Chances are you've never had a bad day

July 11, 2002|By KEVIN COWERD

Retired Air Force Col. Edward Hubbard likes to engage people in a little mind game he calls "Good Day or Bad Day?"

Consider, oh, July 20, 1966.

That morning, as the Vietnam War raged, 28-year-old Lt. Ed Hubbard's jet was shot out of the skies over North Vietnam by a SAM missile, causing the six-man crew to eject at 16,000 feet as the aircraft screamed out of control.

Within hours, he was captured, stripped and forced to march for hours blindfolded with a rope tied around his neck, thus beginning more than 6 1/2 years as a POW, during which he was routinely starved, tortured and tossed in solitary confinement.

Now, asks Hubbard, was this a bad day?

Brothers and sisters, I think you would all join me in saying that, yes, this would certainly qualify as a bad day.

But it's all relative, says Hubbard. Because after five hellish months of captivity, on his 28th day of solitary confinement, as he sat filled with despair and self-pity on the concrete floor of a tiny prison cell, he remembered the old story about the man who felt sorry for himself because he had no shoes, until he met a man who had no feet.

Then, he recalls, "I convinced myself that probably more than 99 percent of the people in the world had it worse than I did that day."

And from that day on, says Hubbard, he vowed to never, ever allow himself to have a bad day, a philosophy that helped him survive as a POW and forms the core of his work as a motivational speaker.

So this was the message, a message of overcoming negative situations and turning them into "positive personal growth transformations," that Ed Hubbard relayed to a rapt audience of 100 at the VFW hall in Parkville the other night. (It's also the subject of his book, Escape From the Box: The Wonder of Human Potential, published in 1994.)

Hubbard is 64 now, retired from the Air Force since 1990 after 35 years of service. He's a compact man with a trim blond mustache who has homes in Florida and Northern Ireland and travels the world making appearances for Edward Jones Investments.

I met him for dinner before his gig at the VFW hall, and for two hours Hubbard spoke quietly about his ordeal as a POW, as fresh in his mind now as it was then.

After parachuting into a jungle that first day and being captured by a rag-tag group of armed peasants, Hubbard said he was marched off to Hanoi.

"The torchlight parade," he calls it with a chuckle. Traveling by foot, truck and boat, he was denied food and water for the next five days, he says, finally arriving in Hanoi exhausted and suffering violent hallucinations.

For the next 2,415 days, his home would be the infamous prison nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton," as well as a prison camp the POWs called "The Zoo" on the outskirts of the city.

The prisoners lived on one tiny bowl of rice and another bowl of boiled weeds served twice a day, and for the first three years they were subjected to terrifying interrogations by their North Vietnamese captors.

"They were harassing us to produce some type of anti-war material," Hubbard recalls.

Interrogations began with the prisoners bowing and sitting with their hands tied behind their backs. If their answers displeased their captors -- and they frequently did -- the prisoners were beaten, kicked and whipped with rubber hoses.

"I had never felt pain like that in my life," says Hubbard, recalling how the hose would land with a loud thwack! across his back, leaving welts that would last for weeks.

Eventually, says Hubbard, he and other POWs signed what were called "unconditional surrender statements," which the North Vietnamese planned to use for propaganda purposes.

Signing these did not exactly fill Ed Hubbard with guilt and shame.

"I didn't feel too bad," he recalls dryly. "I'd had the crap beat out of me for days. I was bleeding from my ears and my mouth. I was just trying to stay alive."

After the revelation in solitary confinement led him to lose his self-pity, Hubbard says he became determined to survive.

An American officer counseled him that, if he was serious about surviving, he had to leave all his hate behind, too -- even his hate for the brutal North Vietnamese guards.

And in 1969, when the treatment of the POWs mysteriously improved, the prisoners developed another tool for survival: They began communicating through the cell walls with a "universal tap code."

This code, Hubbard says, even allowed one prisoner to teach the others Spanish, while another POW entertained his buddies with "tappings" of poetry by Rudyard Kipling, which proved to be an enormous morale booster.

Finally, in March of 1973, Hubbard and his fellow POWs were released as part of the Paris Peace Accords. Hubbard remembers clearly how he got the news that he`d soon be a free man.

"It was 11 in the morning," he recalls. "This American colonel walked into our cell and said: `Anybody want to go home today?'

"But the greatest thrill," he adds with a smile, "was standing [at] the airport in Hanoi and seeing the C-141s [U.S. transport planes] come in over the valley."

Standing on the Tarmac, waiting to board with the other former POWs, Hubbard was nearly overcome with an intoxicating scent that he couldn't place. The scent became even more powerful as he drew closer to the airplane.

Once on board, he realized what it was: the perfume of the flight nurses, as sweet a scent as he'd ever smelled.

That, Ed Hubbard will tell you, was not such a bad day at all.

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