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'Triumph of an Ordinary Man' : Ex-POW Resurrects Pain, Pathos to Motivate Others

December 15, 1985|BOB BAKER | Times Staff Writer

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Charles Plumb, his words coming fast, his voice rising and falling along the course of a sentence as rhapsodically as a television evangelist's, is telling an audience about his first days of torture, emaciation and self-pity in a tiny North Vietnamese prison cell.

"I was going stir crazy. I needed something. A game to play. I made a deck of cards. I tore 52 little strips from a piece of toilet paper. And I can tell you this with authority . . . ."

He pauses. This morning's listeners--200 independent Tennessee oil salesmen who hired Plumb to address their sales convention--are groggy after a party last night, but they remain riveted until he exclaims:

"It's tough to shuffle!"

More than 150 times each year, Plumb, a 43-year-old former Navy fighter pilot, resurrects this kind of pain, pathos and gallows humor for quota-beleaguered salesmen, suicide-minded high school students, striking airline pilots or any other group willing to pay $2,000 plus expenses for 45 gripping minutes.

He is America's only professional prisoner of war.

Most of the 588 men who came home from North Vietnamese prisons returned to the military or private life with a determination to transcend the "POW" label.

"It's not a distinction you're looking for when you get your wings and go off to war," one said.

Many of the ex-prisoners have given scores or hundreds of speeches. Plumb, though, is the only one to parlay the public's thirst for knowledge of the POW experience into a long-running career as a motivational speaker, in which he defines his livelihood by his six years of imprisonment, reliving it nearly every other day.

He estimates that he has told his story 2,300 times since his release in 1973 and says he hopes to continue to make his living from it as long as people will listen.

"This is an ego trip, and I recognize that," he said. "And I know a lot of what I do is not talent. It's the story. I am no Clarence Darrow. But it's the best use of my time.

"I want people to think better of themselves. Those six years were the greatest training a person could have. I can't think now of a challenge in life I can't overcome. I truly believe that, if I could put each person through those years, they would come out with the self-confidence that I have."

Looks the Part

Plumb bills his story as "the triumph of an ordinary man" and he looks the part: medium height, medium build, high voice, prominent ears, thinning hair.

Inside is a performer fascinated by the process of working an audience. He takes pains to inject each presentation with Hollywood dramatics (often pacing and pivoting the imaginary length of an eight-foot cell as he speaks), everyman vulnerability (noting freely that he was graduated in the half of his U.S. Naval Academy class "that made the top half possible") and fighter-jock stoicism (mentioning offhandedly two tragedies of timing: He was shot down five days before his tour of duty in Vietnam was to end and was divorced by his wife three months before he was freed).

Plumb has been able to profit without offending the sensibilities of his fellow ex-prisoners, according to interviews with a number of men well known in the fraternity of POWs.

"The guy's absolutely tremendous," said retired Navy Capt. Richard Stratton, president of NAM-POWs Inc., an organization that counts among its membership about 400 Vietnam POWs.

"He has the character to make his story authoritative," said retired Vice Adm. James B. Stockdale, who was the highest-ranking American POW in Vietnam and knew Plumb in prison. "I have high regard for him."

Holds an Advantage

Bob Moore, a Chicago-based convention planner who has hired Plumb as a keynote speaker for corporate sales meetings, said that Plumb has an advantage over most motivational or inspirational speakers, who specialize in finding new ways of saying the same old things about building that positive attitude.

"He's not sitting there with platitudes," Moore said. "He touches home. He all of a sudden has you thinking very seriously about what he's talking about. It's almost like he talks in parables."

Like this:

". . . So there I was in my little cell with my little deck of cards, and I heard a cricket across the floor," Plumb is telling the Nashville salesmen as the noise of a jackhammer grates irritatingly outside the overly air-conditioned banquet room. "But it wasn't a cricket. It was a wire being slid under the wall of the cell next to me. And, at this point, I needed so desperately somebody to validate my sanity, to tell me it was going to be all right. But you know my overriding reaction? I was afraid. I was afraid of the guy on the other end of the wire.

Another POW

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