In this exclusive interview, John Graham shares with OpEdNews how his sense of adventure turned into a zeal for working for the common good—and seeking out and giving recognition to others who did the same. The first time I heard of John was the summer of 2005 when I read “Who’s Watching the Watch List?” , his account about finding himself on the “No-Fly” list. I remember precisely when it was because I took the article along on the long trek to Northern Wisconsin to visit our youngest at summer camp. That article made a big impression on me. I subsequently contacted John and have posted material about the Giraffe Heroes Project at OpEdNews. One thing has led to another and I’m pleased to offer John’s fascinating story, told in his own words. This interview is particularly timely because his new book, Sit Down Young Stranger: One Man’s Search for Meaning, is due to be released December 26th.
I’ve been involved with the Giraffe Heroes Project for over twenty years. As some of your readers will know, the Project’s mission is to move people to stick their necks out for the common good. By now we’ve honored over a thousand Giraffe Heroes—people of all ages, colors, countries and walks of life who are tackling public problems with courage and compassion. We tell their stories in speeches, on the web, in articles and books, in schools and in the media; others see or hear Giraffe stories and are inspired to take on the challenges they see. There’s much more on http://www.giraffe.org
Not everybody loves what we do. I’ve been on the Administration’s Watch List for two years, for example, and I can’t get off. OpEd News ran that story. Maybe it’s because of my work with Giraffes. I got stopped at an airport the first time just two weeks after my Giraffe book, Stick Your Neck Out, hit the stands.
I’m a convert to this business of “doing good.” As a young man, the only thing that mattered to me was adventure. I shipped out on a freighter to the Far East when I was seventeen. After my sophomore year in college, I went hitchhiking in Algeria a week after a fragile ceasefire in the brutal war there. The next summer, I was part of a team that made the first direct ascent of the north wall of Mt. McKinley, a climb so dangerous that’s it’s never been repeated. After college I hitchhiked around the world, stringing for the Boston Globe, covering wars along the way in Cyprus, Eritrea, Laos and Vietnam. Then I joined the US Foreign Service, where I soon found myself in the middle of the revolution in Libya and then the war in Vietnam.
What about your war experience made you change direction?
In Vietnam, trapped in Hué, then under siege by the North Vietnamese, I finally started questioning my motives. I was no patriot. I knew I didn’t believe in America's war aims, and I’d always seen the war as a lost cause. I knew I was in Vietnam only for the adventure—and to boost my career in the Foreign Service. But in Hué I was playing with people’s lives as if they were pieces on a chessboard. I finally couldn’t ignore the shallowness and irresponsibility of my life. I made it back home, and I continued to work for the State Department, but what I was doing for a living sat in my stomach like a bad meal.
Then the wheel turned again. The State Department sent me to New York to work for Andrew Young at the US Mission to the United Nations. My job was to keep track of the entire developing world. There was no way I could ignore the greed, indifference and hypocrisy that fed injustice and suffering in most of that world. Even under Jimmy Carter, the American government and American companies were still more part of the problem than the answer.
Suddenly I realized that here was an adventure where I could make things better in the world, instead of worse! I started by tricking my own government to finally stand up to the arms-sales lobby, and racist Senators, to strengthen the embargo on selling arms to South Africa, an embargo that helped end apartheid. I wasn’t even supposed to talk to the Cubans, but I met secretly with them to broker a deal that could have changed history. The plan was that Castro would use his influence with the Ayatollah Khomeini to gain the release of the American hostages being held in Tehran—in exchange for a loosening of US sanctions on Cuba. The Cubans would have done it, but the US refused, not willing to give Castro the credit for freeing our people. I almost got fired for that one and the hostages had to stay in captivity for another year.
At the UN, I’d finally found the meaning for my life. It wasn’t adventure and it wasn’t power. It was service—helping solve important public problems, making the world a better place.
I quit the Foreign Service when I realized that I just didn’t have the temperament to work within “the system” any more. I’d love to tell you that everything from that point on was a steady upward path. But the fact is, once I stopped getting a government paycheck, I panicked over money.
Desperately broke, I signed on as a guest lecturer on a cruise ship heading across the North Pacific to Japan. In the middle of the night, 140 miles off the Alaskan Coast, that ship caught fire and began to sink. Miraculously, everybody made it into the lifeboats. At dawn, Helicopters began to pull people off the lifeboats one-by-one, but it was a race against time because a typhoon was closing in. By mid-afternoon 500 people had been rescued but by then the storm was too fierce for the choppers to come back. That left eight of us in Lifeboat #2—seasick, struggling to hang on in 30-foot seas and 60-knot winds. Our only chance was that a Coast Guard cutter might find us in that storm before dark.
Believe me, with the odds that long, one is led to pray. But my “prayer” quickly turned into an angry complaint. Here I was, out of the Foreign Service, ready to devote my life to making the world a better place and I was being wiped out. It didn’t make any sense! And then this voice came back at me, just like in the Biblical story of the Burning Bush. If I kept running away from the ideals that I knew made my life meaningful, this voice said—I might as well die. Or I could commit to those ideals and live. It was my choice. Dying of the cold, I looked up into the teeth of that storm and I just said, “Yes.” Just that one word. At that instant, a Coast Guard cutter came crashing through this wild storm and we were rescued.