Saturday, September 28, 2013

The night Dad arrived at Norfolk Naval Air Station - Branwen's letter to her mother

My sister-in-law, Branwen's, letter to her mother, dated Feb. 19, 1973, chronicles those days well...

Dear Mother,

We have been so busy that I just haven’t had a chance to write – but I knew you would be anxious for news so I took the first opportunity (after finishing a short book) to write. 

Well, he’s back – and no words can describe the joy of the homecoming.  Don and I watched the arrival in the Phillapines (sp?) on T.V. Monday morning at 3:30 and were really knocked out when he was the first one off the plane.  Don kept saying “I don’t believe it.” Apparently, afterwards they had a special on his family, but we were so tired from lack of sleep that we passed out and missed it. We left Key West the next evening and spent the night at Margo’s. Tuesday we drove like mad because, by this time we knew that he would be home in a matter of days and we were afraid we’d get to Va. too late to meet the plane.  It was out of the question to stop in Fort Lauderdale or Jacksonville.  As it was we made it Wed night with 4 hours to spare. The snow and road conditions in South Carolina were truly amazing. We couldn’t go faster than 30 mph. 

He came down at about 2:30 a.m. at the Norfolk Naval Airport and there was a large crowd there and a lot of newsmen.  Jane was nearly hysterical and so was everyone else.  He was very brief when he got off the plane (last breaking the tradition of the 3 previous landings in the Phillapines, Hawaii and San Francisco) – following Capt. Jim Mulligan and Lt. Paul Galanty.  He thanked people from coming out in the cold at that late hour to see him, then embraced Jane and all the kids including Winship, Jerry’s wife,  (Winship was so nervous – she kept saying “she felt nauseated  and how bad she would feel if she threw up when they introduced her). We went to the Portsmouth Naval Hospital with the other families (the Mulligans have 6 long-haired hulking sons) in a car caravan of about 10 cars plus 6 police cars. We visited in his room (which has color T.V. and a two room suite with bath) until about 6:00 A.M.  We’ve been back for the past 4 days visiting.  Jane has been there all week – just coming home for clothing (once). 

He looks pretty good, considering what he’s been through (hell). They say he is about 15 lbs lighter and his eyes are sunken – he now requires glasses to read with, but he really looks o.k. Health is good. I’m not allowed right now to repeat most of what he told us and they are afraid of the N. Vietnamese taking retaliation action on the remaining prisoners if conditions are discussed and made public. I know you can understand that.  The reunion was truly amazing. He cried and cried and so did nearly everyone else except for Jane who laughed a lot. He asked all the children questions and apologized to each of them for something he did to them in the past.  He was wonderful to Winship and I and cried when he welcomed us to the family. While he was there he was very aware of the conditions in which the people live and was shocked at the comparison between their lives and the affluence in this country and is planning a book - to be written immediately, based of the 7 parts of the Lord’s Prayer and appealing to humanity or the U.S. to be more altruistic. (Another thing he talked about was the family home he planned (board by board) when he was in prison.  It will be on water – probably in Florida and be a “headquarters” for everyone with horses, boats, etc. Another thing he is obsessed with is teacher his children geography.  It was funny to see him,  a  few days after his release crawling around on the floor with an orange (we brought from Key West) explaining the revolution of the earth around the sun and its affect on the season, time, sunset. Etc. He might be a dean at Tulane.  He can lecture for hours and it’s always interesting.  He is really an amazing man with an amazing mind, and funny! He did great imitations of his captors and gave them all nick names, (Slick, Mickey Mouse, etc.) He isn’t bitter against his captors, or the Anti-war movement here – he hates no one and is amazingly tolerant. This is really amazing when you know what he went through. He is very happy with everyone in his family (except he is very worried about Billy) and we are all extremely proud of him.  When all is said and done about this war – he is going to emerge as its No. 1 hero. Just watch.

He had wonderful things to say to everyone - and meant them.  Don was so happy when he put his arms around both of us and said he was very proud of us and glad that we were great enough not to worry about all that “prestige stuff”  and that “Pat Nixon waited on tables in a diner.” Don has been worried about that, since his mother is so disapproving. He and Jane thanked you for your wonderful letter – they said it moved them both. He says that now you are the most prestigious member of the family (referring to your PHD).  He said that when they got all the pictures of our wedding and were passing them around the camp everyone commented on how attractive his “wife-in-law” was. Anyway – as you can see- this has been an incredible experience for us all. 

Jane Tshudy’s husband (he was Capt. Denton’s co-pilot) came home Saturday night. I am so glad – she is very sweet and so happy now.  When we were at the hospital Sunday Capt. Denton nearly fainted and had to be put to bed – he has been pushing himself and wearing himself out all week and it all finally caught up with him. He will be all right – he is just exhausted and might be there for another month. 

The reaction from people has been overwhelming. The phone didn’t stop ringing for days – mostly calls from people they didn’t even know and half the time they just cry. They are stacks and stacks of letters and telegrams most of them addressed “Capt. J.A. Denton, Virginia Beach, VA.”  There must be hundreds of dollars worth of flowers here and in the hospital.  Don and I have been holding down the fort while Jane lives at the hospital but I haven’t had to cook anything hardly because the freezer is full of meat loafs, casseroles, cake, ice cream, etc., sent by friends and neighbors. The crowning touch was a box sent from Mobile Alabama air mail Special D. (It had $40 worth of stamps on it) containing at least 50 lbs of steaks and Filet Mignons, and Rib Eye and Tenderloin. It was from a high school friend of Capt. Denton’s.

Our plans are really up in the air. We won’t leave before another 2½ months at the earliest.  We will probably be living with a friend of Don’s or get our own apartment.  We might substitute teach for a change just to break the monotony -  if we can make enough money. 

My fingers are sore so I’ll sign off. Love Branwen
PS. He spent a lot of time in prison looking at a map and can now give the exact latitude and longitude (almost exact) and time of sunrise and sunset of our country,   in the world, and most cities. Amazing!

P.P.S. You wouldn’t believe the food they get the hospital – Oysters, lobster, Filet Mignon, etc.


Kimmy Coleslaw said...

Wow - what a lovely letter. I still remember Branwen - was quite in awe of her. So pretty, such a free spirit (as I remember). I still have a picture of she and Donnie at their wedding - she in a short wedding dress, remember thinking that was really "cool". Are you in touch w/ her at all?

Kimmy said...

Oh, and I have to say - my favorite picture has always been of your Mom and Dad in the car. I also seem to remember there was one of all of you running to him, or is that just something I've made up in my mind?

Madeleine Doak said...

Yes, I'm in touch with Bran - loosely. She lives in Germany. Their wedding was memorable! All of their hippie friends. One of the girls stripped off her clothes in front of Michael and me. Just changing clothes, but Michael has never recovered! I need to ask him if he remembers that. I have two other pictures from that day with you in them. In one, we're standing in front of Don's an Bran's car with Just Married in shaving cream on it and the other is in the house with a bunch of other people. We didn't have a/c in the house, summer, and I think there was a fish kill going on! Remember those? And, our cat died during the reception from eating a spoiled dead fish. Then, my toy poodle, Beauregard, which I'd gotten by trading my gold cat for the Kirkpatrick's dog, died a week later. Am I making this stuff up?! Surely the Kirks didn't give me their dog. Maybe it was some secret deal between Barbara Kirkpatrick and Mom, so Mom could get rid of the cat and get a toy poodle to name Beauregard. I know i didn't name that dog such a ridiculous name. We called him Beau.

There was a picture of a girl about my age running to her Dad. I can remember it well, but don't think I knew the girl. I'm not sure she was from VB. Maybe CA. I just read something about it the other day - her description of the event. The picture was really cool - won a Pulitzer.

Kimmy said...

Oh I remember decorating their car - we thought that was so fun, and I remember the cat dying that day. I didn't remember that Beau died the next week, nor that he was a trade up from a cat!!!