"Opal Flight, you together?"
"Opal Two's got you."
"Opal Three here."
"O.K., take it down, Opal. Take it down."
"Look at that oil fire!"
"We're getting flak. Keep it moving."
"Opal Two here, Lead. I'm getting rid of my tanks."
"Big flak sight at one o'clock. I can see it flash."
"Flak sight below.... Pick it up!"
"It's all over here. On our left, Opal...."
"Pull it up! Let's get...."
"Goddamn, they're angry."
"Opal Two, do you have me?"
"Opal Four's off."
"Opal Two, do you read...? Opal Two, check in."
"The last I saw him he was going into the pitch.... He didn't call...."
"Opal Two, Opal Two, Opal Lead. Do you read?"
This is an article from the April 23, 1973 issue
The car carrying the major turns on McAlister onto the campus of Tulane University. From the passenger side the major watches, intent on things familiar. "There," he says, gesturing with his left hand, the hand rigged with aluminum struts and springs and elastic bands to keep it operational. "I lived in that dorm. After that Glenda and I had an apartment in some old Army barracks, but they're gone now. Just as well."
Ahead, a bus painted with signs advocating "Dixieland Tours" tries too tight a turn onto a side street and blocks traffic. The major's car waits. "That's something I want to do, I ought to do," he says, patient with the bus driver's clumsy navigation. "Take a tour. See what the tourists see. Holy mackerel, look at those new buildings."
On Willow Street the car turns again and Tulane Stadium, the Sugar Bowl, fills his view.
"There she is. Boy, I used to wonder if I'd ever see her again. In one of the letters that got through Up There they told me about the new SuperDome. When I came down to have my hand examined the other day I drove by the site. It'll be fantastic for the fans, I guess. But this is the one I dreamed about. When I got to Clark, after the release, there was an old pro football magazine lying around, and it had a picture of Dempsey's field goal. The 63-yarder. I said to myself, 'Well, it's still there.' You don't know what a relief that was."
Proximity diminishes the old stadium's elegance, revealing for the major the scars of rust and decay. It is obvious that for some time no great effort has been made to hide its age. A stadium apparently on death row.
"Are they gonna tear it down?" the major asks. "I'd hate to see that. In prison I'd lie there and picture it on a foggy night, when the rings formed around the lights. Like gaslights. Maybe that's why they decided on a dome, all the fog New Orleans gets in the fall. It was real foggy the night we played Texas Tech my senior year. I remember because it was one of the few games we won, and I got the game ball. Come to think of it, there must have been a lot of fog that night."
He takes the steps to the athletic office one at a time. The last time he had been there he weighed 220 pounds, his face was round and his crew cut black, an Air Force lieutenant home on leave. Now he was not sure what he weighed. At one point Up There he knew it was no more than 150 pounds, spread in a thin batter over a 6'2½" frame. Freedom had already put some of it back, but not enough to fill the hollows in his face. His gold watch slides on his wrist like a charm bracelet. There are motes of gray in his hair now, too, and the pained, caged look has not entirely faded from his brown eyes. Still, there is strength in his walk, and his bearing retains the military stamp.
In the athletic offices the ritual of welcome that has come to be customary is repeated once more. Friends wring his good hand and hug him; secretaries beam. He responds in kind—a gracious, humble man genuinely touched by attentive acts. He is asked if he is surprised much by any of the changes.
Men's clothes, he says. Men's clothes have shocked him. He smiles. "But I'm coming around. My first purchase was a very conservative brown jacket, brown slacks and a brown tie. Yesterday I bought a burgundy double-knit suit and I've got my eye on a yellow sports jacket."
In the cramped office of the sports information director he thumbs through brochures and old yearbooks, some dating back 14 or 15 years to his playing days. He says he has to get the results of the 1969 and '70 LSU games because he has dinners for four at Antoine's riding on the scores. There had been some pretty heady gambling going on Up There, he says, and a lot of it had been filed to memory, the availability of sports results being what it was. He said he had been able to-extract 21 points in the first game, 17 in the second, from a pilot from LSU.
"You won the second anyway—with the points," says the publicist.
"Hey, O.K. We'll still go to Antoine's."
The major's name appears in three of the brochures, 1957, 1958, 1959: Neal Jones. Baton Rouge, La. Six feet two inches, 208 pounds. Center-linebacker. From the middle of his sophomore year he had been a regular. The brochures describe him as a man who seemed always to be fighting for his job, and winning. A man who hung in there.
"Mississippi State—1957," he says, picking a spot to elaborate. "I played all but two plays. In those days you had to go both ways. I must have drunk a dozen Cokes. I got leg cramps. I was so tired afterward I couldn't eat. The next week, against Alabama, I played 60 minutes. We won that one. I wasn't as tired afterward.
"We were a strange team," he says. "We'd play a great game. Then we'd fall apart. I replayed 'em all in my mind while I was Up There. I mean, every play. It was like mental gymnastics. My sophomore year we should have beaten Army, when they had Pete Dawkins and all those guys. We outplayed 'em, and lost. And Wake Forest. We beat Wake Forest when they had Norm Snead and we held 'em seven downs inside the 10-yard line."
He shakes his head. He is enjoying the chance to reminisce.
"Against Ole Miss my senior year we had won two straight, and Ole Miss was 4-0 and hadn't allowed a point. Right off the bat they fumbled, and we scored. When we were going back upfield my best friend, Leo Young, yells at this Ole Miss player, 'Hey, fella, that's just the first of many.' The guy says, 'You ain't jawin', Mac' We lost 53-7." He laughs. "A strange team."
Spotting a familiar face on a brochure cover, the major says, "where's Richie Petitbon now?" Petitbon had been the star on an otherwise overcast 1958 Tulane team.
"Played for the Redskins last year until he got hurt, but he'll be back. Living in Virginia," says the publicist.
"Tommy Mason's with the Redskins too. He's married again, to that pretty little Olympic gymnast. You know...."
"The name wouldn't mean anything to me. I don't know many of the names yet. In Baton Rouge I'm just getting used to 'Pete Maravich.' "
"...Cathy Rigby, that's it. Tommy married Cathy Rigby. And Boo Mason's here, Tommy's brother. He's our assistant dean of students."
"Boy, I'd love to see Boo. If he'd had Tommy's size he'da won the Heisman Trophy." The major flips eagerly through the 1959 class yearbook, looking for something he knows to be there, and is delighted when he finds it: a picture of a Tulane player slumped against a dressing room wall, mud-caked and vacant-eyed, a soft drink teetering on his knee.
"There he is. Old Boo. He can barely move, much less lift that Coke. That was the way he always played. All out, all the time. You don't know how many times I talked about him Up There. People asked me, 'Who was the toughest player you knew?' and I'd say, 'Boo Mason, pound for pound.' Five feet 10,165. The determination he had!"
The publicist hands him the latest Tulane football brochure, a slick-cover edition with an accordion-pleat foldout roster to accommodate an army of 128 varsity players. The major whistles softly. He says he seems to remember when Tulane "didn't have half that many."
The cover of the brochure features a smiling, long-haired blonde; admirably developed legs protrude from the tails of a "Tulane 72" green jersey. No. 72's arms are raised, signaling a touchdown.
"That doesn't look like any of the guys I played with," the major says. "Not that I'da minded. Nothing would surprise me anymore."
"Recruiting has taken a turn for the better," the publicist says.
"I'll say," says the major. "Boy, it didn't take all this to recruit me. Coach [Jack] Green and Coach [Stan] Kottemann came up to Baton Rouge to sign Jimmy Kepper and me. All they had to do was take us to dinner. Jimmy says to me, 'What you gonna eat?' I said, 'Fried chicken, I guess.' I didn't want to wreck the Tulane budget.
"When we get to the restaurant the waitress takes Jimmy's order first. Fried chicken. Then the two coaches ordered steaks. I said to myself, 'Boy, I'm changing my mind. I'm having a steak.' Jimmy never forgave me."
The small crowd that has gathered in the office laughs with the major.
"Have you seen the new field yet?" a man asks.
"No but I heard about it. Synthetic—uh, what is it?"
"Couldn't be prettier than the grass the last time we played LSU here. They had a horse show or something a few days before and the field was plowed up so bad you wouldn't believe it. Then when we go out to play that Saturday it's suddenly the prettiest green you ever saw. Vegetable dye."
They walk back down and through the chain-link fence and out onto the Sugar Bowl playing field. The major kneels and gingerly runs his hands over the blue-green rug.
"Two hundred and sixty thousand dollars worth," the publicist says.
"Gee, this is something. I bet a guy feels like he's running 60 miles an hour on this stuff. But I'd think you'd get brush burns when you fell on it."
"Some. Our equipment is supposed to take care of that."
"How about traction?"
"The secret is to wet it down before the game. Sounds crazy, but that's the way it works."
The major walks across the field, measuring his steps like a man on a tightrope, and stops near the goalposts at the south end.
"Right about here," he says, "some guy from Texas ran right over me for a touchdown. I barely slowed him down." He taps a raised place on the Poly-Turf with the toe of his shoe. "That might be part of me he left behind."
He says that of all the games that went through his mind Up There, it was the LSU games he could recall almost totally. He replayed them over and over, and Tulane always won the replays. (Tulane has not beaten LSU since 1948.) He says he thought at times that if he got back he'd like to coach, maybe at the high school level where he could enjoy the fellowship with young people.
A commercial jet passing overhead intrudes on his soliloquy.
"Except when I see one of those," he says. "Then I get that urge again, and I can't wait to get back in the cockpit." He holds up his left hand.
"They say I will, as soon as they fix this."
The 85-mm. shell smashed into the F105 directly in front of the cockpit, tearing a hole big enough for a man to crawl through. The impact ripped the oxygen mask off Opal Two. Shrapnel tore into his right leg. It was approximately 12:45 p.m. on June 29, 1966, Opal Two's 43rd mission of the war, the first over Hanoi for American pilots. The Opal flight, consisting of four Thunderchiefs, had been taking evasive maneuvers—"jinking," it is called—to avoid the flak and was going in to the target when Opal Two was hit.
At 500 feet Opal Two ejected. He landed on his left side, bounced, and came down again hard. When he got to his feet North Vietnamese militiamen were within 50 yards and running toward him. His left arm was dangling, unresponsive, at his side. Later he would learn he had broken it clean through above the elbow and severed the radial nerve. For a brief moment he considered making a fight of it with the .45 he carried. Then he uncocked the weapon, removed the clip and began an ordeal that would not end for 6½ years.
In the first few hours he was questioned, beaten unconscious, very nearly executed, stoned by some angry Vietnamese and put on display at a "press conference." His wound had not yet been treated. Some time afterward, Opal Two memorized a highly entertaining account of his capture in an English-language newspaper, the Vietnam Courier, that was circulated in the prisons:
"Hatred for the enemy had given additional strength to Binh. At 18, small in size, weighing 45 kilograms only, he managed to capture an American captain called Murphy Neal Jones, 2.2 meters high and weighing 120 kilograms. Hardly had this air pirate fallen on a swamp when Binh rushed out from behind a bush, brushed aside his adversary's carbine, and seized his pistol. The air pirate, frightened, raised his hands and begged for mercy."
The story gave strength to Opal Two. When he converted meters and kilograms to feet and pounds, he learned that at the moment of Binh's heroic action he, Major Neal Jones, stood 7'2" tall and weighed 264 pounds.
"You are too thin," the manager of the athletic dining hall tells him. "You should come here more often." Her name is Thelma Hearty, a kindly, worried-eyed woman with flamingo-colored hair. The major says that Mrs. Hearty always fussed over the athletes; that she once actually cried when one of his teammates complained about the frequency of steak on the menu. He smiles at the irony.
Mrs. Hearty tells him that "the boys aren't the same as they used to be, they're not as close." She hugs him then, and turns away. There is a glistening at the corner of her eyes, where the lines have deepened since he last saw her. Then he notices something else. She is thinner, too. "You look wonderful, Mrs. Hearty," he says.
His day at Tulane is a long one. He wants to see it all. He finds that things are not changed, and that everything has changed.
"Do you have to get bigger helmets for all that hair?" the major asks Bennie Ellender as they sit at the training table for lunch, watching the athletes stream through the food line, trays piled high. Ellender is the Tulane head coach. When the major was a senior, Ellender coached the freshman team.
Ellender laughs, running his hand over a glistening dome of skin that stretches from his forehead to the label on his collar. "Hair's not much of an issue anymore. Archie just about finished it, with all his red hair."
"Manning. The quarterback from Ole Miss. He's with the Saints now."
"You'll have to excuse me, Coach. The names—"
A large, muscular young man with thick brown hair, carrying a tray of empty dishes, looms at the table. He is introduced to the major as his counterpart, the center on next fall's Tulane team. He gives his name as Steve Wade, from Lake Arthur. He says he is 6'3" and weighs 240 pounds.
"Boy, they're sure growin' 'em bigger," says the major. "I was hardly 200 pounds when I came here. And playing both ways."
"Players are bigger, they're faster, and there's more of them," says Ellender. "The basics of football are pretty much the same, but the players is where the game has changed. Conditioning programs are so much better, so much more refined. These guys are always doing something to build themselves up, working out, lifting weights. You won't believe our weight room."
"We never had any of that," says the major. "They used to tell us we'd be muscle-bound and couldn't run if we did all that weight lifting. Billy Cannon was supposed to be the exception. He was lifting when we were in high school. About the only thing extra we did was run wind sprints and laps. They'd slap us in the stomach and if it shook we had to run. Some guys had naturally flabby stomachs. It was tough on them."
He says the logic of wind sprints came home to him Up There. How the coaches always made you suck it up and go "one more, one more." He could relate to that Up There. "I'd say to myself, If I can just make it through today I'll be all right.' Then there'd be one more day, and then one more, and one more. The days piled up."
He walks the campus with Ellender, audits it, really, like a man looking at real estate, taking in the new construction and, with mixed enthusiasm, the new styles. The girls that pass are in cut-off jeans, hip-huggers, crop-tops and halters. Their hair is poker-straight, their feet and midriffs bare. They have made careful efforts to look as careless as possible.
"Maybe it's me," says the major, "but in the spring we used to look forward to seeing those pretty spring dresses. I think a girl in a pretty spring dress is something special."
At a baseball game on campus he is impressed with the pretty pass Tulane uniforms have come to. They are handsomely tricolored, with powder-blue spikes. The team cannot match their brilliance. The blue shoes, says the publicist, are right out of Charlie Finley's how-to-inspire manual.
"Say again?" says the major.
"Finley. Charlie O. Never mind. Neal. It would take time to tell you about him."
Leaving the baseball park he is introduced to the reigning homecoming queen. A visible reaction takes place. The girl is fashionably half-dressed, and because she is also extraordinarily well-built, the knit shirt she is wearing emphasizes her bralessness. But it is not the major who is embarrassed, it is the girl. As they talk, she seems suddenly discomfited. She folds and refolds her arms in front of her.
It is not the first time he has encountered this sort of self-consciousness, the major says later. He had been to visit the Tulane team trainer, an old friend named Bubba Porche. When Neal Jones played at Tulane, he had become buddies with one of Bubba's sons, who was then just three or four. Now the boy is 19 years old and wears his hair long and stylishly disarrayed. When the major arrived at the house for a visit the boy hurried to his room. When he came out again, his hair was combed.
In the training room the major watches Bubba Porche wrap the ankles of Tulane's football players. They come and go in an endless parade. The training room is brightly lit and stocked with modern equipment. It is better equipped, and far cleaner, the major says, than any hospital he had been in Up There.
Boo Mason has joined him. Boo has brought him a book. Jonathan Livingston Seagull. He says it is a story Neal Jones would appreciate. He says there is something about the book that reminds him of Neal.
"I'd like to know how many miles of tape old Bubba's peeled out over the years," the major says. The tape makes delicate, ripping sounds in Porche's expert hands.
"He shoulda been a surgeon," the major says. "But where are the masseuses? I'd expect a high-class joint like this to have masseuses."
"Don't bother the working folks," Bubba says.
Some of the players Bubba wraps are black. "Boy, I'm glad to see that," the major says. There were no blacks at Tulane when he played. His high school, he says, is now 46% black.
"We're getting there," Boo says.
"Hey isn't that The Governor? Hey, Gov!" A gray-haired man with "Gov" stitched on his cap has entered the training room, looking preoccupied. His name is Troy Phillips. He has been the Tulane equipment manager for 24 years. The players call him The Governor.
"Hey, Gov, got any extra-large jockstraps?" the major says. At first look The Governor does not remember the tall, thin man sitting on the table. Then, with the recognition, he brightens.
"Oh, my. Neal!" He embraces the major and draws back to look at him.
"You all right, Neal?" he says seriously. "Did they hurt you bad?"
"I'm fine, Gov," the major says. "Just fine."
"You're not bitter, are you?"
"I have no bitterness. There's none left in me."
"Not even for Jane Fonda?" another man asks, smiling.
"No, but Glenda might. She says she would welcome the opportunity to pull out every hair on Jane Fonda's head."
When they are alone, walking out, the major tells Boo Mason what an inspiration he had been to him Up There. "I remembered how you hated to lose. And I hate to lose. Maybe it was one of the things that helped me for 6½ years. Not wanting to let them beat me. Not wanting to lose."
"I knew if anybody could get through it, you could," Boo Mason says. "Did they—how was the treatment?"
"Fair, Boo. Fair.... No. It was brutal."
Lying on a rattan mat in his cell at the Hanoi Hilton he was sure he was dying. His right leg, infected by the shrapnel wounds, was now badly swollen and turning black; it looked like an elephant's leg. The flimsy cast that had been put on his broken arm was already disintegrating and he could feel the bones moving underneath. Finally, he told the prisoner in the next cell of his despair.
"Neal, there's only one thing to do," the man said. "That's to pray. A lot."
Opal Two prayed. He prayed constantly. He would say later that it was "the turning point." The next day he was moved to another prison south of Hanoi, and a week later, without anesthetic, a Vietnamese doctor cut into his leg. He was held down, a sheet over his head, while two incisions were made and latex strips inserted and left hanging to allow the infection to drain.
In November his arm was operated on for the first time. A piece of bone was taken from his hip and grafted into the arm as a pin. His cast was set at an angle up from his body, with his forearm across his forehead. Weak from the operation and lack of food, he was on his back for 30 days. His cellmates shared their rations with him. When it got too cold for him to endure, one of them slept with him, sharing the two blankets they had been issued.
After 96 days the cast was taken off. Opal Two was told to exercise the arm, but when he tried to move it he could see it bend. A few days later Opal Two could feel the bones pulling apart "like taffy." Once more the arm hung uselessly at his side. It remained that way for 4½ years.
"Remember, Neal, we're the ones in green," Bennie Ellender says, grinning.
The 1972 Tulane-LSU game flickers and rolls on the screen in the coaches' office.
"You got any eligibility left, Neal?" Ellender says. "We could use a linebacker."
"I've still got my old helmet," says the major. "I had it out yesterday. It's got purple and gold scars on it. But listen, Coach, I've been talking with some of those LSU people. They tell me you're loaded. They say you're outrecruiting 'em. I think you must have 'em scared a little."
On the screen the green team is giving the purple and golds all they can handle. A field goal puts the Greenies ahead. The major cries out approvingly.
"Boy, I sure hope you get the Tigers this fall," the major says. "Glenda made it a policy never to give me any bad news when I was Up There. So I had to read between the lines. Only a handful of her letters got through, but every year or so she'd say, 'Tulane's waiting for you to come back to beat LSU.' That meant we'd lost again.
"So this is the year, and I'm not going to miss it for anything. I've got two appointments on my calendar that I'd risk a divorce to make. This summer there's a reunion with the Red River Rats—the guys who were shot down Up There. That'll be stag, in Las Vegas. Then there's the LSU game."
On the screen the green team is taking its 3-0 lead into the half.
"Look at 'em whooping it up on the sidelines," the major says. "I've never seen a Tulane team with such spirit. You'd think the game was over."
"I wish it was," says Ellender.
In the second half LSU asserts itself and takes a slim lead. The major, at the controls of the projector, reruns key plays, arching forward on his seat. He flips the switch and the players run backward.
"What's the blocking rules for the center on this?"
"Basically the same. Numbers plus rules. You'll probably notice we use more options on offense than you did when you had the belly series. You optioned on the end. We have what they call the triple option, where we read and option on the tackle as well as the end."
Tulane, down 9-3, is driving in the last minute of the fourth quarter.
"The crowd was going mad at this point," says the publicist. "You should have heard 'em."
"Weren't but 85,000 people there," says Ellender.
On the last play of the game a Tulane pass receiver, momentarily clear, is tackled just short of the goal by an alert LSU defender. The pass to him has been underthrown, causing him to slow up.
"Umph," the major grunts. "If he'd led that boy a little farther...."
The screen goes blank. The major says the palms of his hands are wet.
"Losing to LSU was always a sore spot for me Up There. I used to tell 'em how we held Billy Cannon and that great LSU national championship team  to 6-0 at half, and they'd say, 'Yeah? Well, how'd it wind up?" and I'd say, 'I don't remember.' Then we got a wise guy in there from LSU and he told 'em everything. Sixty-two to nothing. I was disgraced.
"One year, 1970. Glenda sent me the scores of all the bowl games, and, boy, when I saw 'em I couldn't wait to make an announcement. "Listen, I got a very important announcement,' I said, and I read off all the major bowl results. Then I said, 'Liberty Bowl: Tulane 17, Colorado 3.' Nobody believed me."
In the lightened room, Ellender asks what the doctors are going to do about his hand and his arm.
"The radial nerve is gone. They say there's no sense fooling with it. So they're going to tie over three tendons to the top of my hand on each side and I'll have to adjust to using different nerves, but I'll be able to use the hand almost normally. The way it is now...."
He removes the elastics from the brace and the hand flops down at the wrist.
"When they move the tendons I'll have to think differently before I use it."
"Think left, go right, eh?"
"Something like that."
"Well, that's not so bad," says Ellender. "We've got seven or eight coaches doing that right now."
"They won't fool with the arm at all. When the gooks finally fixed it they cut some bone away at the broken ends, screwed it together with a steel plate and another piece of bone from my hip, and wrapped it with wire. It's about two inches shorter than the right arm, but it's all right. I can use it. Might help my golf." He stretches his arms out and grips an imaginary club. "Perfect for a hook," he says.
"And I think I'll be able to fly."
At practice that afternoon, watching with Boo Mason, the major is once more astounded by the enthusiasm of the Tulane team.
He is watching a one-on-one drill at the north end of the Sugar Bowl. The Poly-Turf trembles with the force of the blows. Each one is accompanied by bellows of joyful rage from the participants, and encouraging slaps and shouts from the coaches.
"Boy, this is fantastic," the major says. "We never had practices like this. Do they do this every day? I can't believe it."
"And they always finish in exactly two hours," says Boo.
"Well, we worked longer, but never this hard. I remember Coach [Andy] Pilney had that buzzer on his watch to mark the time, and it'd go off, and he'd fumble around trying to get it stopped so he could keep practice going another half hour or so. But we were doggin' it compared with this."
Later, a short, moon-faced man in jacket and tie stops by the practice to seek the major out. He is Andy Pilney, now 60 years old and a parish councilman in suburban New Orleans. He is plainly moved by the major's presence. He kisses him on the cheek.
"What you weigh, Neal?"
"About 175 now, I guess." The major slaps his hard, flat stomach. "But I'm ready."
"Then get down and give me 20 good snaps," Pilney says.
"Oh, I hate to hear that. I remember those oranges you'd have waiting. We could smell 'em, and you'd say, '20 good snaps.' But the best snap I ever made was when we played Florida, and they had us at Silver Springs for some publicity shots. Miss Florida was the quarterback and I was the center. The best snap of my career."
"You look like you kept yourself in shape. What'd you do, run laps around Hanoi?"
"We had ways. After a while, we exercised pretty regularly."
"How you sleeping? All right now?"
"Great. Just great. I was afraid that soft bed would throw me, but as soon as I hit it, I'm out."
In 6½ years of prison life, Opal Two was never able to get through a night without waking half a dozen times or more. Sometimes it was the heat, sometimes the cold. Sometimes it was the rats. Always it was the beds. The concrete ones, the narrow wooden ones. The straw mats no thicker than a pie crust. Months after his release his hips were still discolored by the bruises.
Eventually, Opal Two was moved from the Hanoi Hilton to other prisons, to share cells with as many as eight men and, later, a cell block with 56. A Vietnamese radio announcer they called Hanoi Hannah was their tenuous link with the outside world. Hannah's bulletins about the U.S. were loaded with reports of race riots, student protests and political turmoil—anything to reassure the prisoners that America was going to hell.
They learned to read between Hannah's lines. When she quit talking about McGovern's "certain victory" in the presidential election, they knew Nixon had won. They deduced that an American had made the first lunar landing when Hannah said that "Astronaut Armstrong need not look on the moon for craters, he can find them in South Vietnam, from the bombs." Opal Two found himself wishing for Cassius Clay-Muhammad Ali to get "knocked on his pants" when Hannah kept reciting Ali's antiwar litany. But the one piece of news that thoroughly dismayed him was the killings in the Olympic Village. He said it shook him badly.
To keep their minds and bodies active and their spirits up, the athletes had a regular Olympiad going with sock football games and varieties of basketball never seen before or since. They contrived playing cards and chess pieces. Opal Two entered 20,000-point contract bridge tournaments, using systems "that would have given Charles Goren a heart attack." Pools were conducted on the Kentucky Derby and the Indianapolis 500. If the results were six or eight months coming in, what did it matter? It was as good as yesterday.
When he was well enough, Opal Two joined a Body-Beautiful club. The prisoners did bench presses with their bed slats, working against the weight of their cellmates. They did toe raises (Opal Two worked up to 500 a day) and half knee bends. They ran for miles, in place. Opal Two averaged a mile a day.
They found an infinite number of ways to eat up the time. Opal Two chuckles now at the memory of a onetime Fred Astaire dance instructor teaching ballroom dancing. With no music, the partners sounded out their own—shicka-boom, shicka-boom, shicka-boom-boom—and took turns leading. The guards weren't sure what to do about this, but they stopped the shicka-booms, in mid-phrase if necessary, every chance they got.
"He's a better dancer now than he was when he was shot down," Glenda Jones says. "When we went someplace to dance they gave us the floor all to ourselves, and they actually applauded him, the big ham." She is a tiny, black-haired woman with fierce, beautiful dark eyes. "Spanish," she says, "not Cajun." She is holding the major's damaged hand as they sit over coffee at a Baton Rouge restaurant.
They had been married, she says, on their first date—a mock ceremony at a Sadie Hawkins Day dance. It was her idea, the major says. He thought it was a mistake from the start "because how can a 6'2" guy dance with a 5'2" girl?"
Glenda had been dating, among others, Billy Cannon, a schoolmate of hers at Istrouma High. Neal had a girl called Pickles at Baton Rouge High. Eventually things got sorted out and Glenda and Neal were married, with blessings from a justice of the peace, when he was a freshman at Tulane. The union resulted in Neal Jr., now 13, and Darla, 10.
Glenda says she didn't ask him not to volunteer for his third combat tour in Vietnam, because she would never do that. But "I had a bad feeling about it, that's all," she says. The night before he went down she woke up screaming. The words were still on her mouth—"Bail out! Bail out!"—but she was unable to put together the details of the dream.
She says she never despaired. She came home from Japan and busied up her days raising the children and working toward a degree in elementary education at LSU. And she bought a $27,000 three-bedroom house in suburban Baton Rouge to make ready for his eventual homecoming. She put up his plaques and dusted off his Air Force trophies, and she promised herself for the hundredth time that she would glue the clippings in his old football scrapbook. And when she wrote she carefully avoided the issue of LSU vs. Tulane.
"You have to have a wife like this to know what it can mean to a man Up There," the major says, gripping her hand through the rigging of his brace. "A fine troop." She says she finds him "'deeper now" and "more patient" and "more aware of things." He asks her to marry him for the third time. They do, in a church, just the two of them, and the minister.
But there is no keeping him to herself. Forty-eight hours after he is home he has tickets for a marathon of spectatorship at LSU, a gymnastics meet followed by a basketball game. He goes the distance. Five hours. When Glenda wants to leave early, to beat the crowd, he says he could not possibly do that. Doesn't she realize how close the game is? LSU rewards his endurance by defeating Ole Miss in the final seconds.
For most of the basketball game the major's tutor is Slats Hardin, the old Olympic hurdler whose son he had gone to school with. Hardin explains the unfamiliar stuff: bonus shots and out-of-bounds rules. The major is all eyes. "It's a lot faster game than it used to be," he tells Hardin. More than once he leaps to his feet to cheer the play.
At the half he is introduced to the crowd, and the applause gathers around him like hands and lifts him to his feet. Every time he tries to sit down a fresh wave of cheers brings him back up. Throughout the game his view is interrupted by people wanting an autograph or a word or two. To each signature he adds "God bless America."
Toward the end of the game a slightly built Oriental excuses himself and asks to shake the major's hand. The young man says he is Vietnamese, and that his father was killed by the Communists in North Vietnam. "J wanted you to know that I appreciate what you did for my country," he says.
The major's days are spent in rediscovery. His wife is in school, "so I wander around." Charlie McClendon, the LSU coach, escorts him through the athletic plant there, and makes him promise to come around for a workout. Of an evening the major drops in on Billy Cannon, the 1959 Heisman Trophy winner. They had been rivals through high school and college, but they had been friends, too. Cannon recalls a time the two couples went fishing and the men hied off to a favored spot and left the wives sitting in the boat past dark. "Damn, if looks could kill we'da been goners," Cannon says, laughing.
"How do you like being a dentist?" the major says.
"Orthodontist," Billy corrects. "Not bad. No house calls."
"The dentists were amazed how well I kept my teeth Up There," the major says. "The gooks only gave us a tiny little tube of toothpaste, as a three-month supply, so I massaged my gums every day with my fingers, and I pulled threads out of the blanket to use as dental floss. When I had my checkup at Keesler, I had four cavities and three were under old fillings."
"Well, hell, they sure weren't feeding you a lot of candy bars, were they?" Cannon laughs.
"Musta been pretty bad. You think the bombing helped at the end?"
"All I know is you could see the fear in the eyes of those guards. That wasn't there before."
"Would you go back, if Nixon wanted you to?"
"In a minute. Listen, I'd kiss that man on the White House steps."
The major asks if Billy has missed pro football.
"I miss it here, where it shows," Cannon says, slapping his rounding stomach. "But I'll tell you, Neal, the game gets better. It's just not as complicated as it seems. Remember how we always heard that stuff about 'balanced attack, balanced attack'? Well, now they get a big old boy like O.J. Simpson, or somebody, and give him the ball 20 or 30 times a game and let him wear the defense out. Nothing complicated about that."
"I remember calling the defenses against you our senior year," the major says. "It was the second half and neither one of us had scored. I had" a five-four on, and I just happened to look at the bench and Coach Roland Dale is signaling for a split six, with stunts. I had to change the defense, and when I stunted I went right out of the play. I watched you go 45 yards for a touchdown through the hole I'da been in. Coach Dale says, 'Neal, you've done a great job calling signals up to now. Don't ever look to the bench again.' "
As the days go by, the major gets a chance to renew old pleasures, except now there are wonderful new twists. For the first time he takes his son shooting on a friend's six-acre estate. Their aim is erratic but their happiness is immense. The next morning he gets up at 5 a.m. and drives 50 miles in the rain to Lake Verret to fish. The new luxury there is a trolling motor with a foot pedal, and a boat with a carpeted deck, and by the time the clouds break he and a friend have caught 21 bass up the sloughs and bayous. On the way home the major stops in Napoleonville to see another POW who has been released, an old friend named Glenn Daigle. But the sun is out, and Glenn Daigle is off playing golf.
According to priority, Opal Two was the 92nd American prisoner of war to be released by the North Vietnamese. As the release date drew near, the guards at the Hanoi Hilton, some of whom had been his most persistent tormentors, grew increasingly friendly. One suggested that since they were going to be friends now, maybe he would visit Opal Two in the United States. The guard said he would like to study a trade there.
The irony of the suggestion was not lost on Opal Two. Three weeks after his return to the U.S., Opal Two underwent surgery on his injured left hand. The operation required two hours and was pronounced successful. If all went well, he would be flying again by early fall.
"I've been lucky," Opal Two said. "I've been lucky all my life."