These were the words that were spoken, as I eavesdropped in on a conversation between husband and wife. How many times in the history of man have these words been uttered, I wondered? Such a simple request; yet so telling. It’s really a very gracious statement when you examine it closely. Is there some need I can fulfill for you? What would make you happy now? How can I serve you? All of these questions can be inferred from “Is there something you would like to have?
The conversation I was eavesdropping on was between Vice Admiral James Stockdale and his wife, Sybil. Stockdale? James Stockdale? Where have you heard that name before? You probably heard it in 1992, when Presidential Candidate Ross Perot named James Stockdale as his Vice Presidential running mate. Needless to say, everyone was shocked and unaware of who this aging sailor was.
Stockdale was not informed that he would be participating in the October 13th vice-presidential debate held in Atlanta, Georgia, until a week before the event. He had no formal preparation for the debate, unlike his opponents Al Gore and Dan Quayle, and did not discuss any political issues with Perot beforehand. The 69 year old Stockdale opened the debate by saying, “Who am I? Why am I here?”, when responding to a request for an opening statement from debate moderator. He was lampooned immediately by everyone from the New York Times to Saturday Night Live.
Yet that is not the James Stockdale I will remember.
From Wikipedia –
James Bond Stockdale (December 23, 1923 – July 5, 2005) was an American and United States Navy vice admiral. He was awarded the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War where he was a prisoner of war for over seven years. He had led aerial attacks from the carrier USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14) during the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Incident. On his next deployment, while Commander of Carrier Air Wing 16 aboard the carrier USS Oriskany (CV-34), he was shot down in North Vietnam on September 9, 1965.
He was held as a prisoner of war for seven and a half years in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” He was routinely tortured and denied medical attention. This left him with a damaged leg and a permanent limp. When his torturers tried to use him as a propaganda tool by parading him out in public, he slit his scalp with a razor and beat himself in the face so that he was so disfigured that they couldn’t use him.
Stockdale and ten other prisoners were known as the Alcatraz Gang because of their tireless efforts in organizing resistance. They were separated from the rest of the prisoners and each kept in a 3 x 9 foot cell; shackled in leg irons each night.
While James was held captive, Sybil organized The League of American Families of POWs and MIAs calling for more light to be shed on the treatment of POWs. She was also used by the government to send coded messages to her husband in a twist right out of the movies.
He was released on February 12, 1973 during Operation Homecoming. His shoulders had been wrenched from their sockets, his leg shattered and his back broken during his torture. The first thing he did, when he was safe at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, was to call Sybil. The conversation was recorded by their son, Stanford. As you listen to recording, you can hear the frailty in his voice. You can hear the years of torture and pain. After professing their love for each other, James asks the question that I am not ashamed caused me to cry and started this story. “Is there something you would like in the way of a gift?”
James Stockdale had endured seven and a half years of torture. He was a skeleton of the man he was. Yet he asked his beloved wife what HE could get her. I’m pretty good with the English language but words fail me in trying to describe how this made me feel.
I heard this story told by his son, Jim, on the StoryCorps podcast as Lynn and I wove our way through the Louisa countryside in search of pie. On the podcast, Jim played the recording of the conversation between James and Sybil. I felt the hot tears stream down my face as I heard him ask her if there was “something she would like.” I tried to hide them from Lynn but I knew chances were she was crying, too.
What is it in us as humans that allows such magnanimity? How can someone who was beaten and tortured routinely for seven years be so thoughtful as to ask his wife that question? It’s at these moments that the face of God is revealed and I know that all is right and good if we only listen to his voice. Listening to that intimate conversation from over forty years ago was sacred.
Vice Admiral James Stockdale may be remembered by most as the befuddled, fuzzy old, bent Vice Presidential candidate who was ridiculed by the questions he uttered in 1992. I, however, will remember him by the question he asked in 1973 – “Is there something I can get for you?”
To listen to the StoryCorps Podcast AND the conversation between James and Sybil click here.
ps – It’s a bit ironic that his middle name is “Bond.” He’s more of a hero than 007 could ever be in my book.