There are many kinds of desperation, as many as the stars above and the souls beneath them. The death of a child, the disintegration of a marriage, homes lost to floodwaters and whirlwinds, all of these things can drive you to — and beyond — the point of suicide.
And yet, there are sources of strength as varied as the sorrow. For one man, that source was found in unwritten words, tapped out on prison walls and shared with his captured brothers in Vietnam.
Maj. Gen. John Borling, a 6-plus-year “guest” at the infamous Hanoi Hilton is, like Joyce Kilmer and Wilfred Owen, a soldier-poet. Interned under inhuman conditions from 1966 until 1973, he survived by putting words together in his head, memorizing them and then sharing his work with other prisoners, including Sen. John McCain, by using a rudimentary code to tap out the words on walls.
When he was finally released from captivity, he recorded the memorized pieces on cassettes. This year, the 40th anniversary of that liberation, his poems have been collected and published in “Taps on the Walls: Poems from the Hanoi Hilton.”
In the introduction, Gen. Borling writes “This is a story about the power of the unwritten word. It is a redemptive story — how poetry helped save me during 6-plus years as a POW in North Vietnamese prison camps.”
Here is his rumination on resistance:
“When you cling to values you know are true/Like family, God, the red white and blue/It’s your fortress ‘gainst indoctrination/When floodwaters rise, breaking mind levee/You go on, though the standard staff heavy/But you live in confirmed desperation.”
Reading this book gave me some insight into the character of the men who lived for years in isolation and uncertainty, and who were still able to find within themselves a reason to survive. Whether it be for family, for faith, or out of defiance against their oppressors, they fought back. And they often did so with a sense of gallows humor.