It was a raw and chilly Spring dawn in the prison we called the Zoo on the outskirts or Hanoi, North Vietnam. The duty prisoner from our cell block had just emptied and returned the honey buckets which we had put outside our cell doors. In silence with muted breathing, kneeling on the cold cement floor with my eyeball peering out the crack at the bottom of the door, I must have looked as if I was exercising some religious rite of morning prayer. At least that is what I was going to tell them if I got caught, since to be communicating or leading in this solitary confinement cell block was a guaranteed ticket back to the humiliation of the torture chamber. The tasks were twofold: to communicate with anyone passing by and to observe the demeanor and behavior of those returning from interrogation.
Interrogation was a strange kind of thing. Later on in our imprisonmentwe figured out that the prison authorities had to have permission from higher up to torture us - hence the reason, on our return, we were adamant about the North Vietnamese being guilty of war crimes. But I did not know that in the Spring of 1967. If a shipmate did not come out of interrogation we were pretty sure that the was being tortured or transferred. If he came out with his cup containing a beverage and a cigarette in his hand, it probably was a "good guy" quiz or "English lesson" for the interrogator. If he came out with paper and pencil in his hand, it was sure he had been tasked to perform under penalty or resumed torture. If you had an idea what was going on you could mentally and spiritually prepare yourself for when your time at bat arrived.
The duty guard, Dumb Dumb, threw open my door with a crash, shouted "Bow" and made a chopping motion across his wrist with the edge of his hand. This was the signal to put on our "mess dress", the formal prison uniform of striped pajamas with a stenciled number on the back in ridiculously high digits to indicate the thousands of "Yankee Air Pirates" they had shot down. I did not know if he caught me looking out and I had yet to see anyone return from the first round of interrogations. I was ill. My arms had not recovered from the torture. The back of my right hand had a boil from the knuckles to two inches above the wrist with a head the size of a quarter. I had made no contact with anyone since arriving at the Zoo from the main downtown prison, Hoa Lo [Hanoi Hilton]. I was alone and frightened.
The interrogator was "Frenchie" an effeminate slip of a man who had the ability order torture but not the courage to watch it. A gratuitous whack across the back of the head by Dumb Dumb got the semblance of a bow out of me. Frenchie offered me a smoke and I took it - a Trong Son - twelfth lowest brand name in quality out of 14 of their communist production line of cancer sticks. Obviously Dien Bien memorializing their victory over the French was in the top tier and, if offered, a sign of matters of great import about to be discussed. So The appearance of Trong Son indicated a good chance that this would be a low level, low power encounter.
"Would you like some tea?"
Silence but an instant grab for the tea which was saturated with sugar. I was down to 120 pounds from 185. We were on a starvation diet of chunks of break, pumpkin, cabbage or kohlrabi [in season]. They were fighting a war over rice and certainly were giving us none of it.
"We want you to meet with some official foreign guests from your country. They want to see you, because you did not bow prettily when your 'confession' was presented downtown last month. They want to see that you are all right and well treated."
"You are an air pirate. You are a murderer. You are the blackest of all criminals in Vietnam. You will never go home unless you show that you are a good man by helping us defeat your government in this unjust war."
"We shall kill you."
"Go ahead." [Frenchie didn't have the gonads to deliver this kind of a message. I'd take my chances.]
"Your family will never see you again?"
"That's OK; just send them a death certificate."
"Why a death certificate, Stratton?'
"So they can collect the insurance. I'm worth more dead than alive; but they need a death certificate to collect my life insurance?"
"You are not serious?"
"Kill me and see."
"What is this 'insurance' you talk about?"
I was just chumming but I had him! It is never good to talk, not even name, rank, service number and date of birth. I had yet to learn that salient fact. I was scared and just wanted to stay out of the torture chamber. They never really offered you death - just continuous pain and humiliation. I felt that I needed to buy time to get healthy and back to a solid resistance posture.
So we started a tutorial on insurance that lasted all day, two packs of cigarettes and a gallon of tea. House insurance, liability insurance, auto insurance, boat insurance, business insurance, business partner insurance, termite insurance, crop insurance, flood insurance, wind damage insurance, insurance on Betty Grable's legs, annuities, whole life, term life, with all the modifications and permutations etc. etc. etc.
"Stratton, you lie! You deceive me with fairy tales. I shall ask other Yankee Air Pirates about this 'insurance'. When I find out your lie you shall be very severely punished [their euphemism for torture]."
"Just kill me and get it over with. You said you were going to kill me anyway. Why would I lie? I want the death certificate."
"If you are telling the truth, YOU ARE A STUPID MAN, STRATTON!"
"So you say. Why so this time?"
"Stratton, you buy this insurance and for it to be worth while you must die to collect it. You make a wager with your goods and even your life. Someone else profits from your payments. And still someone else collects the money when you die. To win you must die! If this is true, you are a very stupid man, Stratton."
I felt like Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady" having made his breakthrough with Lisa Doolittle and I felt like bursting out in song "The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain. . ." He's got it, by George I think he's got it! Frenchie, in disgust, feeling he has been made the fool, called Dumb Dumb in to haul me back to my solitary confinement where I had a chance to reflect on his analysis of our cherished capitalist institution - insurance. In fact I had six years to reflect on the nature of insurance, who is betting what, and who the real winners are.
Upon my return home, I canceled all my high priced whole life policies, investment policies and bought straight term insurance which I still have to day. I invest my own money and reap my own profits. Indeed, I hate to cut Frenchie any slack, but I was a stupid man.
McNelly [The Pulitzer Prize winning political cartoonist] immortalized
this encounter October 27, 1987 in his syndicated comic strip.