The year was probably 1959. I’m not really sure, all these decades later, but it was definitely back during the Ozzio-Harrietic Period, when monsters roamed the Earth in the form of Godless Atheistic Communism, which gripped us with such fear that we’d periodically get under our desks at James Gates Percival School in Kensington and the teacher would close the venetian blinds because, as everybody knows, venetian blinds are the best defense against atomic bombs.
But there were also those radar domes like the one in Cromwell, so the Air Force, or somebody, could shoot down the bombers coming from the Soviet Union. And this was just a decade after another big country had gone commie, a place that Richard Nixon called the People’s Republic of Red China.
Which brings us, obliquely, to the subject of the Korean War. In 1950, North (Bad) Korea invaded South (Good) Korea. China supported Bad Korea and we supported Good Korea. In 1952 an American plane was shot down over Manchuria and two American spies were captured by the Chinese. One of them was 22-year-old John T. Downey, from New Britain.
Mr. Downey would be held captive for 21 years, during much of which time the U.S. refused to admit he was a spy (he was, of course). According to a CIA document now available online, Downey’s mother, Mary, “was strong-willed and capable of lecturing the most senior government officials in every administration from Eisenhower to Nixon on the need for the United States to do more to free her son.” Mrs. Downey would visit her son in China several times. He was finally released in 1973 and he died in 2014.
Anyway, rewind a bunch of years and it must have been Mrs. Downey’s tireless publicity campaign on behalf of her son that inspired our teacher to “organize” us kids at Percival School, sometime around 1959, into writing letters to the Chinese Communist leader, who, in those days, we Americans called Mao Tse-Tung, the archenemy of our pal, Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist leader. (Who paid the postage? Maybe the teacher squeezed it out of her budget for mimeograph paper.)
I don’t remember what I wrote. Probably along the lines of: “Dear Chairman Mao, please release John Downey because he’s not necessarily a spy and he’s from New Britain and his mother misses him.”
But, sure enough, it worked! Only about 14 years later — after the long efforts of Mary Downey and the intervention of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, and with Mrs. Downey by then gravely ill — he was finally released.
I assume other classes in other schools, especially in New Britain, wrote similar letters, but I also figure it was probably my letter that turned the tide.
And so last week, when I had two lovely people from China over for lunch — people who weren’t even born yet in 1959 and who don’t happen to speak a word of English — I told them my Chairman Mao story. And I’m sure they were suitably impressed, because they nodded politely, through their interpreter.
But I never heard back from Chairman Mao.
CORRECTION: Last Sunday I misspelled the name of onetime Boston Mayor James M. Curley.
Reach Glenn Richter at firstname.lastname@example.org.