The emails popped up in my inbox late Wednesday. Did you hear about Sampley? read one. It's Ted, started another; he died yesterday.
The email senders belonged to an informal cadre forged years ago, when the POW/MIA issue was front page news. Our group first connected in the early 1990's, when classified documents, Senate hearings, and secret midnight rendezvous consumed those of us determined to learn whether American servicemen remained alive in captivity in Southeast Asia. Our number included some names we all recognize: John McCain, John Kerry, and Ross Perot; other names less known; and one particularly tireless provocateur called Ted Sampley, who loudly insisted that the increasingly ephemeral live POWs did in fact exist. Vietnam veteran Ted Sampley's death May 12 at age 62 prompted one colleague to email me: It's hard to believe.
Isn't it, though. Ted Sampley was one of those energetic souls who seemed less like a mortal being and more like an immutable force of nature. He was immensely entertaining. He was appalling. He was charming. He was despicable. He was the embodiment of the Native American coyote myth: the Trickster. His antics on the POW/MIA issue were so outrageous that when I wrote Prisoners of Hope: Exploiting the POW/MIA Myth in America, I devoted an entire chapter to Sampley. I christened the chapter - and Sampley - The Merry Prankster.
The chapter blasted Sampley for staging publicity stunts that scraped raw nerves or placed innocent people in danger. It condemned him for fabricating scurrilous charges against John McCain. It characterized Sampley's true expertise as "chicanery in the guise of POW activism."
Sampley devoured the chapter, graph by graph. He thrilled to the notoriety. He telephoned me, chuckling, and read aloud from his favorite passages. He praised me for insightfully reporting that he had "a special knack for establishing quick rapport," and that he was "funny and self-deprecating."
Sampley's public response, though, was high dudgeon. He ranted. He raged. Much like he claimed John McCain was really a Soviet KGB agent, he accused me of being a spy. He likened me to the reviled Jane Fonda. He wrote lengthy diatribes about me and his other enemies, notably McCain and Vietnam Veterans Memorial founder Jan Scruggs, with whom he had a longstanding dispute.
Sampley rallied his supporters. They stalked me on my book tour. At every stop on the tour, I found myself discussing The Merry Prankster chapter. If I appeared on a call-in program, the first voice invariably was that of a Sampleyite, challenging my charges. A couple of times I heard Sampley's distinctive leonine voice in the background, coaching the caller. Other times, Sampley himself phoned in - and engaged me in pleasant chit-chat.
The bookstore signings were another matter entirely. Threats were made against my life. My publisher, Random House, was so concerned about an appearance in Fayetteville, North Carolina, that they hired an armed bodyguard.
Sure enough, the Fayetteville signing got ugly. One man in particular grew menacing. He advanced, wielding a cane. My bodyguard grabbed me by the arm and whisked me out the back door. Later, the cane man - who inexplicably knew where I was staying - called my hotel room. We talked at length. Oddly, our conversation grew cordial. He admitted Sampley had sent him.
"I think, down deep, he likes you," Cane Man said.
"He just likes a good fight," I said.
Among his most vigorous was a brawl Sampley instigated against fellow Vietnam veteran Jan Scruggs. The bitter conflict, which centered on copyright infringement, resulted in Sampley being ordered to pay more than $350,000.00 to Scruggs' organization. Sampley ignored the judgement entirely.
We Sampley-watchers grew to view the Merry Prankster through a distinct lens. He was a menace. He had to be stopped. But in 2008, when Sampley tried to use dirty tricks to derail John McCain's presidential campaign against Barrack Obama, we realized something else: Sampley had run out of troublemaker steam. His charges against McCain clearly were baseless, and no one cared anymore about his other big issues. Our informal cadre grew less defensive, and we began speaking of Sampley in the same tones people use for discussing the family scoundrel: He's annoying, but he can't hurt you. Just ignore him.
And then Sampley died.
I could not help but wonder. How did his old enemies feel?
Jan Scruggs sent me an email.
At first, Jan simply reported the news. But his tone was undeniably sad. Jan emailed again, this time recalling his last encounter with Sampley only two months ago.
"At an event in March 2009 at The Wall with Tom Selleck," Jan wrote, "Sampley and I started chatting away in a now surreal conversation. He noted he had heart problems and appeared physically weak. I told him about my bypass operation last year."
The former belligerents continued to talk.
"He chatted about when he and I met at the Wall in 1983 and said, 'There has been a lot of water under the bridge since then.' Anyway, he was really friendly. He gave VVMF $5,000 for the VVM Center."
Jan recalled the court fight. "We were engaged in quite a legal battle with Ted over the copyright for The Three Servicemen statue at The Wall for which we received a judgement of $350,000 from the courts. We never got a penny and finally ended collection efforts.
"Maybe he wanted to make peace with me before he died. I find the whole thing eerie but this encounter meant a great deal to me and, I think to Ted Sampley."
Jan's final words on his old nemesis: "So, Rest in Peace, Ted!!"
The old Trickster, it seems, pulled off one last escapade. He switched off the prankster persona, and allowed the charmer to shine through. He made amends. He befriended a longtime enemy. He created good will.
I find it remarkably touching. I wish I had been there. I would have sent the cadre an email: Did you hear about Sampley?