TUPELO • Louise Harris fondly remembers Jan. 28, 1973, as a sunny and beautiful day.
Harris was on the Lee County Library grounds that day to dedicate a 4 1/2-foot magnolia tree she planted to honor her husband, Air Force pilot Carlyle “Smitty” Harris, who was being held as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. About 200 people gathered for the ceremony, which also included a second tree planted by Virginia Robbins, the mother of a Vietnam War POW.
Before the ceremony, Louise Harris said Mississippi Army National Guard Gen. Guy Gravlee approached them with valuable information.
“He was in full uniform,” Harris recalled. “He came up to us and said, ‘I have some news for you.’ My heart always kind of skipped a beat at that point. He said, ‘The peace accord has been signed and the prisoners are going to be released.’”
Forty-seven years later, the magnolia tree Harris planted now stands tall near the library’s parking lot. On a beautiful and sunny Thursday afternoon, she stood next to the tree and smiled about the moment she found out her Smitty was coming home.
Smitty and Louise Harris’ story of courage and perseverance during Smitty Harris’ almost eight years in captivity is told in the book “Tap Code.” Co-authored by Smitty Harris and Tupelo writer Sara W. Berry, “Tap Code” was chosen as this year’s selection for the Tupelo Reads community reading program.
Each author of the previous nine Tupelo Reads selections was the keynote speaker during that year’s September meeting of Lunching with Books, a monthly gathering of book enthusiasts at the library. Lunching with Books, however, has not met since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so the scheduled Sept. 30 meeting honoring the Harrises and Berry was canceled.
The Tupelo Reads committee came up with another way to recognize them – a video that can be seen on local cable TV and online. The Harrises were interviewed Oct. 1 at the library and Veterans Memorial Park for their part of the program.
“We chose this book for our 10th year before COVID,” said Tupelo Reads chairman Lisa Reed. “The committee chose it back in January just because we wanted to honor heroes from our hometown. Then, when COVID hit, we knew we were going have to reimagine it.”
The conversations with the Harrises and Berry will be part of a virtual event at 6 p.m. Tuesday on the Lee County Library’s Facebook page (facebook.com/leecountylibraryms). The program will run again at 7 p.m. Friday on Tupelo Comcast channel 198.
“We’re disappointed we can’t have 400 people giving them a standing ovation this year,” Reed said, referring to the canceled keynote gathering. “But in a way, I think it will be more accessible to more people this way.”
In her interview with Margaret Gratz, the organizer of Lunching with Books, Louise Harris shared her experiences of raising a family and encouraging other POW wives while holding on to hope about her husband’s survival. They also took time to look over the tree Louise Harris planted in Smitty Harris’ honor.
The taping then moved to Veterans Park where Smitty Harris, the retired Air Force colonel, described to interviewer Jack Reed Jr. what he endured as a POW. They spent time looking over the Vietnam Memorial Wall at the park, where a plaque honoring Harris is embedded in the ground, and the F-105 Thunderchief jet similar to the one Harris was flying when he was shot down on April 4, 1965, over North Vietnam.
The book’s title comes from the “tap code,” a method of communication between the prisoners. Harris covertly taught the code to many POWs, and in turn they taught others. The POWs were able to communicate without their captors’ knowledge.
Reed also invited Janie Alexander, one of the Tupelo residents who approached the city to about placing a replica of the Vietnam Wall in Veterans Park, to join in the interview with Harris.
Lisa Reed said the pandemic won’t affect Tupelo Reads’ annual partnership with Tupelo High School and the Boys & Girls Clubs of North Mississippi. High school students are reading the book and will watch the virtual event, while a copy of the book will be donated to the Boys & Girls Clubs library.
Mayor Jason Shelton and the City Council have signed a proclamation making Tuesday “Tap Code Day” in Tupelo.
Lee County Library Director Jeff Tomlinson said “Tap Code” is an encouraging book to read, especially during the pandemic.
“I think we’ve all struggled at one time or another the past few months,” he said. “Smitty was over there for eight years. Reading his experiences and how they kept their spirits up and how spent their time productively, even in that situation, I think is a good message for people today and what we’re going through.”