An extraordinary adventure toward the life he was meant to live
March 3, 2009 · Updated 5:06 PM
He is the James Bond of his own treacherous life.
He scaled mountains, won a scholarship to Harvard, became a Foreign Service diplomat, had a line to the White House and made some of the toughest decisions of his professional life in the thick and bloody bogs of the Vietnam War.
He fraternized with seaman, strategized with colonels, anticipated the moves of foreign heads of state, met with KGB agents, was watched by the CIA, had out-of-body spiritual experiences and pined for his children, all while he struggled to keep his first marriage afloat.
Langley resident John Graham tells the stories of his extraordinary life in his memoir “Sit Down Young Stranger,” published by Packard Books in 2007. The book was recently a winner in the 2008 New England Book Festival.
Having lived a life in which facing Libyan revolutionaries and Viet Cong guerillas and being jailed in Iran was not unusual, Graham was used to being in the thick of things.
In the mid-70s he was a member of NATO’s top-secret Nuclear Planning Group, then served as a foreign policy advisor to Sen. John Glenn and, as an assistant to ambassador Andrew Young at the United Nations, he was deeply involved in U.S. initiatives in southern Africa, south Asia and Cuba.
His was a life that survived avalanches and sinking ships, and he escaped a series of violent deaths no less than 12 times. Needless to say, the author has provided his readers with plenty of non-stop action in this book.
But, in the end, although it was adventure that he was after as a young man burning to leave behind the bullies of his youth and prove himself the man of steel that his gentle father never was, Graham takes the reader on a spectacular journey, at the end of which he finds his true self, one made for service.
In 1980, a close brush with death aboard a burning cruise ship in the North Pacific forced him to search for meaning in his life.
Having left the Foreign Service, Graham began exploring and then teaching better ways of handling challenge and conflict.
Where once there was all adventure, now it is service that is the main focus of Graham’s life.
As president of the Langley-based Giraffe Heroes Project, a nonprofit organization begun by his second wife Ann Medlock that moves people to stick their necks out for the common good, Graham travels the world on speaking engagements meant to inspire people to a life of service.
“I love to speak from this book as a teaching tool,” Graham said.
“To come out of that life full of mistakes and cruelties to a decent and full life of service makes the book a perfect example that a meaningful life can be achieved no matter what.”
Having started with small groups in the basements of New York City, Graham has been leading workshops for 20 years.
His speeches, he said, are what he does best and are designed to inspire people to find the courage to solve tough public problems and to seek out meaning in a world that often seems to be spinning out of control, just as his once was.
“I’m a catalyst,” Graham said.
“I reach a lot of people through books and speeches.”
Recently a woman from Prague in the Czech Republic contacted Graham through his Facebook site.
“She heard me speak four years ago and told me she had been carrying around my speech in her pocketbook for all those years.”
It is as a teacher and a servant that he is changing people’s lives, Graham said, and those to whom he speaks are usually not easily won over.
Business CEOs at various corporations, the Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy have all had Graham as a speaker.
An impressive figure, Graham is a tall, fit person with a commanding presence. He uses his physicality, his life experiences and his passion to bring out the best in people.
“I’ve learned how to reach people,” he said.
It may start out with a cold audience expecting him to be an overzealous idealist. Graham said he can sometimes feel the smirks as he walks onstage.
“But then I spend the first 40 minutes telling war stories and in the last five minutes I segue into my message to find meaning through service. It works.”
He said that finding a routine that works, and practicing and watching other good speakers such as President Obama has helped him in his work.
But the 10 years it took to write “Sit Down Young Stranger” also helped him.
“I worked hard to tell the truth of the story. I knew the book would either succeed or fail based on the honesty in the telling. And when I’m speaking to the young cadets of the Air Force Academy, I can tell them that my mistakes made me who I am today. That what they do in their lives has relevance and to never give up on the search for meaning in their own lives.”
In addition to his memoir, Graham has written three other books, including “Stick Your Neck Out — A Street-Smart Guide to Creating Change in Your Community and Beyond.”
Often workshop participants will tell him that the guide and the memoir complement each other.
One, he explained, is the “how to” of service and the memoir is the “why you should.”
Although throughout “Sit Down Young Stranger” the author struggles with the missing piece to the puzzle that is his life, the reader suspects the protagonist might find redemption after all.
Graham talks about a letter from a young Vietnamese woman and her American boyfriend that he keeps on the wall in his office to remind him of his days during the Vietnam War.
The letter thanks him for helping the girl to get released when she was captured by the Viet Cong.
“I broke a lot of rules to get her out; I stepped way out of line to do that,” Graham said.
“But it was the right thing to do and it reminds me that there was some things I did in Vietnam that were good.”
And just like the indomitable Bond who always comes out ahead, Graham has reached his road to happiness.
“I always knew I’d find the life I was meant for,” he said.
“Sit Down Young Stranger” is available, along with Graham’s other books, at his Web site, Click here, or at Moonraker Books and Island Coffeehouse & Books in Langley, Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle and Village Books in Bellingham.