By KEVIN NEVERS
For the man in the cell 10,000 miles from home, time had a funny way of
outstretching into a sucking slipstream of dull dead moments. It had a less
funny way, under pang of tooth ache or kidney stone, of contracting to a
point of intolerable hereness and nowness. Beaten by his captors for this,
beaten for that, beaten for nothing at all, the man learned to live life in
his head, because privation and pain made living in the body the losingest
of propositions. And there, wandering from room to room, from attic to
cellar, sifting memories, cherishing hopes, the man made of himself a
craftsman of the imagination, he wrought and hammered and polished, and
then, as Homer once upon a time sang of Odysseus’ trials far from home, he
sang to his fellow inmates.
Except the man didn’t sing his lays and sonnets and ballads. He tapped them
furtively on a dank wall, in code, that the man in the cell next to his
might tap them to another.
On Friday, in the sanctuary of St. Patrick Catholic Church in Chesterton,
Maj. Gen. John Borling (USAF, Ret.) spoke to students, parishioners, and the
community on his nearly seven years of captivity as a prisoner of war--and
as a poet--at the Hanoi Hilton in North Vietnam.
The event was organized by St. Pat’s School English teacher Richard Rupcich,
after a seventh-grader loaned him his parents’ copy of Borling’s just
published volume of poetry, Taps on the Walls: Poems from the Hanoi
Hilton (2013). “We were talking about the value of reflecting, spending
time alone, using poetry to communicate values,” Rupcich said. “I took the
book home that night and read it and said to myself ‘This gives me some
Borling is a man of parts. Educated at the University of Chicago, Latin- and
French-smattered, he has an easy familiarity with the conventions of poetry,
a superb ear, a deft touch, Rudyard Kipling’s wryness, Robert Service’s
vigor. He’s no Shakespeare but in places he’s Shakespearean.
From “The Journey”: 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.
Borling ranged wide in his talk. He recalled how, on his 97th combat
mission, his F-4 Phantom was shot down over North Vietnam in 1966. How, a
broken bag of bones, he had the fantastical idea of hijacking a vehicle and
making his way to the coast, only to find in the event that he’d waylaid a
truck loaded with NVA troops.
And how, in Hoa Lo Prison--the Hanoi Hilton--he acquired the tap-code used
by POWs to communicate.
Borling recalled as well the day in 1970, when he and (one-day U.S. Sen.)
John McCain were elected co-chaplains of the U.S. contingent at Hoa Lo,
after the NVA had decided to consolidate prisoners in the wake of the
unsuccessful Son Tay rescue raid (“I couldn’t imagine a worse role model
than me. And frankly John McCain”). And Borling recalled his first sermon,
when he tap-coded a universal prayer found recorded on a scrap of paper by
some nameless British soldier at El Alamein in North Africa: The night is
cold and I’m alone. / My little spark of courage flickers and dies. / Stay
with me God and make me strong. “Those anonymous words have haunted me
to this day and I want them to haunt you but also sustain you.”
For Borling, faith in loving God is a “knotted rope” hanging at all times by
one’s side, to cling to, to hoist oneself up by. “Know that the knotted rope
is always there.”
From “Hanoi Epitaph”: When years have passed, the many Decembers, / And
no one cares and no one remembers / The lost flyer and his supplication. /
When the bombing has stopped with no end in sight, / Cover your ears as we
cry in the night, / With considerable justification. / When you can’t go on,
the burden too great, / And words lose their meaning, except the word
“hate,” / You bend and forget repatriation.
Borling spoke too of art. “The essence of the human condition is the ability
to create. That’s what art is. Music, poetry, coaching a Little League team.
For art to be worthwhile, it must be a little desperate. It must express a
verity of life. Poetry speaks to the kinds of need we all have, young and
And he spoke of his art. “It was a feat of memorization. I’ve carried
these poems with me all my life. Guys in prison with me, they’ve read the
book, and they’ll tell me, ‘Hey, you changed a word.’ They’ve carried
the poems with them too.”
Yet Borling waited some 40 years to publish his work, diligently recorded
onto cassette tape while still in the hospital after his release in 1973.
Why? “The poems show a piece of my soul and I wasn’t sure I wanted you
wandering around in there.”
From “Sonnet 4 45 43 (In tap code) Sonnet for Us: I used to count a lot,
count everything, / Like exercise laps and words of prayer. / What hurt that
hunger, thoughts that thirst can bring, / Companions, waking, sleeping,
always there. / But policy insanities unwind, / Till bad is good and
betterment is worse. / So refuge blanket, net, and molding mind / Create a
mingling dream-real universe. / I’m told that steel is forged by heavy
blows. / If only men were steel, but then, who knows?
So Borling sang his lyrics in a tap-code which became not merely the
prisoners’ lifeline to past and future but a defiant proof of their
humanness and of their manhood. “We had a duty, to return with honor. We
were trying to earn your respect. We wanted to come home and for you to be
proud of us.”
In short, the haggard lost men at Hoa Lo kept on marching, into the
slipstream of dull dead moments. And the students at St. Pat’s must do the
same, Borling told them. “When you’re faced with things in life that are
really hard, really scary, when things hit you, you just pick up and keep
going. You must point your face to the wind and keep marching. At the end of
the day, I think we all have to carry our own weather with us.”
“Reflection”: A golden ladle dips in the western sky, / An evening breeze
gentles fir trees high. / The plain song of a nest-bound bird grows dim. /
Think of places been, those to roam. / And now, far away, think of home.