His older daughter is racing to meet him, arms outstretched, both feet off the ground, face split wide in a giddy smile. Close behind on the Tarmac, also running, are his two grinning boys, his younger daughter and his tall, attractive wife.
The joy of this reunion leaps out from the pages of history: Bob Stirm, crisp in his Air Force uniform, was finally home after nearly 5 1/2 years in the prison camps of Vietnam.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning picture that captured that very personal yet most public of moments symbolizes the end of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, the bittersweet homecoming of 591 American POWs in 1973.
Twenty years later, the picture is very different. In his home near San Francisco, a Vietnam history book was opened to that page of Stirm’s life. He gazed at it.
“I have several copies of the photo,” he said, “but I don’t display it in the house.”
Why? Stirm laughed. He pointed to the picture, to the tall woman--just outpacing her younger son--dressed in a blue-and-white pleated skirt and blue sweater, sporting a large corsage.
“Because of her,” he said simply.
Stirm’s anger and bitterness two decades later seem directed more at the woman in the famous black-and-white photo--his former wife, Loretta--than at the Vietnamese captors who tortured him.
He said he survived the torture, the mock executions, the dread-filled days and nights, so he could return to her, only to be handed a “Dear John” letter by a chaplain upon his release.
“I have changed drastically--forced into a situation where I finally had to grow up,” the letter read in part. “Bob, I feel sure that in your heart you know we can’t make it together--and it doesn’t make sense to be unhappy when you can do something about it. Life is too short.”
To Stirm, now 60, it is cruel irony that so public a reunion had so hollow a core.
“It brought a lot of notoriety and publicity to me and, unfortunately, the legal situation that I was going to be faced with, and it was kind of unwelcomed,” Stirm said of the photo, taken by Associated Press photographer Sal Veder.
“In some ways, it’s hypocritical, because my former wife had abandoned the marriage within a year or so after I was shot down. And she did not even have the honor and integrity to be honest with the kids. She lived a lie. This picture does not show the realities that she had accepted proposals of marriage from three different men. . . . It portrays (that) everybody there was happy to see me.”
But for Stirm’s older daughter, Lorrie Kitching, the photo captures a wonderful, pure moment in time. It brought basket after basket of fan mail and newspaper clippings from all over the world, she recalls.
Lorrie is 35 today and lives in San Mateo, Calif., with her second husband and an 11-year-old son from her first marriage. She works in the sales department of MediaSourcery, marketers of multimedia software.
Tears filled her eyes as she looked at the picture recently and saw herself at 15, about to leap into her father’s arms, her feet shod in her first pair of high heels.
“It’s a wonderful piece of history that we just happened to stumble into,” she said. “It never would have gone away in my mind, but seeing that photo brings it all back again--just all the joy that was there.”
“It was like Christmas,” she said. “You knew Christmas was going to be great, but you didn’t really know what was going to happen on Christmas, and that was just like when Dad came home. It was Christmas morning.
“You were racing down the stairs because we knew that there was a great present waiting for us. Everybody’s face is genuinely happy.”
Directly behind Lorrie in the photo is Cindy, the youngest child. She had turned 11 only two days before. She is wearing her favorite dress, a black jumper with a lacy pinafore, knee socks and Mary Janes.
Today, she is Cindy Pierson, the 31-year-old mother of an 8-year-old girl.
“It seems like another lifetime ago,” she said. “I look at the picture and I don’t see me. . . . I don’t feel like I was really a part of it. I was so young. I didn’t really know him when he left and I thought it would be wonderful to have a dad because all my friends had dads at their functions.”
Robert Stirm Jr. is 34 now, the father of three sons and a dentist in Concord, Calif. His sister, Cindy, is his office manager.
In the photo, he is 14, partially blocked by Lorrie, a broad smile on his face.
“People recognized this photo,” he said. “There’s some sort of notoriety in that. But the photo per se didn’t really change my life--it was my father coming home that changed my life.”
Roger, 12 at the time, trails everyone, wearing a ski jacket. He followed in his father’s footsteps; he is a captain in the Air Force based in Panama City.
And Loretta? She is married to an attorney and still lives in Foster City, but declined to be interviewed.
No one is sure why she showed up at Travis Air Force Base in California that St. Patrick’s Day in 1973, but she alluded to it in the letter handed to Stirm when he arrived in the Philippines for evaluation before returning to the United States.
“I love you--we all love you, but you must remember how very unhappy we were together,” it said. “It wasn’t your fault--we are extremely unsuited and managed to make each other miserable. . . .”
“I can’t begin to tell you how proud we are of you. The children and I never missed a night saying a prayer for your safe return. I have your pictures up and your certificates and have kept you very much with us while you were gone and the children have not forgotten their father.
“I would like to see you when you come home, but will understand if you would rather not.”
Bob and Loretta met at a party just after he graduated from Air Force cadet school in Texas; they were married in February, 1955, when she was 19. They divorced a year after Stirm returned from Vietnam, and each remarried within six months.
“She had a rough job, raising four children on her own,” Lorrie said. “She was very young.”
Stirm was awarded custody of Lorrie and Robert Jr., and Loretta was given custody of Roger and Cindy. She also received the family home and 42.9% of Stirm’s retirement pay, though the judge noted a great deal of evidence was presented to show a pattern of misconduct on her part during Stirm’s imprisonment.
“It’s not fair. It’s not just,” Stirm said. “I’m the one that lives with all the aches and pains from my imprisonment, but she continues to get paid.”
Still, he said, the couple have come together for weddings and other family events, and all four children are on good terms with both parents.
Stirm retired from the Air Force in 1977 after 25 years of service. He joined Ferry Steel Products, the business his grandfather started in San Francisco, but did not find it gratifying. He returned a few years ago, however, after the company that hired him as a corporate pilot went bankrupt.
Though the picture revives the pain, it is inevitable that he see it again from time to time.
Many people try to escape the past by willing themselves to forget, by allowing the years to dull the ache and make the memories recede. But for Stirm, there will always be the picture.
It is a tangible reminder that what kept him alive for those five years as a prisoner of war was, in part, an illusion.
“The momentum to stay alive for my family’s sake was very strong, because I had four neat children and what I believed to be a neat wife that I wanted to get back to see,” he said quietly.
“That’s a strong incentive.”