A couple of days ago, an old friend sent me an e-mail with a you Tube attachment about a 40th reunion documentary for the POW’s held captive during the Viet Nam War. It brought to mind an unexpected encounter I had with one of those POW’s shortly after their release, which in a surprising way, was an answer to prayer.
Early in 1973 my father startled me with an idea he, and I suspect my mother, hatched to stretch my social skills. They knew the previous year had been a very difficult and painful time in my life and they were concerned that I had cut myself off from people, content to go to work and avoid all other social contact.
My father and maternal grandfather had been career naval officers, both serving in the Civil Engineer Corps (CEC), also known as the Seabees. Each year Seabee Balls were held at various locations around the country. Retired officers as well as those currently on active duty would frequent these festivities with their spouses or dates. It was always a fun time for them to connect with old friends. A queen, often the daughter or wife of one of the engineers, was selected to “reign” over these festivities.
Dad had put forth my name and I was selected as the 1973 Seabee Queen for the Western Division Naval Facilities Engineering Command. I knew my selection had absolutely nothing to do with me, or any of my accomplishments, attributes, or abilities; it was merely a way of honoring my father and grandfather for their sixty years of combined naval service.
When my father told me what he had done I was stunned. Always shy, the quintessential wall flower, I had never even been asked to a prom in high school. How would the Lord help me carry off this royal role and be the center of attention for an entire evening?
The weeks leading up to the Seabee Ball were exciting, but for an entirely different reason. In January 1973, the Vietnam War turned a corner. With the Paris peace accords signed, negotiations progressed to free the remaining 658 POW’s held captive. Like most people, I watched the return of these American heroes on television. It was humbling and so moving to see these men arrive on American soil, some who had been absent from our shores for six and seven years. Vietnam was still a raw and very real memory for me. It had taken a toll on many of us, directly or indirectly. But now, those who had survived captivity were coming home.
March 7th, the day of the Ball arrived and I was the only one there without a date. Somehow I survived everything associated with the ceremony, though I felt unbelievably awkward seated at the elevated head table with the Admiral, his wife and several other dignitaries, including my parents. From there I could easily see a room full of people enjoying each other in conversation. As I sat on the dais and watched the smartly dressed assembly, I tried not to let my self-consciousness show.
Then I glanced to the opposite side of the room and noticed a man standing in an open doorway. He was wearing a khaki uniform, definitely not the dress uniform or dark suit the other men were wearing. One of the guests went to the door, spoke with the young man a moment and headed quickly to the Admiral seated beside me. The man standing in the doorway with the “deer in the headlights” look was Gary Thornton, one of the POWs who had just returned from six years of captivity. He was suddenly being ushered into the room, and as news spread throughout the room, a receiving line automatically formed. Everyone wanted to shake Gary’s hand and welcome him home, including me. When everyone finished greeting Gary, shy Janet forgot herself, and asked him to dance. I have never seen such a joy-filled face; here was a person who understood freedom more than anyone else there. I no longer feared being the center of attention because I wasn’t it wasn’t about me ― it was about him and a well deserved tribute to an American hero. God had the evening well under control and it turned out so much better than I could have ever imagined.
Come back later this week for a shorter postscript to learn how God answered two more of my prayers concerning Gary Thornton.
Referenced youTube attachment http://www.youtube.com/watch_popup?v=LemllfcAY8A&sns=em
See more about Gary Thornton and a photo http://projects.militarytimes.com/citations-medals-awards/recipient.php?recipientid=23959