Chuck Haga, Forum News Service, Published June 29 2013
Grand Forks’ Cliff Cushman speaks to youth once more
He picked one at random, and he has worn it since.
At some point, a friend asked if he knew anything about the young airman whose name is inscribed on the bracelet along with the date he went missing: 9/25/66. He didn’t, but that day Harrison set out to learn what he could about Air Force Maj. Cliff Cushman.
That led him to the inspirational letter Cushman sent to students at his alma mater, Grand Forks Central High School, after the high school and college track star and 1960 Olympics silver medalist fell on a cinder track and failed to qualify for the 1964 games.
“Don’t feel sorry for me,” Cushman wrote. “I would much rather fail knowing I had put forth an honest effort than never have tried at all.”
Today, anticipating the Fourth of July, the flags and parades and speeches about patriotism, Harrison will read Cushman’s letter in his church in Hobbs, N.M.
“It really speaks to the youth of today as much as it did back then,” he said. “It could have been written yesterday.”
About 5 million POW-MIA bracelets were produced and sold between 1970 and 1976 by a Los Angeles-based student group, which used proceeds to raise awareness of American service members held prisoner or missing in action in Southeast Asia.
Cushman’s achievements and sacrifice, and his challenge to youth, are remembered frequently in his hometown and beyond, though it has been 53 years since he won his silver medal in Rome, 49 years since the Grand Forks Herald published his challenge to youth, 47 years since he went missing and 38 years since the Air Force officially changed his status to killed in action.
People speak his name and read his letter every year in Central classrooms and at the annual Cushman Classic football game.
And, occasionally, someone from somewhere in America sends a query: “I have this POW bracelet. I’ve worn it for many years. Who was Maj. Clifton Cushman? What happened to him?”
Last year, it was Evie Struwe, 82, who lived near Madison, S.D. She sought out Carolyn Cushman Blaine, the pilot’s widow, who lives in Fargo, and asked whether she might like to have the bracelet Struwe had worn for years.
“That would be very kind of her,” Blaine said last year. “I’ve received a few of Cliff’s bracelets over the years. It’s very gratifying to know they cared enough to wear his bracelet and keep it and think of him.”
In his quest to learn more about Cushman, Harrison contacted the pilot’s sister through a national association of families of POWs, and she provided some history.
He traveled to Washington, D.C., and found Cushman’s name on the haunting wall of names, the Vietnam Memorial. He made an etching.
He found Cushman’s 1964 letter on the Internet, read it many times, and today will read it aloud in his church.
Through it all, he has worn the bracelet.
“I wear it every day,” he said. “He’s a hero, and anytime someone sees it and asks me about it, I can tell them about him.”
Maj. Cliff Cushman’s 1964 letter
To the youth of Grand Forks
Don’t feel sorry for me. I feel sorry for some of you! You may have seen the U.S. Olympic Trials on television September 13. If so, you watched me hit the fifth hurdle, fall and lie on the track in an inglorious heap of skinned elbows, bruised hips, torn knees, and injured pride, unsuccessful in my attempt to make the Olympic team for the second time. In a split second all the many years of training, pain, sweat, blisters, and agony of running were simply and irrevocably wiped out. But I tried. I would much rather fail knowing I had put forth an honest effort than never have tried at all.
This is not to say that everyone is capable of making the Olympic Team. However, each of you is capable of trying to make your own personal “Olympic Team,” whether it be the high school football team, the glee club, the honor roll, or whatever your goal may be. Unless your reach exceeds your grasp, how can you be sure what you can attain? And don’t you think there are things better than cigarettes, hot-rod cars, school dropouts, excessive makeup, and ducktail grease-cuts?
Over fifteen years ago I saw a star – first place in the Olympic Games. I literally started to run after it. In 1960 I came within three yards of grabbing it; this year I stumbled, fell and watched it recede four more years away. Certainly, I was very disappointed in falling flat on my face. However, there is nothing I can do about it now but get up, pick the cinders from my wounds, and take one more step, followed by one more and one more, until the steps turn into miles and the miles into success.
I know I may never make it. The odds are against me but I have something in my favor – desire and faith. Romans 5:3-5 has always had an inspirational meaning to me in this regard: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” At least I am going to try.
How about you? Would a little extra effort on your part bring up your grade average? Would you have a better chance to make the football team if you stayed an extra fifteen minutes after practice and worked on your blocking?
Let me tell you something about yourselves. You are taller and heavier than any past generation in this country. You are spending more money, enjoying more freedom, and driving more cars than ever before, yet many of you are very unhappy. Some of you have never known the satisfaction of doing your best in sports, the joy of excelling in class, the wonderful feeling of completing a job, any job, and looking back on it knowing that you have done your best.
I dare you to have your hair cut and not wilt under the comments of your so-called friends. I dare you to clean up your language. I dare you to honor your mother and father. I dare you to go to church without having to be compelled to go by your parents. I dare you to unselfishly help someone less fortunate than yourself and enjoy the wonderful feeling that goes with it. I dare you to become physically fit. I dare you to read a book that is not required in school. I dare you to look up at the stars, not down at the mud, and set your sights on one of them that, up to now, you thought was unattainable. There is plenty of room at the top, but no room for anyone to sit down.
Who knows? You may be surprised at what you can achieve with sincere effort. So get up, pick the cinders out of your wounds, and take one more step.
I dare you!
Sincerely, Clifton E. Cushman
Sept. 17, 1964