An International Tale Of Three Jerrys

After my first year-anda-half as a POW in North Vietnam, I was taken to the prison commander’s office one day and very unceremoniously handed a letter — the first — from my then-wife in Florida. (Actually, he flipped it to me across the table like a dealt card.) She, of course, had no idea I had received none of the dozen or so letters she already had written, so she wrote as if I had received all her previous monthly letters.

“We’ve had a beautiful spring here this year. We go to the lake almost every other day. Kim skis all the way around the lake, Steve and David jump off the dock and swim like fishes. And little Jerry can swim several feet now with his little swim bubble strapped around him. They are all so happy in the water.”


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The author with ‘Africa Jerry'

Little Jerry?

My wife was seven months pregnant when I was shot down — she must have had another son and it sounds like he is my namesake. Wow! We had never discussed that possibility, but I guess under the circumstances it should be no surprise. And without that huge question mark in my mind, I felt even closer to my family, even though my new little son would be 7 years old when we would first meet.

Hold that thought.

In January of last year, my wife Susan Page and I flew to Heart for Africa’s Project Canaan in Swaziland, a nearly self-sustaining 100 acres or so of farmland carved out of 2,500 acres of rugged bushland. Project Canaan’s primary mission is to grow its farm and dairy operations, which sustain its orphanage specifically for abandoned babies, i.e., babies left in plastic bags along the road, or in pit latrines, or in the crooks of trees. HFA now has just more than 90 babies between newborn and 4 years old, and the baby population grows by two or three each month.

While we were there on this trip, a young Swazi girl, who had been raped and impregnated by a local policeman, was referred by the Swazi social welfare agency to Project Canaan. She was scared to death of her father’s reaction. Apparently, to him, it would make no difference that she had been raped, as it was such a common occurrence there. With no other options, she was able to stay at Project Canaan until her time came, and when it did, Susan accompanied Project Canaan co-founder, Canadian Janine Maxwell, and the frightened young mother-to-be (17 years old) to the hospital.

Forty-five minutes after the baby boy was delivered and barely cleaned up, Janine drove away from the hospital with Susan sitting in the backseat cuddling the newborn. The young mother remained in the hospital until the next day. (Having no means to care for the baby, she wanted him to live at Project Canaan.)

The following Sunday, the “aunties” at Project Canaan’s baby home dressed the babies for the open-air church service. It was there I learned that the new baby boy had been named “Jerry” after me! With love and pride, I held him in my lap, where he slept away the entire church service. (I contemplated where I’d been when my own Jerry Jr. was this age and how I’d never gotten to hold him.) His mother, now back from the hospital, seemed to have no interest in the baby that entire morning.

But the very next Sunday, as a part of the service, she publicly expressed her gratitude to God, Project Canaan and Heart for Africa, for helping her through her ordeal, and then, surprisingly, wanted to pose for a picture with us and her son.

So God has blessed me with two namesake sons. We now help support “Africa Jerry” from afar — and keep track of his mother, who has returned to school (not many females even start), and her son’s growth and progress. He’s walking now, and is known to be a very serious little guy.

My biological — and much older — son Jerry is clinical director at Honolulu’s Institute for Human Services. When I introduce him to a friend or associate, I’m always quick to point out, “But I’m the original Jerry Coffee.”

But then he’s always quicker to point out, “But I’m the new and improved version.”

And you know, I’m beginning to think he may be right.