Literature and music are replete with images of the circle as a signifier of completion and fullness. Steinbeck’s Preacher Casey, as well as songwriters Joni Mitchell and Harry Chapin, utilized this metaphor, and the old hymn, “Will the circle be unbroken” points us to that someday when all will be made whole. Unbeknownst to me at the time, a circle began forming for me on July 6, 1967, when a fellow Air Force officer named Melvin Pollack climbed into his F-4 fighter jet for his 78th and final mission over the unfriendly skies of North Vietnam.
That particular July 6th was a good and peaceful day for me in what soon became known as the “Summer of Love.” While wearing flowers in my hair was not a high personal priority in the final year of my hitch as an Air Force officer, I was beginning to entertain seditious thoughts about lowering my sideburns in preparation for re-entry into civilian life.
I had been due for rotation after three years in Texas and Mississippi with the Air Training Command. More or less resigned to the possibility of being sent to Vietnam for the balance of my four-year tour of duty, I was surprised to receive orders to report to the Roosevelt Field Shopping Center, division headquarters for the Air Force Recruiting Service. While I would still have to keep my hair short for a while, being stationed a half-hour from the Upper West Side Manhattan home where I grew up was even better than going to San Francisco, let alone Southeast Asia. As with many military assignments, this was one for which I had neither prior experience nor any particular aptitude.
So for me, at least, things were certainly looking up. I had just been accepted to the St. John’s University School of Law, and was nervously excited about starting in the fall. Along with my wife and our son of eleven months, I was assigned “married” military housing at the Army Post of Fort Totten in Bayside, Queens, a short drive away from both sets of parents. Our neighbors in the garden apartment complex included a proselytizing naval dentist, and a somber Lieutenant of Marines, whose full-time job was informing next of kin of the death, wounding, or missing in action status of their loved ones. Tough duty to be sure.
Reunited with family and friends, the War in Vietnam seemed very far away. That very day, however, was another one of grim challenge for Mel Pollack. Ironically, that 78th mission was one on which he didn’t even have to go. He, too, was what we then called “FIGMO,” the polite version of the acronym being “finally I got my orders.” Captain Pollack was scheduled for reassignment to the Suffolk County Air Force Base, a short drive from his home in Long Beach, L.I. (and not too far from my own station on Long Island). He volunteered to fly that mission, and there our lives intersected.
The next day, I was called into my commander’s office and given a telegram. As I read the short message, it echoed with World War II movie memories of “The War Department regrets…,” delivered by sympathetic postmen into the shaking hands of soon-to-be grieving sweethearts and widows. In this case, the Department of the Air Force regretted to report that Captain Melvin Pollack had been shot down over North Vietnam on 6 July 1967. The only additional information I was given was that an electronic signal had gone off, indicating that his parachute had opened. The first thought that flashed through my mind was of him being shot dead by one or more angry North Vietnamese as he helplessly floated to earth. My instructions were to immediately drive off to Long Beach and, unannounced, deliver the message to any responsible adult who answered the door.
Despite a challenged sense of direction which would forever excuse me from any kind of flying status, I managed to navigate my way to the house. It was located on a trim suburban street where each well-kept home looked more or less the same. Arriving, as I did, in a blue Air Force car with a giant organizational seal emblazoned on the driver’s side door, the purpose of my mission clearly preceded me. Neighbors tending to their lawns stopped to stare as I walked toward the house. Before I even had time to ring the doorbell, Mrs. Pollack had opened the door, and began to scream. I will never forget the sight of this lovely, middle-aged women or the immediacy of her reaction. I reached out to calm her, but all she wanted to know, understandably, was whether Mel was dead.
“I don’t know,” I responded. All I could say was what was in the telegram, augmented by the anecdotal information that the parachute had opened.
“Yes, but do you think he’s alive?”
No, I thought; not a chance. What I said was, “I don’t know, I certainly hope so.” Mrs. Pollack was an attractive middle-aged woman with wavy hair. I could not have felt sorrier for her. She asked if I would wait while she called her husband, then asked me to relay the message to him. After speaking to him, he asked if I would wait until he drove home from his job in what he (and all denizens of the outer-boroughs) called “the City.”
“Of course,” I responded.
It was a long forty-five minutes while we waited for Mr. Pollack, during which Mrs. Pollack proudly showed me Mel’s room. It was filled with diplomas, citations, and photographs of him in and out of planes, including a studio portrait, his chest already covered with several rows of ribbons under the silver wings of an Air Force pilot. His young, air-brushed face seemed almost polished, and exuded the stern and earnest confidence only the young can express. It all seemed so meaningless to me in the light of his almost certain fate.
“Can I make you something to eat?” she asked, not unlike mothers everywhere. For her to be worrying about my comfort was as absurd as it was touching. I refused her offer, but did take a soft drink to soothe the dryness in my throat.
“Do you think he’s all right?” she asked again.
“I hope so. I pray that he is,” I added, not sure that it was anything more than the words I expected she needed to hear.
She then traveled to equally uncertain grounds. “Do you think we’re right to be in this war? You know, we hear so much on the news, what with all the protests.”
What to say? When in doubt, resort to the cliché. “Well, ma’am, he believed in what he was doing.” My true feelings were, I must confess, ones of confusion. For the past several years, I had supported the war on the belief that our leaders had to know more about the situation than we did and, besides, wasn’t the very right to dissent that we so cherished something likely to be quashed in a Communist victory? The mounting casualties and protests were taking their toll on my certainty, though. I was no longer sure we were right being there, let alone about the manner in which the war effort was being prosecuted. That, however, was not something I was about to say.
The last thing she needed to hear from some uniformed pipsqueak safe at home were words that would undermine the great — and possibly ultimate — sacrifice of her son. What I could not help but think as I stood there uncomfortably sipping my soda (“Yes, ma’am, ice cubes would be great”), was that under slightly different circumstances, someone like Mel could be standing in my living room on West 86th street trying to calm my mother while she waited for my father to make the agonizing trip home from the office.
When Mr. Pollack finally arrived, I went through a similar series of questions. Understandably, both parents thought I knew more than I did. I assured them I did not. Whether or not they believed me, I’ll never know. I hope they did. I remember him as wiry, and grimly handsome, bearing his sorrow and uncertainty like, well, a man. I tried to imagine my own father, who so loved things military, receiving the same kind of news, my mother struggling between sorrow and anger. Free association can be a very disturbing thing.
About twenty minutes after Mr. Pollack’s return home, I was able to take my leave. I was never more grateful to leave a home. When I returned to my quarters at the Fort, I hugged my wife of two years and described my day. I can’t remember discussing it with my parents, and don’t believe I ever did. I do remember picking up my infant son, Jason, and pulling him close to me. I uttered a silent prayer that he would never have to go to war, a prayer the years have happily answered for both him and his then yet-to-be born brother. 1967, for those of you who remember, was a very long time ago. France, for example, was still led by its wartime hero, Charles de Gaulle. China (which we then called Red China) was ruled by revolutionary hero Mao Tse-tung. (That was, of course, before he changed his name to Mao Zedong, doubtless for business reasons.) The Beatles’ seminal “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album had been out for just a month, and was already number one on the charts. It’s funny how a song that began “It was twenty years ago today,” is now, like my then infant son, almost thirty-nine. LBJ would soon be entering his final year as President, although I’m sure he didn’t know it at the time. People love to talk about how the country “lost its innocence” when JFK was assassinated—as if we had innocence to lose. But for those who believe that we did, whatever flicker remained would soon be extinguished.
The massacre at My Lai was less than a year away, soon to be followed by the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Shortly thereafter, a stunned nation experienced the spectacle of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Hardly the stuff we later saw on “Happy Days.” By then, LBJ had taken himself out of the running, and even Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew were thought preferable to the tainted Hubert Humphrey. As an ironic coda to the myth of “Camelot,” the tragedy at Chappaquiddick occurred barely two years after Mel was shot down. If anything remained to end the ‘60’s, the deaths at Altamont and then Kent State in the spring of 1970 provided the one-two punch.
Names like Johnson, Humphrey, Nixon, Agnew, Daley, Rusk, Walt Rostow, Bundy, Taylor and Ho Chi Minh once filled our living rooms. Now they are all dead, their reputations fought over by biographers and historians. Only Robert McNamara is left from the Kennedy and Johnson war cabinets, and he is an old man, tormented by his memories and choices. I’m afraid most people nostalgic for the sixties didn’t have to live through them.
By 1971, with the war in Vietnam still raging, I was out of law school and working in my first “legal” job as assistant counsel in the City’s Economic Development Administration. One day in the office, I noticed one of the secretaries wearing a distinctive ID bracelet. When she told me it was for one of the POW/MIAs I asked to see it. Imagine my surprise when I saw the name Melvin Pollack and the date July 6, 1967. The coincidence was too astonishing to contemplate. Of all the many soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen unaccounted for, the first and only ID bracelet I ever saw had Mel’s name on it. While neither Lillian (her name) nor I had any idea whether or not Mel was dead, I believed I had received a message of some sort that he was alive. Obviously, I was not about to be so presumptuous as to call his parents about it.
Flash forward to March 4, 1973. I was by then an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan D.A. Frank Hogan’s office, and had returned home from a day’s work in the “Arraignments Part,” the conveyor belt of municipal criminal justice. Following dinner, my wife Riki and I were watching the evening news while our two sons were playing peacefully (we hoped) in their room. Walter Cronkite announced the first return of prisoners from Hanoi as part of the peace settlement. We were holding hands as we watched the names scroll down the screen. When Mel Pollack’s name appeared, I nearly crushed her hand. “That’s him,” I cried. “I don’t believe it.”
I immediately called Mrs. Pollack on the phone, who I’m happy to say remembered me fondly. After offering my warmest congratulations, I told her that I’d love to come out and meet Mel when he got back home — assuming, of course, that he was up to it. Understanding that being in harsh, if not brutal, captivity for nearly six years can cause changes in the strongest of people, I was disappointed, but not surprised, not to hear from them. I assumed that Mel was struggling with his own demons, and deserved to be left alone. Though I was completely unaware of it at the time, his parents had known that Mel was alive since 1968, when Tom Hayden (who, along with then-wife Jane Fonda, was a militant anti-war activist with contacts in Hanoi), told them that he had a letter from Mel. Mr. Pollack went to pick up at the letter at the Fifth Avenue town house where Hayden was staying. So while Mel was a long way from home, and still very much in harm’s way, they now knew he was alive! And there he remained, until March of 1973. All in all, five years and eight months away from all he knew and loved.
Just think about what a six-year gap in your adult life represents! During the time Mel was in captivity, I, for example, finished my last year in the Air Force, entered and completed law school, became a father for the second time, passed the bar exam, and was on my second job as a lawyer. Break your own adult life into any six-year segment you choose, and imagine it not only away from your family, but without any of the experiences you had throughout that period.
Over the years, I would think about Mel, and wonder what his life had been like; indeed, if he was even still alive. Last September — thirty-eight years after delivering that painful message to his parents — I decided to find out. Why I hadn’t tried sooner, or even why I tried then, I don’t know.
With my limited computer literacy, I typed the name Melvin Pollack into Google. To my great delight, I learned that Mel was alive and well. A photograph showed a man who, like me, was in late middle age, looking not at all like the 25-year-old whose portrait was imprinted on my memory. From a 1996 entry that he had remained in the Air Force until his retirement in 1986 as a Lieutenant Colonel and was then living with his wife in Florida, the trail appeared to end. I then found a fairly recent news entry, in which Mel was quoted as a “Former P.O.W. and Aerospace Executive” in an article about the plight of captives from the Iraq war. A little bit of sleuthing revealed that he was living in south Florida, in a town not ten minutes away from where my wife and I had recently purchased a vacation home. Since I didn’t have his address, I was confronted with a surprising number of Pollacks, M. Pollacks, and even Melvin Pollacks living in the area. I struck pay dirt, however, when I added the prefix, “Lt. Col.” Interestingly, I too had retired from the Air Force about the same time he did, also as a Lieutenant Colonel. In my case, however, I had been a reserve Special Agent with the Office of Special Investigations. When I called the number, I got a voice message, and left my name, number, and a brief description of who I was and why I was calling.
Hearing nothing back, I decided to let things go. But two weeks later, as I was preparing to go to Synagogue on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), my wife answered the phone and listened, with a perplexed expression, to the unidentified caller. After a minute or so, she said, “excuse me, who is this?” A broad smile then broke out on her pretty face as she announced, “Honey, it’s Mel Pollack.” It turns out that Mel was just back from Bosnia, where he was doing some security work. Semi-retired and now divorced and the father of a grown daughter, he sounded very happy with his life although less than pleased with the way things were being handled in Iraq. We wished each other a happy new year, and agreed to get together on my next trip to Florida.
This long awaited meeting took place just last month, and—though we had never met—it had the feeling of a reunion for both of us. Mel is a powerfully built man of medium height with a ready smile, looking considerably younger and fitter than the picture posted on the internet. We met for lunch at a place just minutes from my home, and managed to catch up on our respective lifetimes. I asked if he was comfortable discussing his experiences as a prisoner of war and he said “ask away.”
It seems the F-4 he was flying had the most sophisticated radar jamming electronics available at the time, but the North Vietnamese had some World War II munitions that we had given to our then allies, the Soviets, that permeated the F-4’s defense systems. Apparently, the micro-managed rules of aerial engagement prohibited the fighters from firing unless fired upon, at which point they were already hit, about forty-five miles northeast of Hanoi, and it was pretty clear they would have to bail out.
Mel smashed his head as he ejected from the opening canopy, the helmet being the only thing which saved his life. Dazed, he fell to the ground, landing against an outcropping of red, volcanic rock, which severely injured his back. As the armed peasants approached, he realized the futility of a shoot-out, and disposed of his service revolver. He was not hurt or mistreated by the peasants, save an old women, who weakly beat him with a stick. Apparently, Ho Chi Minh recognized the barter value of American airmen, and the citizenry was aware of the bounty they would receive for turning him over to the authorities unharmed. He was taken to the nearest village by local militia, and slept that night on a hard concrete block, which further aggravated his back injury. The next day, he was taken to what we have since come to know as the “Hanoi Hilton.” A former French Colonial prison, he described the “Hilton” as looking like the prison in the film “Papillion.” He later learned that his co-pilot, Lt. Col. Kenneth Hughey, an older and more senior man, had survived as well, and had been taken to another facility.
One of the first things Mel learned was that strict adherence to the strictures of the Code of Conduct (i.e. Name, rank, serial number and date of birth) was not a sound survival strategy. In point of fact, the North Vietnamese had retrieved enough information from the downed plane to identify, among other things, its base of origin, repair records, and sufficient detail to leave Mel with little to deny. The “accommodations” in which he and his fellow prisoners lived were harsh, but his captors conditions’ were not much better. They ate basically the same diet as their captors, though supplemented by corn, as the Western metabolism could not subsist on rice to the same degree as the North Vietnamese. Years later, Mel served as a technical advisor to the eponymous made-for-TV movie, “The Hanoi Hilton.”
I asked about what kept him going: Did religion play much of a role, or was there a special girl back home? He answered no to both. Mel worked hard at keeping his mind and body alert in between “education” and “interrogation” sessions. He memorized quadratic equations, and went over them in his mind. He was able to learn Russian while there, and found the guards eager to learn English. Apart from some sadistic guards, he did not complain of widespread maltreatment. For two periods in his imprisonment, Mel shared a cell with Lt. Commander (now Senator) John McCain, with whom he has stayed in contact and whom he greatly admires. McCain once asked him how he was able to stay in as good shape as he did. He told him it was through calisthenics and by using pails filled with rocks as substitute dumbbells. Believe me, his arms still show the results of that improvised “weight-training.” Was he, I asked, there when Jane Fonda visited the “Hilton?” He was, but did not see her, and had no desire to. Interestingly, as mentioned above, it was Jane’s then-husband, Tom Hayden, who delivered the first word to Mel’s folks that he was alive.
I told him of speaking with his late mother the day I learned of his release, and how I wanted to meet him then, but did not know his state of mind or body. “Hell,” he said, “You should have come out, we had a blast.” I wish I had.
What, I wondered, were the after-effects of his imprisonment, mentally and physically. The back injury, of course, continues to trouble him from time to time, although he was able to continue on both active duty and flying status. As a former P.O.W., he (deservedly) receives special attention from the V.A. in terms of treatment and disability benefits. He mentioned PTSD very much in passing. Later, to make sure I had heard him correctly I asked, “did you say you had post-traumatic stress disorder?” “Yeah,” he said, matter-of-factly, “I wasn’t even aware that I had it, but they ask you a bunch of questions and it seemed I had enough symptoms to qualify.” I let it go.
I asked if he knew what had become of his co-pilot, and, if so, had they stayed in touch. He told me that, after retiring from the Air Force as a full colonel, Hughey decided to, in his late sixties, go to law school. Now in his early seventies, he is an Assistant District Attorney in California, living with his wife and family. It seems, after all these years, I share something in common with Mel’s co-pilot as well, although my days as an ADA ended about a year after Mel and Ken were repatriated.
When lunch was over, my brother-in-law, Dick, accommodated me by taking a couple of photographs of us with his digital camera. Mel and I hugged each other in parting, and agreed to get together for dinner on my next trip down, as I wanted him to meet Riki. As I was about to leave an old friend I had just met for the first time, Mel said he had something for me. It was one of those POW/MIA I.D. bracelets. It said, “Captain Melvin Pollack, U.S. Air Force. July 6, 1967.” Open in the middle, it slipped over my right wrist. I tightened it until it fit like a closed circle.