On Watch by Marcus Fisk

All the World’s a Stage

Paul Galanti in the Hanoi Hilton. The “finger” was airbrushed out by Life Magazine when it appeared on the cover

By Marcus Fisk

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts…

As You Like It – Act II Scene vii – William Shakespeare

ALEXANDRIA,VA- There is a lot of talk about heroes today. Some merited; some, just a catchy phrase to throw around. This is a tribute to two of my heroes.

It was my junior year at the Naval Academy and I walked into our Leadership classroom, sat down, and dreaded the next 45 minutes. We were expecting the same dull old routine when our instructor walked in, escorting a Navy Commander in dress blues. He introduced himself this way: “Hi. I’m Paul Galanti, Class of ’62, and I had 97 and a half good missions over North Vietnam. The last one didn’t end very well.”

Commander Galanti proceeded to regale us with his stories of being a “guest” at the notorious prison, nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton, where he served for six and a half years as a prisoner of war. There were stories of complete resignation, humiliation, torture, misery, resiliency, starvation, and sacrifice. It also included stories of camaraderie and, of all things, humor.

Galanti’s ultimate message, however, was profound. He said that despite all the trials and agonies the POWs endured, there were little victories he held onto. Getting up in the morning to see another day was a victory. A weed growing in the cracks of the concrete walls was a victory. A couple of extra pieces of rice in your “soup” – a victory. Seeing a buddy come back from a brutal interrogation session (called a “quiz” by the POWs) and flashing a thumbs-up – victory. He said there were a hundred victories a day if you only chose to find them.

The class ended with every Midshipman spellbound. It was our dawning that this gentleman had once been sitting at the same desks that we were, a mere 15 years earlier, and that any one of us in that room could find ourselves in a similar situation. It was our personal introduction to the career field we were entering, that of a warrior.

After six years at sea, I was assigned to Navy Recruiting in Richmond and I happened to run into Galanti at a Naval Academy Alumni luncheon. I reminded him of speaking to our class and we developed a friendship that led to many lunches, stories, and laughter. I also had the great fortune of meeting his bride Phyllis. While Paul was a POW and she was the ripe old age of 26, Phyllis became the second president of the National League of Families and Friends of POWs and MIAs in Southeast Asia.

Paul and Phyllis Galanti on the cover of Newsweek Magazine

This remarkable woman, who was so shy that she couldn’t speak in front of a small group of people, was thrown into the political spotlight by the Write Hanoi campaign, and she was a key member of the team that went to the Paris Peace Talks to confront the North Vietnamese delegation. She met with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon to push for political measures to secure the release of POWs in the talks.

Over time, as a result of that class with Galanti, I amassed a collection of the books POWs wrote about their experiences and I devoured every page. At one of our lunches, the strangest idea hit me and I posed it to Paul.

Over the course of my life, I have acted in theatre productions in Virginia, Maryland, California, Colorado, and Rhode Island. To me, there was real drama, excitement, humor, and hope in Paul and Phyllis’s stories about their POW years. There had been books and films on the POW experience but nothing on the stage. And theatre is where one feels a story probably better than any other art form. Phyllis was on the Board of Directors of Theatre IV (now Virginia Rep) in Richmond, so I posed a question to both of them. If I wrote a play about their experiences, would Phyllis propose the idea to the Theatre IV Board?

She thought it was a great idea.

Over the next three years I went through four drafts of what I thought was a compelling story, fact-based to capture as much as I could of their stories, but using composite, fictional characters to make it more appealing to a production company. But the script was missing something.

I took the draft to a neighbor, Douglas Minerd, who at the time was Director of Entertainment at Busch Gardens Williamsburg and also a composer. After pitching him the idea of writing some mood music for the script (over several beers on his back porch), he said something remarkable: “Why not make it a musical? More drama can be portrayed through music. And the Tap Code the POWs used to communicate with each other speaks to me rhythmically.”

Things went into high gear and by spring of 1990, we had a script, a musical score, Theatre IV’s commitment, and Four Part Harmony was born.

Opening night in November 1991 was pure magic. Theatre IV hosted a black tie gala, world premiere party, complete with the Atlantic Fleet Band, Color Guard, invitations drawn by Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Jeff McNelly, and some 600 patrons in tuxedoes and military dinner/mess dress attending the performance.

Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Jeff McNelly’s illustration on the invitation to the Four Part Harmony gala.

It was one heady night indeed, because in that audience of political, business, and theatre Who’s-Who also sat 25 former Hanoi Hilton POWs and their families. After a short opening curtain speech, there was a five-minute standing ovation recognizing these heroes and their families.

The lights went down, the orchestra started the overture, and from that point on I don’t remember anything other than a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.

After the show I was standing in the lobby enjoying the afterglow when I was approached by a large group of POWs and families. They knew that I had drawn fictional characters from the real participants but, time after time I heard, “That was me, wasn’t it?” from the POWs.

Here I was, just another guy in the Navy, and I am surrounded by some of the toughest guys in the world, my personal heroes, and they were excited and pleased with what they had just seen. Then a young man, probably in his late 20s, came up to me and said, “Are you the writer?”

“Yes,” I said. “I hope you liked it.”

“I did. A lot. But I wanted to thank you. My dad was a POW and he has never told me about his time as a POW. Now I understand.”

And that was the best review I have ever received in 50 years in the theatre.

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