On Memorial Day, I remember the bravest man I never met.
May 24, 2015
THE FIRST MAJOR STORY I ever wrote became the most important story I ever wrote.
I was a reporter for The Daily Texan at The University of Texas.
We thought we were greatness in the making.
There were rumors breaking into newspapers across the country about some kind of conflict that was beginning to look like war in the jungles of a place in Southeast Asia that none of us ever heard of or knew anything about.
There was fighting.
There were men dying.
But it wasn’t a war.
And we weren’t involved, which is what the government told us. It was simply a case where North Vietnam had attacked South Vietnam, and you couldn’t tell one from the other without a program, and they all shed the same color of blood, and a lot of it was being shed.
But we shouldn’t worry.
The war couldn’t touch us.
We weren’t involved.
The editor of The Daily Texan handed me a wire story from the Associated Press. See what you can do with this story, he said. I scanned it over, and none of it made sense.
An American soldier had been captured in Vietnam.
He was the first American soldier captured in Vietnam.
How could it be, I wondered.
We weren’t there.
We weren’t involved.
Someone may have been lying to us.
My wife and I left campus and drove all night to the far Southern reaches of Texas to interview the parents of Lieutenant Nick Rowe.
Didn’t know anything about him.
Just a name.
Just a soldier.
Get a quick interview and drive home. It was, after all, a long drive back from McAllen netto Austin.
We drove up to the home where Nick Rowe had grown up as a boy, and the front yard was filled with cars and television truck. Every major, big-time, major newspaper in Texas was in town. So were the three national networks: CBS, ABC, and NBC. They were all parked in the yard, fuming and fussing.
Nick Rowe’s parents were inside the home.
They would not speak to anyone.
The glorious press and all the network news cameras were locked outside.
I had two things on my side: youth, ignorance, and Linda. On a Sunday morning, we wove our way through the horde of media, all sweating profusely in the heat and humidity of the South Texas sun. We walked up the steps of an antebellum home, and since I didn’t know any better, I knocked on the door.
A gatekeeper opened it. I didn’t know if he was the butler, the pastor, an attorney, or a family friend, but I knew his sole job was to keep us out in the sun with the rest of the prying eyes of the press.
The parents were grief-stricken. They were carrying a heavy burden. They wanted their privacy.
I introduced myself and said, “I’m with The Daily Texan – as though the name carried as much or more weight than The New York Times or CBS television.
The gatekeeper didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But he did know he would kick us out. And then from somewhere behind him I heard a voice – bold, strong, and etched with sadness. “Let them in,” Mr. Rowe said.
“Why?” the gatekeeper asked.
Rowe nodded at Linda.
“She reminds me of Jackie Kennedy,” he said.
We sat there in the cool of the family den for almost five hours, sipping tea and learning everything there was to know about a boy named Nick Rowe.
He had joined the army. He always wanted to go where the going was the roughest. That’s who he was. He did not mind fighting a secret war. He had been sent to Southeast Asia to serve as a military advisor for South Vietnam, his father said.
“I didn’t know we had any troops in Vietnam,” I said.
Rowe tried to grin and couldn’t.
“In a little while,” he said, “every troop we have will be in Vietnam.”
“Why?” I asked.
“No one will ever know,” he said.
“We were told Nick was captured,” his mother said.
“We were told he’s probably dead,” his father said.
“We were told the North Vietnamese treat their prisoners with untold cruelty,” his mother said.
“They won’t break Nick,” his father said.
“He is a survivor,” his mother said.
As Linda and I walked out the door, I turned back toward them. “Give my best to Nick,” I said.
His father nodded.
His mother smiled.
We walked out the door and back through the press. The giants of the newspaper and television business looked at us like we were fools.
They were probably right.
But we had gone inside.
The story I wrote for The Daily Texan, a bastion of journalism, happened to win the National William Randolph Hearst Award. But that didn’t matter.
What did is that I was working at Southern Living Magazine five years later when the story broke.
Nick Rowe had escaped.
They had tried to break him.
They had tried to kill him.
I sent a short note to the Rowe family in South Texas. “Give my best to Nick,” I said.
The family sent a short note back. “We will,” it said.
It was years later before I heard of Nick Rowe again. He had been working for the CIA and was mysteriously assassinated on some backstreet in a town in Manila I couldn’t spell or pronounce.
Nick Rowe had fought to the end.
Almost three decades later, Linda and I were in Washington and decided to walk again in the garden of stones – better known as Arlington National Cemetery.
We walked in and took a left. The first grave we saw was hidden in shadows but lit by a late afternoon sun. On it were carved the only two words that mattered: NICK ROWE.
I was finally able to give him my best in person.
It was years too late.