Former Navy Fighter Pilot and Kansas farm kid reminds dairy farmers that adversity is a terrible thing to waste.
November 7, 2018

Captain Charles Plumb Offers Parachute to Dairy Farmers with MILK Business Conference Keynote Speech

 |  By: Portia Stewart

Tap, tap tap. Captain Charles Plumb took three steps left on a dark stage at the MILK Business Conference in Las Vegas. Precise turn, eyes on the floor. Tap, tap tap. Three steps to the right, hands clasped at his back. His voice echoed throughout the room filled with silent dairy producers. All eyes forward, watching the figure on the stage who spoke in a firm, clear voice.

“I remember distinctly the dimensions of the cell. I could pace three steps one direction before I ran into a wall. Then I had the opportunity of turning around and pacing three steps the other way,” Plumb said. “And I thought, ‘My God, what’s a Kansas farm kid like you doing in a place like this?’”

As a prisoner of war inside the Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam, he had no books to read, no window to look out, no TV, no telephone--not even a pencil.

Locked in an 8-by-8-foot cell, with four bleeding holes in his body. No food for several days and without water for maybe two. He invited the audience to sketch in their minds the reeking bucket in the corner he used as a toilet, to feel the baking heat of a tin-roof prison cell and taste the salt in the corners of their mouths, mixed with sweat and tears.

Captain Charles Plumb was captured on May 19, 1967, just five days before he was scheduled to return home. This 24-year-old fighter pilot’s F-4 phantom jet was shot down on his 75th mission. And he spent the next 2,103 days as a POW.

What does this have to do with running a dairy? Let me explain.

As a POW, Plumb made his own deck of playing cards on toilet paper. How do you survive? (And what about the dairy next door?)

“Whether your herd is 200 or 2,000, whether you’re a manager or a mother from Maine or California or whether you’re going to change the world or change a diaper, the most value I can be is by inviting you into my little prison cell,” Plumb said. For the next hour, in the keynote session sponsored by Animal Health International, he transfixed the audience with his comments that ranged from candid descriptions of life in the military to witticisms from a life fully lived as a farmer turned fighter pilot.

Plumb’s goal: To hep dairy farmers gain the ability to control their own destiny.

Deep breath. Yeah, that’s big. He knows he can’t singlehandedly change the dairy market or help push milk prices. But after seeing the worst in the world—prison, torture and pain ranging from physical wounds to rips in his very soul—he knows adversity. And that’s where he wants to help.

Just like you, Plumb knows the sense of being overwhelmed. He’s felt underappreciated. And he’s struggled to communicate. Here are his solutions to help you fight your way to the other side.

Step 1: Remember your neighbors. “What about the guys next door? What about those prisoners of war in that cell next to you guys who are hanging to life by their fingernails and in a world of hurt?  They need your help. They don't trust you. They think you have some kind of hidden agenda. How do you get through to them?”

Yes, your dairy might survive tough times. But you also need to think about your dairy community. Ultimately the answer, he says, is simple: Help your neighbors.

As POW, Plumb found help and connection with a pilot in the cell next to him. Rear Admiral Robert Harper Shumaker, credited for creating the tap code that prisoners used to communicate in the Hanoi Hilton, reached out to Plumb by passing a small wire into his cell. Connected to that wire was the code, written on toilet paper. Shumaker told Plumb to memorize the code, then eat the toilet paper. This simple step created a connection for Plumb that helped him manage the next nearly six years of torture and incarceration. This leads us to …  

Step 2: Help pack the parachutes. Plumb recounts the story of accidentally meeting the man who packed his parachute when they were both eating at a restaurant in Kansas City many years after the war. The experience of thanking the man who helped save his life was transformative—and it formed the fabric of a lesson Plumb preaches. When he asked the man who’d served in the bowels of the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier if he knew how many lives he’d saved, the man answered this way: “I didn’t keep track of the parachutes I packed. It was enough gratification to know I served.”

In a sense, Plumb says dairy farmers pack parachutes every day. “If you accept the metaphor, I think that’s what we’re here to do, to pack parachutes. To serve without asking. To help our neighbors,” he said.

Adversity is a terrible thing ... to waste.Step 3: Remember you’re not the victim. You control your destiny. “What happens is this. You get restrictions built up. It’s not the 8 feet between the walls [of your cell]. It’s the 8 inches between your ears,” Plumb says.

And he should know. While he grew up as an FFA kid in Kansas and he milked a few family cows, his grandmother had a dairy herd in the Ozarks, and he would milk them during the summers. He also played basketball, on a team that lost game after game. And that’s where Plumb met another man he credits with helping pack his parachute in a figurative sense.

On the last game of the season, after the team lost their last game, Plumb ran into his coach.

“Imagine one dejected 13-year-old wandering off to the locker room, and here comes the coach. He caught up with me, and I felt his arm on my sweaty shoulder. I looked at the coach, who was a tough disciplinarian, and all I could think of to say was, ‘Coach, I guess this team is just a bunch of losers.’ And he sunk his fingers into my shoulder and said something nice. He said, ‘Son, whether you think you’re a loser or whether you think you’re a winner, you’re right,’” Plumb said. “And I didn’t understand that, so I asked him the next day, ‘Coach, what does that mean?’ And he said, ‘Just this. Life is a choice. Every day of your life is a beautiful choice. I don’t care where you go. I don’t care what kind of a scrape you get yourself into some day, you can choose your attitude. Happiness or sadness. Profit or loss. Sickness or health. You can step back to be the victim or step forward to be the victor—it’s your choice.'”

Plumb carried these words and this attitude into his career in the military, and he held it close during his years in Vietnam prison camps. The simple gift of choice helped him survive his 8-by-8 cell, the filth and sores and pain and isolation. And his message to dairy farmers from his experience is simple: Pack your parachute. Pack it with faith and courage and integrity, and you can do anything you set your mind to.

“I really appreciate the fact that you all hang in there and do the job of feeding America,” he said.

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