Mary & The Bamboo Needle

Inside a cave of a gym, the Colonel plodded to the podium like he was walking through quicksand.

Like many, I came to hear what he had to say.

He was 86, a retired businessman and retired Air Force colonel who received his share of military awards including a few Purple Hearts. His given name was J. Quincy Collins Jr., and he had witnessed much in life.

He had earned the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the highest award for any North Carolinian, and his lilt of an accent gave away his small-town North Carolina roots.

He helped raise six kids, grandfathered 12 and earned his keep in commercial and industrial real estate in and around his hometown of Concord.

But last week, as he stood in front of a huge American flag before scads of people, he detailed the savagery he saw and the humanity he embraced more than a half century ago on the other side of the world.

HPU-vet-3

Quincy Collins Jr. spoke to a full house during the Veterans Day celebration at HPU in front of an American flag 60 feet long and 30 feet high.

The time: September 1965. Gas cost 31 cents a gallon, kids had just discovered skateboards, Sonny and Cher were a thing and Julie Andrews was a new movie star.

The Colonel was 34, flying a bombing mission 80 miles southwest of Hanoi. He didn’t complete it.

He was shot down.  He broke his left leg in three places, got captured by the Viet Cong and stuck in a dank cell.

He became a Vietnam POW, in the infamous prison known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” He stayed there for 7½ years until his release in 1973.

Last week, during a Veterans Day celebration at High Point University that drew 1,100 people, the Colonel talked about all that in a slow, deliberate voice.

It was a meat-and-potatoes talk about freedom, sacrifice and responsibility. His voice shook, he raised his fist as if in defiance, and he implored all of us seated in front of him to remember the valor of veterans and the horrors of war.

Then, the Colonel mentioned Mike.

Mike Christian.

Mike Christian

Mike Christian

Mike grew up in the Deep South in rural Alabama, and he sounds like he stepped straight from a Ferrol Sams novel. Until age 13, he walked around barefoot because he didn’t have any shoes.

Really. I read that. Don’t you believe everything you read on the Internet?

Anyway, after high school, Mike joined the Navy in 1955 and later went to Purdue University. He earned a degree in electrical engineering and became a fighter pilot.

In April 1967, Mike was shot down over Vietnam, taken prisoner and hauled to the Hao Lo POW Camp.

The Hanoi Hilton.

There, he met the Colonel. And there is where the Colonel’s story starts.

Mike somehow fashioned an American flag out of discarded white and red cloth. He created a needle out of bamboo, found some thread and sewed the red and white cloth to the inside of his shirt.

Then, every afternoon, Mike and his fellow POWs recited the Pledge of Allegiance.

“It was the damndest thing you’d ever seen, but Mike got it right,” the Colonel told us. “We held the flag against the wall, and we’d pop to attention. To see that flag, that was it.”

One day, the guards found Mike’s makeshift flag. They guards beat Mike until he was unconscious. They weren’t done.

They dragged Mike out of the cell, tortured him all night, brought him back the next morning and dumped him on the cell’s concrete slab floor like a bag of trash.

The Colonel and his cellmates threw water in Mike’s face. Nothing. They shook him. Nothing still. Finally, Mike came to.

“His eyes were swollen shut,” the Colonel said. “But he looked at us and said, ‘Guys, it’s time to make flag No. 2.’”

I’ve covered many veterans’ ceremonies, and I’ve talked to dozens of veterans about all kinds of things with pad and pen in hand. But I had never heard the story of Mike Christian.

When I did, I was sitting in the media bird nest at HPU’s Millis Athletic Center scribbling down what I saw and heard. I had to stop and ponder what I heard.

Damn.

A bamboo needle. “Time to make flag No. 2.”

Damn.

Mary de Poortere felt the same way.

She sat across from me in the front row of Millis’ balcony of bleachers. She and the other HPU students had gotten up before daybreak to volunteer and greet the veterans who arrived by the busloads.

It was quite the sight.

HPU-vet-4

HPUvet-2

Two of the many veterans who came to HPU’s Veterans Day celebration Nov. 10.

A few of the veterans came in wearing replica uniforms. But they were all shadows of their soldier selves. Many came in walking upright; others hobbled in with help.

They needed walkers, wheelchairs and canes. And there Mary stood, among a phalanx of HPU students outside Millis. As she did, she thought of home.

Bernardsville, New Jersey, population 7,707.

The house where she grew up sits across the street from the town’s municipal building, and every Memorial Day, the town holds a big parade.

mary-2

Every summer, Mary and her family decorate their 200-year-old house for Memorial Day.

Mary’s family spends weeks getting their house ready. They decorate their house with the flags of every military service, line their fence posts with tiny American flags and hang a huge American flag from the side of their home.

One time, on a hill beside their home, they planted petunias in the shape and color of an American flag.

Then, on the day of the parade, the de Poorteres become a small army. They get dressed up in all shades of red, white and blue, and Mary hands out water and lemonade to everyone parading by.

She’s been doing that as long as she can remember.

Afterward, her folks throw a big house party, full of comfort food, and make a memory for everyone they know.

Love of country runs through Mary’s family like water from a faucet. Every summer, they rent a beach house on the Jersey shore and fly from a 60-foot flagpole the huge American flag they hang from the side of their house every Memorial Day.

mary-3

One big flag.

It feels like you can see that flag from the moon. But for the de Poorteres, it does feel appropriate.

Both of Mary’s grandfathers fought in the Korean War; her uncle Jaime served two tours in Iraq; and an uncle’s father liberated the Jewish POWs at Dachau during World War II.

Then there is her great Uncle Richie, the Marine. He fought in Korea, and back home in Bernardsville, he served as the parade’s grand marshal.

Like the Colonel, Uncle Richie likes to tell stories. Recently, when Mary brought over to Uncle Richie’s house her grandfather she calls  “Pop Pop” — he’s Uncle Richie’s younger brother — they all sat on the living-room couch and talked.

They drank tea and ate cookies, and Uncle Richie and Pop Pop talked about growing up on a farm. Then, Uncle Richie talked about his best friend.

His best friend died right in front him in Korea, blown up by a bomb, a landmine, something. Mary had never heard that before until that day.

These are the stories Mary remembers. So, she acts.

mary-1

Mary and her great uncle, Richie de Poortere.

She’ll spot a veteran somewhere, walk over, introduce herself, shake his hand and say thanks. She did that in the Raleigh-Durham airport on her way home from HPU to New Jersey. The guy cried.

“Not many people appreciate us,” the veteran told her. “But it means so much to hear it from someone so young.”

Mary is 21, an HPU senior majoring in human relations with a minor in psychology and leadership. And last Friday, during the nip of a November morning, she did what she has done many times before.

She shook hands and talked to every veteran stepping off the bus.

“Oh, your hands are so cold,” one veteran told her.

“You had to wake up so early,” another veteran said.

“I wanted to be here,” she’d respond.

Doc Long would be proud.

I met Doc a few years back. Man, did I like him. I wrote about him here.  

And here.

doc-1

The William “Doc” Long I remember.

 

He had a white broom for a mustache, and he was tall, lanky, as sturdy as a fence post. But the one thing I do remember is his firm handshake. Right away, I realized Doc had worked for decades with a hammer in his hand.

He also loved telling stories, just like Uncle Richie and the Colonel. Doc would lean forward and pause like a preacher on a Sunday morning when he wanted to make a point.

He did that with me.

He made a lot of points about World War II. He could talk for days about World War II. He was there.

The first time we talked it was a Saturday, a week before Christmas, on a morning that was blow-on-your-fingers cold.

The weather didn’t bother Doc. He kept warm in his reproduction of an brown wool uniform he wore in WWII, and he spoke for 20 minutes to a big crowd at a Greensboro cemetery.

The crowd came to this sacred spot, the final resting place for 1,107 American soldiers and sailors, pilots and Marines, to lay wreaths on every grave and hear Doc talk.

Doc spoke in a slow, deliberate voice – just like the Colonel.

And like the Colonel, I’ll always remember what Doc said.

 

youngdoc

The young Doc Long, the World War II soldier.

He was no more than 20, a fresh-faced soldier from Summerfield. He went to Europe to fight the Germans during World War II, and in November 1944, he was shot in the right shoulder and lay on a battlefield in France for 18 hours.

A French soldier put Doc atop a tank and carried him to safety.

Doc moved four times from medical tent to medical tent. Finally, several days later in a hospital, Doc was given the items he had with him when his clothes were cut from his body.

He had his wallet and a Bible from his Aunt May. He kept that Bible in a pocket over his heart.

When he got it back, he noticed that his Bible had been pierced by a piece of shrapnel, possibly from a mortar shell.

That Bible, he told me, saved his life.

thebible

The Bible Doc Long received from his Aunt May after being damaged by a piece of shrapnel. It’s the same Bible Doc took to every talk he gave.

 “It was the answer to my prayers,” Doc said. “God had mercy on me. He did. He did. He had a purpose for me, and his purpose for me was to speak so the youth would know.”

So the youth would know.

Those words.

Doc died in June. He was 93. During the twilight of his life, he made a pact with himself. After remaining silent for decades about his service, he realized he needed to talk to everyone he could about his 18 hours on that hilly battlefield in France.

He wanted them to know the importance of preserving what we have around us. And everywhere he went, he always brought his pocket-size Bible he got from his Aunt May.

He called it his “Gift of Life.”

Think about all that.

A bamboo needle.

A conversation on a living-room couch.

A chance meeting in an airport.

Doc’s Bible from Aunt May.

The small details of life. They can mean so much.

 

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