When I was growing up in the 1950’s there was a show on television called Alcoa Theater. Each weel there was a segment about a real person and an extraordinary story. One story always stuck in my mind. It was about a man from a small town in North Carolina. He had been a navigator on a B-29 in World War II. When the Korean War came in 1950 he was called back to duty. On a bombing mission over North Korea, his plane was shot down. He had the bad luck to be captured by the North Koreans. This man was not a Rambo or a military hero. He was just a man from a small town with good values and a profound sense of the truth and right and wrong.
The North Koreans demanded that he sign a statement admitting that he had been dropping poison gas on North Korea. He declined to sign such a statement because it just was not the truth. He was subject to brutal torture and he did not break and sign the untrue statement. Finally the North Koreans loaded him onto a military truck . He was surrounded by armed soldiers. The truck drove away from the POW camp. It stopped in a remote area. He was given a shovel and ordered to dig a hole 6 feet deep to the dimensions of a grave. He dug such a hole. He was then ordered to get into the hole. He was given one last chance to sign the confession. He was told that if he refused to sign the confession he would be shot dead. The North Carolina man again declined to sign the statement. He lowered his head and started to pray. He held his hands together. The North Korean soldiers pointed their AK-47’s at him. The North Korean officer in charge gave the loud command to fire. All that was heard afterwards was a bunch of clicks. None of the rifles had bullets in them.
He was then taken back to the POW camp and put in solitary confinement. He was forced to sleep on a straw mattress. His toilet was a hole in the center of the floor. The cell was not heated. North Korea can be frigid in winters with temperatures dropping to -50 Fahrenheit. You can imagine what his diet was like. Most men subject to this treatment either died or they came out after some months looking like Albert Einstein in his old age and mad.
The man from North Carolina survived 18 months of this inhumane treatment. He did it using an amazing mental strategy. Back home in North Carolina he owned a plot of land. He had in his mind a dream home that he wanted to build on the plot of land. Each morning when he got up in his cell, he transported himself back to North Carolina and worked on his dream house.
When he was released from solitary after 18 months he was thin and weak. But his hair was still brown and he was sane. He went around to each North Korean soldier and shook their hands. He told each of them that he forgave them and had no bitterness in his heart.
I always remembered this story but doubted that I would ever have to use this man’s survival skills. In 1991 I got into a dispute with the auto leasing company Stannic (Part of standard Bank of South Africa.) My 5 Series BMW was repossessed and sold. No false insurance claim of a theft was ever presented. No effort was ever made to sell the car and not pay the lien. A South African policeman investigating the matter looked at me with bewilderment. He more or less said that he did not understand why he was talking to me because my dispute with Stannic had been a civil matter.. The only complaint was that I had taken the vehicle out of the country without getting the permission of the lender. He told me that he had been ordered to arrest me for auto theft.
I was first taken to Pollsmoor medium prison to await trial. This was a prison for white and Asian prisoners. It was civilized. Then as Apartheid ended all prisoners awaiting trial were ordered to be transferred to Pollsmoor maximum security prison next door. (Nelson Mandela had done part of his sentence there.) I was one of the first white 5 white prisoners to enter this notorious all black jail.(One of the prisoners with me was the former South African rugby hero Dries Maritz.) It was terrifying from the beginning. The place literally smelled like a cattle slaughter house. Guards walked around with police dogs. Violence was a constant part of the life there. Several inmates were murdered while I was there. Violent gang fights were an almost a daily occurence.
I was taken up to the fifth floor of the jail. I was put in an awful cell with a black rubber mat for a bed and two lice-infested blankets. We ate the awful food given to Africans. I had a cell mate. He was a man from Serbia named Mio Lillicanin. One week into my stay, the major in charge of our section of the prison came around. He told us that if we would sign a confession and plead guilty, we would be sent to a humane low security jail. Mio took the offer. The major then arrogantly turned to me and asked me if I was ready to sign a confession. I politely looked at him and said in a firm voice: “Sir I have done nothing wrong and I am going nowhere.”
Mio was led away and I was left alone in the cell. I had no idea of how many months or years that I would be in solitary confinement. I thought back to the story of the man who had survived that awful ordeal in the North Korean POW camp. I had to come up with a strategy to mentally survive this ordeal. I had always wanted to be a writer. Now was mu chance to write a book or two. There was one problem I was not allowed even writing paper or a pencil or a pen.
One of the guards who came by my cell each day was a man who I only knew as Mr. Williams. He was a Cape Town colored and a good marathon runner. Once he had run the Boston marathon. He liked Americans. He started to secretly bring me pencils and writing paper. I began to write a poetry book that I had had in my mind for a long time.
My case also began in the Cape Town regional court. I had the misfortune to get Judge Hugget. He was,at the time, the meanest judge in the Western Cape Province. Other prisoners warned me to expect a prison sentence up to 15 years if I was found guilty. I had no money for a lawyer do I represented myself. I studied Judge Hugget carefully. I soon realized that if I met him after work at home he would be a man listening to classical music and reading some classical literature. He was a refined and cultured gentleman. I treated him in that manner. My trial went on for 11 months. (Imagine how much money this cost the taxpayers of South Africa.) Each time the state would present a witness, I would politely destroy them in my cross examination. Judge Hugget developed a grudging respect for my legal skills.
In the days that I was not in court I wrote my poetry book. When I finished it Mr.Williams smuggled it out. It was later published in the USA.
Judge Hugget finally got tired of the good battle that I was putting up. He appointed this total incompetent of a lawyer to represent me. At the end of the trial the lawyer put me in the witness box. He and the prosecutor both questioned me. I held up well. Then Judge Hugget started to cross examine me and it was brutal. He even did something totally unethical and illegal. He read statements into the official record that I had never made. At the end of the trial he used these false statements entered into the record to find me guilty of auto theft.
In the sentencing phase he did something out of character for him. He sentenced me to three years and said that I could go on work release as soon as a position was found for me. He told me that he was going to write a letter to the South African immigration authorities recommending that I not be deported from South Africa. My lawyer and the bailiffs in the court were amazed. They all told me that they had rarely seen him be so nice to a defendant.
Two weeks later I was told to get ready. I was going to be put on a van to Port Elizabeth. As I was leaving my cell, I did the same thing that the North Carolina man had done when released from solitary confinement in North Korea. I shook the hand of every guard who had worked with me and the major. I told them that I forgave them and had no bitterness in my heart.
I got on the prison van and took the ride to Port Elizabeth. When I arrived in Port Elizabeth I found myself in a very humane low-security jail. A few days later a Lt. Colonel in the prison service interviewed me. I found myself on work release at a government facility that served the military, South African police and prison service.
Langley my only crime had been making some wealthy bankers mad at me for defying their authority. I got a sample of what poor Nelson Mandela suffered for most of his 27 years in prison. It is amazing to me that he lived through all of that and came out to be a great and magnanimous leader.