I've never been much of a rah-rah guy. Sure, I occasionally enjoy listening to inspirational stories about people who've overcome incredible odds, but I don't seek them out. For example, I've never listened to a Tony Robbins tape and can't switch the TV channel fast enough when John Bradshaw pokes his head into my living room. But I have to confess that I was mesmerized by a "motivational speaker" at the National Association for Pupil Transportation's recent annual conference and trade show in Austin, Texas. I thoroughly enjoyed his performance and would pay to see it again. His name is Charlie Plumb. Sounds like a character from a Beverly Cleary novel, but he's actually a retired U.S. fighter pilot who spent nearly six years as a POW in Vietnam. He was five days away from finishing his tour of duty when his plane was struck by anti-aircraft fire. He ejected and parachuted waist-deep into a rice paddy, where the enemy was waiting for him. After being dragged naked through local villages and then tortured for good measure, Plumb was incarcerated in an eight-by-eight-foot prison cell. For the next five years and nine months, he learned how to survive, mainly by refusing to think of himself as a prisoner of war. He had help. Other POWs delivered inspirational messages through a wire that was snaked through gaps in the prison walls.
Lessons that I've learned
As I sat and listened to this man's extraordinary tale — he created a deck of chiclet-sized playing cards from toilet paper scraps — I wondered what the hundreds of school transportation people in the audience would take away from his presentation. Certainly, Mr. Plumb is a gifted speaker. He is a natural storyteller who could give Will Rogers a run for his money. At the conclusion of his speech, there was no doubt that the audience would rise as one for a standing ovation. But what about his message? How would this crowd benefit from his story? Would they be better served by a seminar on lobbying for stiffer penalties for stop-arm runners? I don't have the answer to these questions. I'd like to think that everyone went back to their respective towns and, inspired by Plumb's presentation, rededicated themselves to their endeavors, both personal and professional. But my guess is that we had mostly forgotten Plumb's incredible story by the following day as our busy schedules took their toll on our physical and mental reserves.
Lessons that I've forgotten
In fact, I struggle to recall a single lesson of Plumb's POW experience, except that he encouraged us to be unafraid to move outside of our comfort zones. Oh, he also encouraged us to be grateful for the people in our lives who support us without expecting anything in return, just as he was supported by the soldier who packed his parachute on the day his plane was shot down. I'm confident that the rest of his presentation is stored somewhere in the recesses of my memory. I can still see him pacing the stage, like he was back in his tiny prison cell in Vietnam. But I want to do more than remember; I want to put his advice into action and improve my life. Maybe I'll tape his name next to my computer. It will remind me to occasionally leave my comfort zone and to thank my support personnel for their unflagging support. Failing that, it will at least remind me of Beverly Cleary novels, which is not such a bad thing.