Finding your anchor

I figured something out recently. Something really important. And so I’m writing it all down as fast as I possibly can before it leaves me. It has to do with finding inner strength. And with overcoming obstacles and keeping hope alive. It also has to do with a friend of mine by the name of Christopher Boyce.

If the name sounds familiar, it’s because it should be. There was a movie made about him back in 1985 called The Falcon and the Snowman. Before that, there was a book. And before that, the true events that led to him being sentenced to 40 years in prison for selling secrets to the Russians.

When some people look at Christopher Boyce, they see a traitor. Some see a hero. Others see a guy whose blind idealism led him to the biggest mistake of his life. I look at him and see someone who has managed to buck the odds in a remarkable way.

For one thing, he’s not as dark a person as you’d expect him to be. Especially for someone who’s experienced the things he has. He spent the majority of his 20s, and all of his 30s and 40s, locked up in places most of us get uncomfortable just thinking about. While in prison, he witnessed numerous brutal killings. He survived a savage gang beating, a murder attempt, and years of confinement in isolation.

So what is he like today, now that he’s a free man? You’d be surprised. I certainly was.

Maybe that surprise is the result of having seen too many prison movies as a kid, but I assumed that someone who’s been through hell and back like that couldn’t possibly relate like a normal person. I was wrong. The guy I got to know was likeable straight off the bat. He was funny, well-mannered, and “normal” in all respects. Not that I expected him to shank me for my leftover fries or anything, but you know. Prison can do bad things to people. Apparently, Christopher Boyce is an exception.

For one thing, he doesn’t look the part. You can’t tell he spent a quarter-century of his life in some of the worst snake-pits in the federal prison system. He doesn’t have a single tattoo. He doesn’t walk around with a do-rag on his head. He doesn’t look at you like he’s sizing you up for the kill.

When you talk to him, there’s nothing to indicate that he spent a huge chunk of his life rubbing elbows with ultraviolent offenders and people whose way of life is blowing things up and killing people. He’s incredibly well-spoken, and still retains the sensitivity and intelligence that moved so many people to sympathize with his plight, despite the seriousness of his crime.

In prison, Chris managed to accomplish some impressive things despite his circumstances. He earned his bachelor’s degree by taking correspondence courses. He wrote articles that were published regularly in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He testified for the Senate and helped the government develop numerous programs to prevent espionage and convince others not to make the same mistake he did. He never used drugs. He even quit smoking. All of this, despite his belief that he would never be released from prison.

The first question that sprang to mind when I learned all of this was “Why?” I mean, think about it. If you were thrown into prison and you knew that you were never getting out, wouldn’t it cause you to shed all concepts of right and wrong and just do what you had to do to survive? That’s what I’d do. At least that’s what I think I’d do. But Christopher Boyce didn’t. In the 25 years he spent behind bars, he never allowed his surroundings to become “his” world. Somehow, he managed to survive it without allowing it to consume him.

Logically, the next question that came to my mind was “How?” How does someone without a criminal record and no street smarts avoid getting eaten alive in prison? What was his secret? How does anyone survive all those years in such a hostile environment and emerge half a lifetime later without being a total basket case?

I knew these weren’t easy questions. Not exactly the kinds of things you ask someone casually. So I decided to wait for the right opportunity.

As it turns out, I didn’t even have to ask. I only had to observe. The answer to all of my questions became evident the very moment I saw Chris with his falcon. The transformation remarkable. When he spoke about her, his eyes lit up. His face became noticeably more animated. When he took me into his backyard to show me her mew, a spring appeared in his step that hadn’t been there before. Even his voice took on a more rapid tempo, and there was an energy about him that was unmistakable. It was as if he had grown 10 years younger before my eyes.

And that’s when I figured it out. Falconry was the great passion of Chris’s life. It had been his passion long before he went to prison and it’s still his passion all these decades later. Dreaming of flying his falcon was what kept him alive during the darkest times of his imprisonment. Not skill, or dumb luck, or belief in God, or even the tireless devotion of the woman who would help to set him free. It was falconry. Plain and simple.

The realization rang so true that it made me laugh out loud. And then it made me think. If I had to go through the same thing he did, what is the one thing that would keep me going? Would it be my love of family? Would it be my desire to write? Or would I latch onto something completely new that I had never even considered before?

It’s a question I think everyone should ask themselves. Take the time. Do the digging. Because once you find out what the answer is, you’ll know what you need to pursue in order to find real happiness. You will have found your anchor. Whether it’s something that you already do or something that you’ve always wanted to do but never had the courage to try, figuring out what that one thing is can help you survive the impossible. It worked for Christopher Boyce, and it can probably work for you.

Vince Font is the co-author of the book by Christopher Boyce and Cait Boyce, American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman. The book is available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and elsewhere.

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