Dick Stratton grew up in the Montclair section of Quincy, and as a kid rode his bike to Squantum to watch people who were brave or crazy enough to fly planes out of a small air strip called Dennison’s.
“There was a woman there, a good pilot,” Stratton was saying, “Her name was Amelia Earhart.”
Earhart and others inspired the boy from Bowdoin Street who swam the quarries and admired his neighbors who signed up for World War II.
“Within three blocks of my house, there were eight kids who enlisted,” he said. “Two of them women.”
He joined the National Guard as a junior at North Quincy High School. Then, seeking to follow the orders of a different commander in chief, he entered the seminary.
Six years is a long time to figure out you don’t want to do something, but in the end he decided he wouldn’t make a very good priest. He left the seminary to go to Georgetown, then joined the Navy.
He got his wings in 1957. He got something that mattered more, two years later, when he married the great Alice.
As he headed off to Vietnam, with three little boys at home, Alice grabbed him by the shoulders and looked him in the eye and said, “Don’t you dare die and leave me with these three little . . .” well, we’ll just leave the last word off because Alice is still around and can still throw a punch.
Dick Stratton likes to say he shot himself down. In 1967, the US military was handing out ordnance that, if it had been yogurt, would have been pulled from the shelves. Two of the missiles he fired over Thanh Hoa at an enemy barge blew up in front of his plane. The debris went into the engine and his plane went down.
Stratton floated down in his parachute to a welcoming committee of villagers who weren’t so welcoming.
“They were pissed,” he said. “I didn’t blame them.”
He was soon a guest at the Hanoi Hilton.
“I spent six years in the seminary,” Stratton said, “which is good practice for spending six years in prison.”
What was done to him in the Hanoi Hilton was beyond the beyonds. He was tortured, physically, mentally, horribly.
The North Vietnamese used him for propaganda. A photo of him bowing to his captors was aimed at discrediting all Americans and, by extension, Dick Stratton. But the publicity had an inverse effect, focusing attention on the brutality and war crimes of his Vietnamese captors.
Still, when he was released, he came home to whispers and innuendo, about having been broken. Another captured Navy pilot stood up for him. The pilot’s name was John McCain.
McCain had spent months in a small cell with Stratton. He wasn’t going to listen to people who didn’t know Dick Stratton question his loyalty to his country.
His country realized Dick Stratton had, far from being broken, been able to break his captors in a game of cat and mouse. He received the Silver Star for leadership and valor as a POW.
After his release, he told Alice that if she gave him 10 more years he’d follow her anywhere. Alice did so, and Captain Dick Stratton left the Navy and became a social worker, just like Alice. They helped veterans and nonveterans alike. President Reagan put Alice in charge of counseling Navy families.
Last year, Mayor Tom Koch of Quincy and Dick Stratton were talking, as fathers of Marines as much as anything.
Koch wanted to name a street after him. Stratton, who is 88 going on 35, demurred, saying he’d rather they name eight other streets first, after those vets he so admired in his old neighborhood.
But mayors always win those arguments and, on Saturday, Arlington Street in North Quincy became Stratton Way.
There are many ways to approach this life, but you can’t go wrong with the Stratton Way.