In the early 1980’s I received an assignment to lead the “diggers and fillers” of the United States Naval Academy. The job description was entitled “Deputy for Operations” but to the Mids it was “Roads and Commodes” to distinguish it from the Brigade’s own Deputy for Operations who was the travel agent for all the Midshipmen good deal government sponsored trips locally and around the world. Hence that DepOps was a superior being. Despite the Mids diminution of my elevated status, this job as sort of a base commander entitled me to a grand and glorious old brick residence, 30 Upshur Road, overlooking the parade field.
My neighbor at the other end of the parade field on Rogers Road was Paul Galanti, a Naval Academy graduate, a shipmate from the Hanoi Hilton, a resident of Richmond, a survivor with me of the disasters of recruiting and a good friend.
One Saturday I received a call from Paul inviting me to spend the afternoon at his house to swap sea stories with an editor and a political cartoonist from Richmond who were visiting with their families. Now folks who peddled newspapers were not high on my popularity list considering what a poor job they had done for their country and profession during the Vietnam war by swallowing the Communist line hook, line and sinker. So I balked and adopted the peacenicks’ slogan: “Hell no; I won’t go!”
Phyllis was quick to remind me that Ross MacKenzie and his editorial page both professionally and personally supported the POW/MIA movement and the National League of Families while Paul and I were in jail. Ross and his people supported her as she headed up the National League of Families and picketed the Paris Peace Talks in support of our release from jail. Jeff MacNelly, Pulitzer Prize winner (x2) and editorial cartoonist was in the forefront of our Richmond supporters. His comic strips and cartoons in themselves were worth a look see; so I ambled down the street for what turned out to be one of the most enjoyable afternoons of my life.
Jeff MacNelly came across as a “good ole boy” just interested in a game of checkers on a cracker barrel and the swapping of a few good lies to wile away the time. We hit it off right from the start. He had the gift to listen intently like you were the only person in the world. His curiosity was insatiable not only as to facts, but as to sights, sounds, smells, colors, emotions and feelings. His questions always added to the flow of a story and made it even better by the fact of his participation. His wry humor was never judgmental but clearly focused on the incongruities involved in the human condition. He was quick to laugh at himself and with others.
One story gave him many good laughs as I described my attempt one day in prison to avoid torture by motormouthing on the subject of insurance to an unbelieving and dangerous interrogator. My logorrhea paid off in that the explanation took all day. The interrogator’s conclusion was that the concept of life insurance was so stupid that only an idiot would purchase it in any form since you had to die to collect. His alternative take was that I was the most consummate of liars. [Both of which are true.]
In 1987 Jeff sent me an autographed gallery proof of his comic strip memorializing the essence of that story. The first panel: “To tell you the truth life insurance was always confused to me.” “Let me see if I can explain it to you.” The second panel: “To understand this complex business it’s important you understand a basic, fundamental concept behind life insurance.” The third panel: “Death” Jeff’s inscription for me: “To the Beak - thanks for explaining life insurance to me.” Jeff never forgot a thing and that attention to detail stood him in good stead throughout his professional career.
Over the years we bumped into each other mostly as targets of opportunity rather than any planned sequence of events. His was a friendship that did not require constant stroking. As an example of his unassuming and generous soul let me share with you a favor that he did for me.
I was in my twilight tour as Director of the Naval Academy Preparatory School [NAPS] at the Naval Education and Training Center [NETC], Newport Rhode Island. Our outfit was overshadowed by the big boys: the Naval War College, Officer Candidate School, Surface Warfare Officers School, the Chaplain’s School, The Judge Advocate Generals School, and the Senior Enlisted Academy. My #2, a Marine Major, and I were looking for a way to stroke our staff and pump them up a little bit in their own eyes as well as in the eyes of the NETC community.
On a sudden whim I called Chicago where Jeff had moved to from Richmond and asked him if he would come to Newport to be our guest of honor and keynote speaker at the First Annual NAPS Dining Out. We offered him the grand and glorious honorarium of an airport pick up, bed, breakfast and a free dinner. Remember, this gent was a two time Pulitzer Prize winner! Without pause or hesitation he accepted on the spot. He came. He saw. He conquered. NAPS had scored a coup that even the War College could not match.
Imagine my surprise when about a month later I received a bill for Jeff’s first class round trip airfare from Chicago to Providence and return. Like almost a thousand dollars!! I have always run a pretty creative coffee mess, but this tab exceeded any boondoggle that I had ever heard of in thirty years of service. Remembering my mentor’s [James Bond Stockdale MOH] advice “If you can’t take a joke, you shouldn’t wear a set of wings!”, I gulped, wrote myself a Credit Union loan and sent Jeff a check by return mail. In those days I still did personal business by a handshake, especially with friends, and was prepared to eat any misunderstandings resulting without question.
Within the week, Jeff had sent the check back to me, uncashed, with profuse apologies for an over eager staffer who begrudged Jeff’s cavalier handling of his business when it came to helping out friends.
On the twenty fifth anniversary of our return from imprisonment in Hanoi, 1998, Jeff drew an editorial cartoon commemorating the release of the POWs. The single panel showed an unhinged prison cell door labeled Hanoi Hilton within a dilapidated, falling apart and deserted prison. The names Stockdale, Galanti, Stratton, Terry, McCain, ET AL, were scratched on the cell wall. The caption read:
"25 years ago this month some very good men came home, and we’re still grateful"
If I had my way, I would redo that editorial cartoon so that the names on the wall read : MacNelly, Stockdale, Galanti, Stratton, Terry, McCain, et al. For Jeff too was a good man; we’re still grateful for his sharing of himself; and, like the rest of us, Jeff has gone home to a better place free from pain.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual
light shine upon him.
May his soul and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen