In the mid-1980s, a man walked into the newspaper office where I was working. I heard him speak to the receptionist, asking if he could set up a time to meet with me.
As she directed him toward me, I noticed something a bit different about this man, although I couldn’t exactly define it.
When I extended my hand to introduce myself, he instead said, “I know you already, and I would like to tell you my story.”
He never did shake hands with me in the months to come. I was later to learn why.
Paul Kari was a veteran of the Vietnam war. As he explained what brought him to my little office in the middle of nowhere, I was speechless.
He said, “Others have wanted to interview me, and I’ve always refused. I have chosen you to tell my story.”
A pilot with the unfortunate distinction of the longest held prisoner of war of Vietnam, Kari was captured after his plane went down very early in the conflict. The only survivor of the crash, his serious injuries prevented his attempt to escape the scene. He was overtaken quickly, suddenly a prisoner.
Kari was determined to survive torture, starvation and imprisonment while giving away nothing. In time, another prisoner was brought in, and the two of them developed a tapping code in order to communicate with one another through the walls.
John McCain was that prisoner on the other side of the wall.
Both men, already terribly injured, endured such horrendous beatings and abuse that those of us outside of those circumstances could never begin to imagine it.
As more POWs arrived at the Hanoi Hilton in the years to come, Kari and McCain taught the tap code to each one. The imprisonment eventually surpassed the five-year mark, and was closing in on 6 years when the war finally reached an end.
“What kept McCain alive and pushing on was his dream of continuing to serve his country,” Kari explained to me.
“What kept me going was my dream of returning to the country, working the family farm where I had grown up.”
The tap code shared between the two of them during especially difficult stretches would often simply spell out “country” and it held the promise of a future back home to both men.
When I met Kari, he had just found his way back to the family farm. Along the way, his parents had accepted their only son was surely dead, sold the farm and moved away. His father died not knowing otherwise.
Upon release, Kari was so malnourished he was blind and barely able to stand on his own. It took him years to get his health and vision back, and he began his trek to buy back the family farm. No other farm would do.
He had finally talked the owner into selling it to him, and he wanted to show it to me. I went to his farm several times, met his young wife and their little girl. His first marriage had ended while he was a POW, though they tried to reconcile after his return.
“I was not the same person. I will never be that person again.”
Sitting at their kitchen table, I observed his struggle to communicate as a husband and father rather than a military officer and felt the love and the strain of it.
When he invited me to ride in his tractor to tour the farm, I made the mistake of starting to pull the cab door shut.
“No!” he said, in a frantic tone I had never heard. “That stays open. It always, always stays open.”
Inside their home, he insisted no doors be closed behind him.
By way of an explanation, it was then Kari told me he never would shake hands with me, partly due to constant pain in his limbs, and because in captivity an extended hand usually meant a dislocated shoulder was soon coming.
“It is hard for me to trust anyone,” he explained, “even though I know in my heart you are a good person.”
I wrote of Paul Kari, his POW experience and his love of farming. I photographed him with his beloved John Deere tractor, the open fields and the barns that had kept him going for nearly six years of nightmarish imprisonment. The article and pictures appeared in Successful Farming magazine, and for a time we stayed in touch.
We spoke of other POWs, and he was happy for McCain that his career was flourishing. As McCain became more well-known, then legendary, Kari retreated further. His second marriage ended. He later sold the farm and moved away, I was told, to Colorado.
I hope he found peace.
Surviving meant different things for each of the many men imprisoned. Some chose to drop out of sight, in hopes of never speaking of their traumatic past. Others took positions in veterans organizations or returned to family businesses. Some celebrated each day, others endured them.
McCain, surviving and thriving, represented his fellow prisoners of war well and did a great deal for his country, in spite of almost constant pain from his torturous days as a POW.
We will never know what these men endured, but I can say I looked into the eyes of a man who prevailed, and I was both touched and haunted by the experience.
As we lay to rest U.S. Sen. John McCain, there is much we know about his life, but much we could never know, never touch.
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