Chesterton Tribune



The Poet of the Hanoi Hilton speaks of art and marching at St. Patrick Church event

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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 ideas.’”

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 old.”

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.


Posted 4/23/2013