
The poems remain pieces of my soul. I hope they become pieces of yours.
Pale golden talons stir the eastern sky;
Another fledgling day departs the hills.
It takes the air as thermaled falcons fly,
Cascading light as carefree first-flight thrills.
And who attends this noble soaring birth,
From mountain crag to gentle rolling plain,
May marvel from their vantage point on earth,
Yet miss so much, not of the sky's domain.
But I'm not of the earth. At altitude,
I greet the infant day with engine song,
My contrails etched on endless morning blued,
And rare abandon urging me along.
It's here, unfettered brother men enthrall
To first-light flight, the one judged best of all.
Excerpt from a Christmas Letter*
And how I've sought that special thought
With meaning just for you.
The memories shared, how dreams have fared,
The things that we will do.
But how to tell, what feelings well,
What message to impart?
Perhaps, dear wife, just "You're my life";
So beats my constant heart.
*A Christmas letter of the mind, as there was no mail for many years.
The scepter raised and silent challenge made,
Again I mental summon lance and shield,
And somehow last till regal colors fade.
It's now, the victor absent from the field,
Hard pallet draws me, huddled down upon,
A distant tower tolls a muffled chime;
Another muddled day has eddied on
To join the addled streams of tousled time.
Embittered languor blankets captive man;
So armored, sally forth at dawn, consigned
To stand alone, and parry best I can
Until appointed tourney's end, resigned.
For time's an old and boring enemy.
Too cruel to kill forgotten men like me.
From Taps on the Walls: Poems from the Hanoi Hilton by John Borling. Copyright 2013 by John Borling. Excerpted by permission of Greenleaf Book Group, LLC.