Back home during Vietnam, me and Bobby McGee thought freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.
Over there, it was another whole story for George Grigsby McKnight.
While we were grooving to "Me and Bobby McGee" sung by Janis Joplin, he was a prisoner of war.
While we listened to Richie Havens singing "Freedom" at Woodstock, he was being beaten for 36 hours straight.
He was a U.S. Air Force major when he was forced to bail out of his A-1 Skyraider attack plane over North Vietnam on Nov. 6, 1965.
For the next seven years and three months, McKnight was imprisoned, and tortured for not turning his back on his country. He spent time in the "Hanoi Hilton" with U.S. Sen. John McCain. He was among the "Alcatraz 11" — the most resistant of the hundreds of POWs.
By an odd turn of events, I learned this week how a man who lost his freedom defines that precious asset for the rest of us. I want to you to read it too.
'He answered them all'
On the day after Memorial Day, I got an email from a man in Ohio. He was trying to reach McKnight or a family member, to say "thank you" and share a special letter.
David McGraw of Columbus said, "When I was in 8th grade (1996-97) I wrote a letter to George McKnight for a class project concerning the Vietnam War and its veterans. He wrote back to me and I recently came across the letter in my parents' basement while searching for something. It now hangs in my office."
He was among kids from historic Jones Middle School in Upper Arlington who went to a veterans' memorial and saw a film that included McKnight and McCain.
All these years later, he wanted to make contact with McKnight again.
After Vietnam, McKnight continued his service in the Air Force, retiring in 1986 as a colonel.
He married military nurse Suzanne Sexton McKnight, and in their retirement, we were neighbors on Hilton Head Island for 22 years. George McKnight now lives in Florida in a special place for people with dementia. Suzanne lives across the street. She said this week he is getting wonderful care and finally seems a little more adjusted.
David McGraw had found online a recent column about an Army widow in Louisiana whoalso had emailed me out of the blue
seeking McKnight. Her husband had kept a George McKnight POW bracelet among his special things, and she wanted the old POW's family to have it.
Suzanne McKnight was accommodating to both strangers. She said George got a lot of letters from school children, and he answered them all.
When we talked this week, she regretted again that her husband was unable to finish a book he was writing. It was to compare his experiences to those of his great-grandfather, who wrote a book about being a Union prisoner of war during the Civil War.
"He just started too late," Suzanne said.
The colonel was a good writer. It showed in his letters to the editor here. And it shows in this letter he sent to the middle school kid who had a lot of boyish questions for a man he now considers an American treasure.
I hope that you, too, will frame it and put it on your office wall.
Or share it with the next generation that, seemingly oblivious to the real world, grooves to pop culture's definition of freedom like windshield wipers slappin' time.
"Dear David McGraw,
"What did I look forward to after my release? Freedom!!! I looked forward to freedom. I came out of N. Vietnam like a bird escaping from its cage and I flew straight into a life without walls where I've remained ever since. I have some long-term health effects from Vietnam but nothing life-threatening.
"Your question about flashbacks or nightmares was very perceptive. I haven't had any flashbacks, but nightmares? Well, I could tell you more than you wanted to know about nightmares.
"When I was a POW in N. Vietnam, I would have very, very realistic dreams about being free, about being home with my family and friends. Every night I would escape into my dreams and every morning I would return to my cell.
"After my release, the situation was completely reversed. Each and every night, the second I fell asleep, I was back in my cell in N. Vietnam. When I awoke in the morning, I was back in America.
"Well, after about a month of this, I was convinced that I would be a POW for the rest of my life. Fortunately, even bad times eventually come to an end and so did those prison dreams.
"David, you thanked me for having great pride, strength and honor for my country. I have something else for my country. I have great love for America. This hasn't always been the case.
"Before I was shot down, I pretty much took America for granted, much like I took the air I breathed for granted. A drowning man looks at air with a new perspective and a POW looks at the land of liberty with a similar longing.
"The longer I observed America from that distant shore, the more I liked what I saw and before long, I fell head over heels in love with her. In my case, absence truly did make the heart grow fonder.