ON MARCH 4, 1973, his North Vietnamese captors told him it was over.
For 2,075 days -- scores spent in isolation, roasting inside a windowless, 6-foot box -- he had fought rats off his food and torturers off his back, doing mental and physical push-ups to keep a toe-hold on his sanity. Now he was going home.
Within hours, he was aboard an Air Force C-141 full of stunned POWs. When the plane went "feet wet" -- aviation jargon for reaching open seas -- the POWs cheered, cried and hugged. But for William Porter Lawrence, the euphoria was short-lived.
At a Philippine air base, he felt the stares of people who knew something he didn't. A Navy chaplain pulled him into a small room to tell him what had happened: Your wife has divorced you and remarried.
The next day, the air base store let POWs take anything they wanted off the shelves. Lawrence chose just one thing, a watch. A tool for a new start -- and a step toward putting his lost marriage behind him.
Just like getting shot down and becoming a POW, he thought, I've got to make the best of it.
The journey home ended three days later at a military base in Memphis, Tenn. Waiting for him on the tarmac, in a crowd of 1,500, were his three children.
When 13-year-old Wendy Lawrence had last seen her father, he'd given her a toy helicopter, then flown off to Vietnam and disappeared. For six years, she feared he was dead. And as her mother made a new life for herself and her children, Wendy watched vestiges of her father vanish. His clothes. His photographs. Everything except the toy helicopter.
Now here he was -- the father she and her siblings had never really known. The father she would emulate.
Today, the walls of William Lawrence's home in Crownsville hint at what has happened since that homecoming 26 years ago. Photos show Lawrence with presidents and senators, astronauts and millionaires. There is a portrait of him as superintendent of the Naval Academy. Awards and medals clutter tabletops.
Mingled with these mementos are photographs of Wendy: hugging her dad on the day she graduated from the Naval Academy; standing beside her Navy helicopter; posing in her astronaut suit.
From strangers on a tarmac, Bill and Wendy Lawrence have become more than father and daughter.
Wendy's career path shadowed his own, and in that Lawrence takes great pride. Wendy has also become a source of sustenance for her father, who after six years as a POW would endure more hellish prisons.
But instead of a storybook ending, there is a twist. At 69, the admiral is fighting another battle -- perhaps his most harrowing.
Quietly and with ease, William Lawrence became tops at everything he did. Time and again, he was elected class president and team captain. He attributes his success to lessons in mental and physical toughness learned in Nashville, Tenn.
There, his mother, Tennie, and her family of teachers told him to study hard and read often. His father, Fatty, a popular Vanderbilt University football player who became the city's sewer and water director, trained Lawrence and his three brothers to become baseball, football and basketball standouts at West End High.
In 1947, Lawrence turned down a Yale scholarship for an appointment to the Naval Academy. By his senior year, he was a three-sport varsity athlete, class president and the top-ranked midshipman, the brigade commander.
Concerned about midshipmen cheating on tests, he teamed up with a classmate, Ross Perot, and wrote the "honor concept:" Mids do not lie, cheat or steal. That became the school's moral code, and has always been his own.
He graduated in 1951, eighth in his class of 725, and went off to flight school to earn his wings. He was chosen for the Navy's elite test-pilot school.
At Christmas that year, Lawrence married Anne Williams, daughter of a World War II flying ace. Though she was raised by a pilot and chose one for a spouse, Anne had hated flying ever since her dad was shot down over the Philippines. At age 10, she had waited months to learn if he was dead or alive.
His wife's fears didn't keep Lawrence from doing the Navy's riskiest flying. As a test pilot, his job was to push new jets to extremes. He flew 1,300 miles an hour, becoming the first Navy pilot to fly at Mach 2, twice the speed of sound.
When the fledgling Project Mercury space program came looking for men to become the first Americans in orbit, Lawrence eagerly tried out.
For six months, scientists searching for seven perfect astronauts poked and prodded him, ran electricity through his muscles, measured his sperm count. When the list was pared from 100 to 32, Lawrence's name was on it, alongside friends John Glenn and Alan Shepard.
But inside a heat chamber, with wires stuck to his body and the temperature at 120, Lawrence's heart made a strange murmur. Doctors said it was the flapping of a mildly defective valve. Nothing life-threatening -- but an imperfection. And the end of his dream.
Lawrence returned to test piloting, grueling days highlighted by audacious feats. He'd roar toward the moon, coast, then dive toward earth at Mach 2, listening -- just like the doctors with their stethoscopes -- for rattles, shimmies, any signs of imperfection.
Some colleagues didn't survive in the job, and the Lawrences regularly attended funerals. Anne, dreading the knock on the door from a Navy chaplain, began objecting to her husband's work.
She also felt he was spending more time in the clouds than with their three children, Bill Jr., Laurie and Wendy. In his absence, she tried to offer stability. She filled their lives with scouting, sports and church. "I got up in the morning, looked at the schedule and said, 'OK, here we go.' "
She'd been raised the same way, with her dad a stranger. Now she considered writing a cookbook: 365 meals that can wait in a warm oven.
But it finally became too much, and she asked the unspoken question: Who's more important, your family or the Navy?
Lawrence considered retiring, but says he "couldn't step across the threshold." Instead, he swapped the sky for the sea. He served as a navigator aboard the USS Newport News. Top speed: 38 miles an hour.
That lasted a year. He was bored. He wanted to etch blue skies, leave sonic booms behind him. "It was just too slow a pace for me."
The Navy, despite concerns about Lawrence's heart murmur, agreed to let him fly again -- over Vietnam. Assigned to an aircraft carrier squadron, the "Puking Dogs," he bombed Hanoi on the midnight-to-noon shift.
On June 28, 1967, Wendy and her mother were at home in San Diego, making cookies to send him. Anne left the house to borrow ingredients from a neighbor. Wendy, just four days shy of her eighth birthday, was alone when the Navy chaplain knocked on the door.
Her father was missing in action.
Lawrence had been leading a 36-plane mission to drop cluster bombs on the town of Nam Dinh.
At 500 knots and 10,000 feet, the sky spat fire and smoke and he felt a jolt. His wingman radioed, "Skipper, I think you're hit." Lawrence kept flying. The hydraulic warning lights came on. Lawrence kept flying. He reached the target and dropped his bombs.
But the controls felt mushy. He wrestled the plane back up to 10,000 feet. The sea was 20 miles away, about two minutes. Despite all the tricks he learned as a test pilot, his F-4 Phantom wobbled into a "flat spin" -- like a 20-ton steel Frisbee. At 3,000 feet, he told his back-seater to eject. At 1,800 feet, he bailed out, landing in a rice paddy.
It was 7:30 a.m. Local farmers, just starting their day, threw him in a pen with a 400-pound hog. Then the Viet Cong took him to the century-old prison Hoa Lo, nicknamed Hanoi Hilton by American POWs. There, he met "Strap and Bar." The torturer bent Lawrence's body like a pipe cleaner, shackling his legs to a bar, forcing his head beneath it, and strapping his arms high behind him.
"They didn't give us the option of dying," he says.
Locked out of sight from the rest of the world, Lawrence and nearly 600 other POWs created new lives for themselves as a hedge against the brutality. Some made playing cards out of toilet paper, and slide rules out of the cardboard core. They taught each other French, Portuguese and Civil War history.
Lawrence coped by reliving every detail of his life. He spent weeks recalling the names of his first-grade classmates. He had no books or pencils, but shut his eyes and envisioned lines of poetry. He designed houses and did math -- how much does $100 grow at 6 percent interest over 30 years?
POWs who served with Lawrence say that as one of the senior ranking prisoners, he risked his life to maintain order and to mete out discipline through a communications network called the "tap code" -- tapping sentences, a letter at a time, on walls and floors.
Sometimes they'd replace taps with sweeps of a broom, or coughs, sniffs or spits. A common salutation was: cough-cough, cough-cough; sniff, sniff-sniff; sweep-sweep-sweep-sweep, sweep-sweep-sweep-sweep-sweep. It spelled GBU -- "God bless you."
When his captors caught Lawrence using the code, they tossed him into a 6-foot-square cell called the Black Hole of Calcutta. With no light or vent and a tin roof, the place was an oven.
Lawrence spent 60 days in the Hole, his body covered with heat sores, fighting foot-long rats for his bread. Inside the box, near death, he wrote a poem about his home state, using iambic pentameter. It took him two weeks, concentrating for 15 to 16 hours a day. The result -- "Oh Tennessee, My Tennessee" -- is now the official state poem.
O'er the world as I may roam,
No place exceeds my boyhood home.
At a Navy air base in Tennessee, 43-year-old Bill Lawrence was the first of three POWs to step off the plane. He saluted an admiral, then turned toward 1,500 cheering, chanting faces.
"During the years, we never lost our hope and our spirits never dimmed," Lawrence told them.
He had memorized his three-minute speech on the plane, but his voice began to quiver when he spotted his mom. As Lawrence finished speaking -- "with a deep sense of humility and gratitude" -- Tennie rushed past a barricade to embrace him. Fatty, a stout and stoic man, cried. Then the three Lawrence children -- Bill Jr., 20; Laurie, 17; and 13-year-old Wendy -- took turns hugging their emaciated dad.
Missing from the tearful scene on the sunny tarmac was Lawrence's wife of 20 years. "Life just keeps going on," is all Anne Lawrence will say.
Her children say that, as the years wore on, and false reports of their father's release took them all on a ghastly roller-coaster ride, their mother lost hope.
Anne Lawrence had sought comfort from the priest at the family's Episcopal church. Then, she fell in love with him. The state of California granted her a divorce and she remarried. Five years had passed since her husband's disappearance.
Lawrence felt she had acted "dishonorably" and considered a campaign to expose the priest, who he felt had seduced a vulnerable POW wife. He flew to California, met Anne for the first time in six years and made a proposal: For the kids' sake, get your marriage annulled, we'll remarry and start over. She declined.
"Look," Lawrence recalls her saying, as she broke into tears, "I tried really hard. I really tried to be strong. I'm sorry I couldn't, I couldn't."
Lawrence returned to Washington and moved in with another ex-POW, whose wife had also left him. Lawrence's wife, in her effort to move on with her life, had disposed of his possessions. All he owned now was a bed, a few pieces of clothing and the watch from the Philippines.
Wendy, back in California, began thinking about a classmate whose parents had split up. They asked the child to choose which parent to live with. Such a prospect seemed awful to Wendy. But weeks after her father's return, she made a similar decision.
"I told my mother I wanted to have an opportunity to get to know my father. To make up for lost time."
Family and friends say it was a logical choice. Wendy had modeled herself after her absent father, becoming a studious, athletic, industrious tomboy. And after watching Neil Armstrong's 1969 lunar landing, she knew what she wanted in life. She wanted to soar into space.
Wendy first spent a year with her grandparents in Nashville while her dad stayed in Washington, planning for a new job and a place where he and Wendy could live.
Meanwhile, a fellow ex-POW named John McCain introduced Lawrence to the physical therapist -- Diane Wilcox Raugh -- who was helping McCain regain use of his injured legs. They married in August 1974, and moved to California. Wendy went with them.
With Diane frequently flying back to Washington to run her physical therapy business, Wendy and Lawrence began taking their first, tentative steps toward becoming a family again. "It was all kind of awkward at first," Wendy says. "I didn't know what to say to the man."
Lawrence tried to do father-daughter things, teaching Wendy to drive, taking her to church and on vacations. But both were adapting to new lives in a new place, and some distance between them remained.
Says Diane: "It was a serious time. Wendy didn't know her dad, and he didn't know Wendy after six years away. I didn't know her. She didn't know me."
As Lawrence plunged back into his career -- becoming a vice admiral in a year, getting assigned to a top Pentagon post -- Diane became a link between father and daughter.
One day in 1976, Wendy announced she wanted a Navy career, too. Lawrence at first resisted her decision to attend his alma mater, which had begun admitting women only a year earlier. But Diane became Wendy's advocate, convincing Lawrence it was the perfect place for her.
A year later, toward the end of Wendy's freshman year at the academy, Lawrence got a call: How would you like to be the next superintendent of the Naval Academy?
Lawrence waited until summer to break the news to Wendy that he had accepted the assignment. Her first words were: "Oh, my."
"I didn't know whether to laugh or cry," she says.
On campus, they saluted each other like strangers.
On his first Sunday in the job, Wendy was serving as usher at the chapel. Lawrence and Diane arrived there 20 minutes before the 11 a.m. service. Wendy, with a white-gloved hand in the "halt" position, stopped them at the door, telling her father to come back at 10:58 so he could lead the procession, like the previous superintendent did.
Lawrence complied before realizing he'd taken orders from a sophomore. Later he told her, "Listen, young lady. This is one superintendent who's going to get to that chapel when he darn well pleases."
Lawrence is known for easing in the era of a coed academy, and he became a fierce defender of women in the military. But few knew his daughter was a source of his strong feelings.
Father and daughter hugged on stage at graduation day, 1981. She had continued in his footsteps: deputy brigade commander (the No. 2 midshipman), 12th in her class.
And, like him, she went off to flight school, where she too broke barriers, becoming the first female pilot deployed to the Indian Ocean. Like her father, she spent many months abroad or at sea, far from her family.
Afew months after Wendy graduated, Lawrence left the Naval Academy and spent a year as commander of the Third Fleet in Hawaii, which led to one of the Navy's top slots: chief of naval personnel. By 1985, Lawrence was scheduled to become a four-star admiral. Rumors had him in line for the top job, chief of naval operations.
But he had started feeling tired, getting distracted. The man who once flew twice the speed of sound now felt everything moving at half speed.
He'd leave home by 6 a.m., come home from work at 8 p.m., eat a warmed-up dinner in the kitchen with a plate in his lap. "Sometimes he was so tired I'd physically have to help him up the stairs," Diane says. "And even help him get undressed."
Lawrence's aide called to say, "I think the admiral's sick." Diane felt he desperately needed a break, and forced him to visit friends in New Hampshire. They met at a restaurant where Lawrence was too tired to order, and asked Diane to order for him. When they arrived at the cottage, he became agitated, couldn't relax, couldn't sleep.
"I can't stay up here," he said. They left the next morning.
A few days later, Diane took him to Bethesda Naval Hospital. He stayed a week, tried to go back to work, but was readmitted days later. He was suffering from depression.
Forced under Navy rules to retire, Lawrence sunk deeper. Friends tried to pull him out of it. Perot donated money to establish a leadership program at the Naval Academy, and made Lawrence its first chairman. He also paid for him to see specialists in the nation's top clinics.
It didn't help. Lawrence never trusted his doctors, one of whom he said "needed the help more than I did."
For the next four years, he suffered in a prison he says was worse than the Hanoi Hilton. Doctors never found a cause for his condition, at least not one that satisfied him. His own theory is that after a quarter-century going full speed, he flamed out.
Finally in 1989, he began crawling out of the hole. He wrote magazine and newspaper articles, led an aviation association, lectured on his POW experience. He went back to Nashville and co-wrote a book about the military and the press.
He and Diane were by then living in Crownsville, on a bluff above the Severn River. In 1990, Wendy was assigned to teach at the academy. She came back to live with them again.
Wendy had steered her career toward milestones -- becoming a pilot, getting a master's degree at MIT -- that would improve her chances of becoming an astronaut. NASA finally asked her to visit Houston for a battery of tests, a more modest version of what her father had endured. In March 1992, she was selected to be a space shuttle mission specialist.
Three years later, Lawrence sat in the bleachers at Cape Canaveral, Fla., looking at the cloudy night skies and worrying that the launch of Endeavor, the 99th human space mission, would be canceled because of the weather.
But at 11:30 p.m., the enormous digital countdown clock began ticking. T-minus two hours and counting. The shuttle glowed a mile away, bathed in floodlights.
He and Diane and other family members held hands. "We realized we were sitting there where the Challenger families had sat," he says. "I knew what could happen."
Minutes before liftoff, the clouds cleared, the shuttle lumbered away and Lawrence cried, hardly able to believe his little girl was aboard.
In October 1995, at 65, Lawrence entered Bethesda Naval Hospital again -- this time to correct his old nemesis, the heart murmur.
A normal aortic valve has three leaves, like a clover. Lawrence's had two, so the valve never shut completely with each beat of his heart. Doctors told him it would some day wear out. They suggested a mechanical valve. With that, he could play tennis and jog into old age.
He expected to be home in days. A day after the surgery, he was scheduled to move out of intensive care. Diane sat in a waiting room while they prepared Lawrence's new room. But 20 minutes passed, then an hour. She knew something was wrong. The doctor finally came out: "Mrs. Lawrence, the admiral's sick. He's had a stroke."
"I knew right away what that meant," says Diane, who had treated stroke victims as a physical therapist. "And I couldn't believe, after all the things that happened to him, here's another thing."
A piece of plaque had broken off from where the valve had been attached, and was pumped through the blood stream to the right side of Lawrence's brain. His heart stopped twice. He went into a coma. His kidneys failed. A ventilator breathed for him.
Diane told family members to come. She warned them to expect a funeral.
Today, Lawrence can tell you when his dad graduated from college, the middle initials and home towns of many former colleagues, and the medical term for the ailment that killed his brother 50 years ago. But he sometimes dozes off in mid-conversation. He must type one-handed, so he doesn't write newspaper or magazine articles anymore. He walks unassisted, but with a pronounced limp that keeps him off the tennis court. Buttons and ties tangle his fingers.
"I think in his whole life he's been able to will himself out of bad situations," says daughter Laurie, an emergency room doctor in Nashville. "But he can't will himself back to perfect health, and that's been the hard part."
Indeed, if he once thought his depression was a harsher imprisonment than the POW camp, Lawrence feels certain it was easier being a POW than a stroke victim.
"In the POW camp, you could get deep in thought and derive pleasure from just using your mind," he says. "But in some ways, the effects of the stroke have been more frustrating than it was in the POW camp because it's made difficult so many things I enjoy doing."
Diane turned their home into a rehab clinic after his stroke. She worked with her husband six hours a day, seven days a week -- just as she had with McCain years earlier.
Today, exercise equipment fills a former bedroom, where Lawrence works to strengthen his damaged left side. Two years ago, doctors at Johns Hopkins gave him an intelligence test and found no lingering effects of the stroke. Still, there are good days and bad.
It's not, he says, the life he imagined for himself. But he's not unhappy.
Lawrence once wrote that a POW's reward is "a great feeling of inner calm and serenity. Because you know that there are very few things in life that could happen to you that you couldn't cope with. In fact, nothing."
And so he grudgingly accepts doctors' warnings that his numb left side may be permanently damaged. He harbors no bitterness toward his ex-wife, having realized she was a victim of the war, too. He feels he has made up for the years he lost with all three of his children.
Wendy, 39, recently ended a six-year stint with NASA. She belongs to an elite club of 242 people -- just 31 women -- who have been thrust skyward on a space shuttle. Only a fraction have gone up three times, as she has. After a three-year assignment with the National Reconnaissance Office, a spy agency that oversees U.S. satellites, she plans to return to NASA and hopes to set foot inside the international space station some 240 miles above Earth.
Every few weekends, Wendy drives up from her home in northern Virginia to see her father and to rake leaves, chop wood, replace roof shingles or rewire an old lamp. She helps him walk into the back yard, where they sit and talk of Navy ships -- "Remember the New Jersey?" -- the academy's mediocre football team, and outer space.
Friends say his relationship with his daughter has somehow closed the circle of Lawrence's life.
"Although I'd like to be doing what Wendy is doing -- and I know I can't -- it really gives me pleasure to see her doing so well," he says. "We've always been close, but I think the fact that she's pursued the same career makes us even closer.
"And it compensates a lot for the difficult things I've faced in my life."
From the large, cheery house on the hill, surrounded by photos and mementos, Bill Lawrence looks out at the Severn River several times a day. The choppy waters remind him of the oceans he has crossed.
Pub Date: 03/07/99